As the NFL rulebook continues to grow, more restrictions often translates to less fun for the players and the fans that adore them.
Once a weekly spectacle bordering on an art form, today’s end zone dances are by definition tame after a 2006 modification made it illegal to use props (including the ball) or to leave one’s feet during the process.
They were the most consistently exciting play in all of football until this past offseason, when the league decided to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, prompting a 32 percent spike in touchbacks on opening weekend alone.
The NFL always has the players’ interest at heart when making these decisions, but even they can’t deny how watered down their product now seems compared to the good old days when you could obliterate a defenseless kickoff returner, return the ball for a touchdown, and smoothly transition right into some elaborate celebration routine you’d choreographed well in advance.
Thankfully, however, there are still scores of NFL superstars whose vibrant personalities cannot be diminished no matter how many constraints the league enforces, and for some of them, their over-the-top behavior is so animated it sometimes seem like they really are, well, animated.
Accordingly, today we’ll compare 16 of those very personalities to the cartoon characters they most closely resemble, not to ridicule their antics or belittle their abilities, but merely to prove to the skeptical NFL fan out there that the No Fun League they resent so much is actually still anything but.
Cheer up, sourpuss!
The Player: Michael Vick (QB), Philadelphia Eagles
The Character: Gizmo Duck, Duck Tales
The Connection: Vick is the most versatile quarterback in the game today (a title Cam Newton and Tim Tebow both have their sights currently set on), and Gizmo Duck, Duckburg’s mysterious robotic superhero, is likewise the most versatile weapon in his respective universe, too.
Vick can run or pass on any given play. Gizmo Duck (basically RoboCop on a unicycle) can fire a thousand impossibly-concealed firecrackers out of his chest one minute, then spout a random umbrella from his head and gently glide through the air the next.
Neither has any trouble zipping around from one place to another.
Both wear a visor.
If these two aren’t kindred spirits, no duo is.
The Player: Peyton Manning (QB), Indianapolis Colts
The Character: Butters, South Park
The Connection: Peyton may have more athletic talent in his pinky than Butters does in his entire body, but if Manning had a postgame press conference at the same time a new episode of South Park was airing, you might have trouble telling the two apart.
Butters is a polite, naïve little nine-year-old whose biggest fear in life is letting down his parents.
Peyton Manning talks to the media like a polite, naïve little nine-year-old who just caught his first fish (unless he just lost, then it’s more like he fell off his bike and skinned his knee).
Both speak from the heart, and both do so in a soft, innocent drawl.
Neither does a very good job concealing his emotions, and neither would hurt a fly unless they absolutely had to.
Aw shucks, we better stop: now they’re both starting to blush.
The Player: Devin Hester (WR), Chicago Bears
The Character: Cyrax, Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm
The Connection: Cryax is an incredibly agile cyborg ninja who first appeared in video game form in Mortal Kombat 3 and has the ability to teleport behind his opponent for an indefensible sneak attack.
Devin Hester is an incredibly elusive punt and kick returner who first appeared in 2006 (yet is already the NFL’s all-time leader in total return touchdowns) and has the ability to teleport from one side of the field to the other before anyone even knows what happened.
The Player: DeSean Jackson (WR), Philadelphia Eagles
The Character: Road Runner, Looney Tunes
The Connection: This season DeSean Jackson has shown only glimpses of the explosiveness he’s known for, but throughout his young career he’s channeled his inner Roadrunner more often than any other playmaker.
Lots of players evade defenders. Lots of players break off big plays. Few find themselves caught in a dead sprint to the end zone the way Jackson has over the last three seasons, however, and whenever he does you can almost smell the plume of smoke gushing from his backside and notice a gang of Wile E. Coyote’s futilely chasing behind him.
Road Runner runs fast and straight to avoid being eaten.
DeSean Jackson runs fast and straight to try and bank a larger paycheck.
Talk about running with purpose, huh?
The Player: Chad Ochocinco (WR), New England Patriots
The Character: Roger Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit
The Connection: At this point Ochocinco’s legacy is more entertainer than it is elite athlete, and no cartoon character is more dedicated to entertaining people than the unpredictable Roger Rabbit.
Roger Rabbit would bash his own head in with a hammer if he thought it might make you laugh.
