Tom Brady may not be the greatest player in the history of the New England Patriots, but there can be no doubt that he is the franchise's most iconic player of all time.
So what's the difference?
There is a subtle difference between "iconic" players and "great" players.
Magic Johnson is probably the most iconic player in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers, even though Kobe Bryant is the greater player. Babe Ruth is the most iconic player in New York Yankees history, even though Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle or Lou Gehrig may have been better.
Casting greatness aside for the moment, let's have a look at the most iconic player in the history of each National Football League franchise.
Doesn't it feel like Andre Johnson and the Houston Texans just entered the league a few years ago?
Assuming he does not get hurt, Johnson will go over 10,000 yards this season.
Because really, who else is there? Kerry Collins? Steve Smith?
This is a close race between Fred Taylor and wide receiver Jimmy Smith.
Smith toiled in a bit more anonymity than Taylor did, which is actually kind of admirable considering what horse's asses modern NFL wide receivers can be.
At the same time, it is no way to become an icon.
Warren Moon was a terrific quarterback, a record-setter and a Hall of Famer—but Earl Campbell was the stuff that legends are made of.
In the Titans-only category, we give it to Eddie George just slightly ahead of Steve McNair.
Derrick Brooks was the unquestioned leader of those great Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses of 1997-2004, and a pivotal player in the Bucs' Super Bowl run in 2002.
And before that team, we're talking Vinny Testaverde.
This will probably be Drew Brees someday soon.
In fact, we may already be playing it too safe by saying that it is still Archie Manning.
But for three decades, Archie Manning was the only good thing to happen to this team.
I think we can give him a couple more years at the top.
We could use Deion Sanders or Jamal Anderson here.
But when a player is featured in as many highlight reels as Michael Vick was during his time as a Falcon, it becomes difficult to picture someone else as your default Atlanta Falcon icon.
In a different era, Steve Largent was one of the greatest wide receivers of all time and the first player to ever catch 100 touchdowns.
His numbers are comparatively tame by modern standards.
This could have, nay, would have been O.J. Simpson if not for all the post-career crazy.
Those Bills of the late '80s and early '90s were loaded with stars, including Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton and Cornelius Bennett, amongst others.
We'll go with Kelly, as the iconic face of the franchise.
Boomer Esiason quarterbacked the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl, where they twice lost to Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers.
Esiason was present for the fullest extent of success in the history of the Bengals.
We go with Norm Van Brocklin here, for decades the Rams' greatest quarterback.
But—shutter to think it: Should this be Kurt Warner?
Talk us out of it.
This either comes down to LaDanian Tomlinson or Dan Fouts.
Or Kellen Winslow.
Or Lance Alworth.
Or Junior Seau.
Our instinct was to go with Seau, but we're trying not to be "when we were kids" centric.
Besides, L.T. is one of the greatest running backs of all time.
One the times when the unanimous Greatest Player in Franchise History is also the unanimous Most Iconic Player in Franchise History.
Unless, of course, we have somehow insulted Larry Csonka or Bob Griese here.
People in New York do not remember the name Wally Pipp.
People in L.A. do not remember the name Norm Nixon.
People in Edmonton do not remember the name Stan Weir.
And eventually, people in New England will not remember the name Drew Bledsoe.
Len Dawson was the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs from 1962, when they were still playing as the Dallas Texans, through 1969, when they won Super Bowl IV, and then retired after the 1975 season.
Dawson has more than twice as many touchdowns as any other Chiefs quarterback.
The legend and myth of John Riggins so far exceed the reality of John Riggins, it is almost comical.
All-Pro exactly once, a Pro Bowler exactly once, Riggins spent most of his career quietly, as a workman fullback/running back who had spotty success for the Jets and Redskins.
It was really his last three seasons, admittedly the greatest old-guy running back seasons of all time, when he was running behind the notorious "Hogs" offensive line that we all know and love him for.
Many Redskins have been better, including Art Monk, Sonny Jurgensen and Sammy Baugh, amongst others, but it is Riggins whose persona persists.
With the possible exception of the Cleveland Browns (ironically), there is perhaps no single team more closely associated with a single player than the Baltimore Ravens and Ray Lewis.
Throughout their existence in Baltimore, it has been Lewis' fierce and menacing image that has defined the franchise.
The Steelers are one of those teams for whom having to pick just one is frustrating; the Steelers have at least seven great iconic players, including Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Troy Polamalu, Jerome Bettis, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Mel Blount . . . .
No people will probably see this the same way.
There will be those who make the case for Bobby Layne, and there will be those who make the case for Dick LeBeau.
But the lasting image of the Detroit Lions for 20-plus years now has been that of Barry Sanders, the best running back in the game and potentially the greatest of all time, surrounded by mediocre players in a bad system not making the playoffs.
Sure, there have been great Oakland and L.A. Raiders: Howie Long comes to mind, along with Jim Plunkett, Ken Stabler, Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, Bo Jackson, Greg Townsend and a host of others.
Al Davis has outshined and overshadowed them all.
(That's not a compliment.)
One of the most overrated—and over-stated—players of all time, Joe Namath nevertheless is what he is.
He was in the right place at the right time, he predicted a massive Super Bowl upset, and he became an NFL legend.
The next significant thing to happen to the New York Jets was the hiring of Rex Ryan as head coach some 40 years later.
Chuck Bednarik, the last player to go both ways full time and a member of the last Philadelphia Eagles championship team, is the lingering shadow that every Eagle tries to overcome.
Reggie White could have done it, but he left for Green Bay as a free agent. Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb both could have done it but came up short.
At the dawn of the Minnesota Vikings franchise, Fran Tarkenton began as the first Vikings quarterback and played for the Vikings for six seasons, before joining the Giants.
After five years with the Giants, he returned to Minnesota and played seven more seasons.
Ironically, the Vikings won their only NFL Championship without Tarkenton.
Emmitt Smith is probably not the greatest Dallas Cowboy of all time.
That honor probably belongs to Roger Staubach.
And there have been several great Cowboys running backs, including Smith, Tony Dorsett, Don Perkins and Herschel Walker.
But Smith is the NFL's all-time leading rusher, and that tends to make an icon out of a guy.
The greatest outside linebacker, and perhaps even pass-rusher, of all time defined his position and established himself as the finest and most feared quarterback-eater in the game.
There have been lots of great New York Giants, but L.T. was their greatest icon.
The Arizona Cardinals are one of the oldest franchises in the NFL, dating back to 1920, and yet their most iconic player is a current one.
It has been that kind of decade for the Cardinals.
If we were to look only to the team's St. Louis days (1960-1987), we would go with Otis Anderson.
The San Francisco 49ers best player? Nah, that's Jerry Rice.
The San Francisco 49ers best quarterback? Nah, that's Steve Young, statistically speaking anyway.
But at the end of the day, there is only one Joe Montana, and he is the greatest icon in the history of the San Francisco 49ers, and one of the greatest in the history of the NFL.
Maybe someday, this will be Peyton Manning. As great as he has been, unseated Johnny U. will take some doing.
Unitas quarterbacked the Baltimore Colts from 1956 to 1972, which in football years represents about three different epochs.
Unitas played in the 1958 NFL Championship game, a.k.a. the Greatest Game Ever Played, which launched the modern era of NFL popularity.
Twelve years later, Unitas guided the Colts to victory in Super Bowl V.
Actually, if you want to talk sheer icon-value, Jim McMahon is probably a better pick here.
And, in the history of the Chicago Bears, there have been so many great icons: Dick Butkus, Sid Luckman, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, Richard Dent, Ed Brown, Bronko Nagurski...
At the end of the day, we give it to the classiest of the classy men, Sweetness himself, Walter Payton.
Sorry Brett Favre, this is not the Houston Texans or the Carolina Panthers.
The Green Bay Packers are one of the most storied franchises in sports, and becoming the team's all-time icon requires something more than a great career. It requires loyalty and one-ness.
Bart Starr rode off into the sunset at the end of his Packers career. Favre rode near the sunset, then stopped, got off the horse, got on another horse, and carried on.
Is Jim Brown the greatest icon in the history of the NFL?
If he isn't, he is certainly one of the top four or five icons in NFL history.
That he would be the most iconic Cleveland Brown of all time is a testament to the longevity of Brown's legend—and also to the longevity of their own futility.