Chad Ochocinco would dance around the end zone in a gorilla suit if he thought you might talk about how cool he is with your friends the next day.
Both have a tendency to take jokes way too far and, unfortunately for Ochocinco, nobody takes either very seriously as a result.
The Player: Calvin Johnson (WR), Detroit Lions
The Character: Optimus Prime, Transformers
The Connection: Now try not to get all bent out of shape on this one. Clearly “Megatron” is the cooler nickname and clearly Johnson has earned the title through his dominating play across five terrific seasons.
But now that the Lions are winning football games and Johnson is playing the hero role during most of their wins, the Transformer vibe the superstar continues to emit definitely comes across these days as more Optimus Prime than it does the evil, oppressive Megatron.
The parallel has already been drawn because Calvin looks and plays football like a robot, but Megatron always loses in the end, while Optimus Prime always wins. Prime is therefore more powerful a Transformer, then, and is also therefore just as intimidating a presence.
With the Lions 6-2 and Johnson still on pace to challenge the single-season record for touchdown catches this year, it’s clear the stud receiver is a winner and it’s clear he’s now a force for good to a franchise that’s sorely needed one.
Is it really so blasphemous to ask that the superstar’s nickname also reflect his winning ways?
The Player: Tim Tebow (QB), Denver Broncos
The Character: Archie Andrews, The Archie Comedy Hour
The Connection: Tim Tebow has one of the most radically skewed support-to-performance ratios in NFL history, and Archie Andrews has likewise garnered quite a substantial following despite the cheerful teenager’s obvious shortcomings.
Tebow compensates for amateur pocket awareness with focus, preparation and a burning thirst for victory.
Archie compensates for rather average strength and intelligence with humor, charm, and an innocent nature so transparent you can’t help but admire the guy.
They’re both American icons, they both have to work extra hard in order to get ahead, and now that Tebow is competing at the professional level and no longer dominating the college scene, they both share an “underdog” label neither will be shedding anytime soon.
Is it any wonder we root for both of them so passionately?
The Player: Jared Allen (DE), Minnesota Vikings
The Character: Foghorn Leghorn, Looney Tunes
The Connection: A couple of real man’s men, Allen and Leghorn both say what they feel and mean what they say and when they talk, by golly people listen.
Jared Allen is a strong supporter of the military, he enjoys a good spear-hunting session as much as the next guy, and even though it’s been trimmed for over a year now, he’s still just as likely to be found sporting a cowboy hat as he is a sweet, full blown mullet.
Foghorn Leghorn is also a good old boy who has no trouble confronting other barnyard animals whenever they get out of line (or sometimes just for his own personal amusement), and who is just as likely to be found explaining a joke to someone as he is ridiculing them for not understanding in the first place.
It’s that down-home, southern demeanor that makes these two stand out, and stand out they both indeed have throughout their careers: Foghorn Leghorn is so distinctive he’s appeared in ad campaigns for Oscar Mayer, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Geico, while Allen has produced the most sacks in the NFL since being drafted in 2004.
Stay on their good side, and they’re both perfect gentlemen.
Land on their bad side?
Now that’s another story.
The Player: Joe Flacco (QB), Baltimore Ravens
The Character: Doug, Doug
The Connection: Joe Flacco is probably who they had in mind when the phrase “Average Joe” was coined.
Flacco hovers just outside the top ten in almost every major passing category there is. He has the 12th highest passer rating of any active quarterback, the 12th most yards per game, and the 16th highest completion percentage.
His career record is 38-18, he’s gone 4-3 in the Playoffs, and even though he made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie, he played terrible when he got there (141 yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions).
Doug Funnie, on the other hand, is arguably the plainest cartoon character anybody ever drew. Doug’s eyes are nothing but dots. His nose doesn’t even have nostrils. He wears a sweater vest for crying out loud, and the most mischief he ever caused was losing track of an errant baseball or two.
Both have their occasional moments of brilliance, but neither does much to separate themselves from their peers, and in a world where both have an astounding array of colorful such peers to contrast against, that’s not a good situation to be in.
While Bert the muppet may be a closer match for Flacco's physical appearance, then, Doug clearly personifies the essence of Average Joe in ways no other fictional character ever could. How many people will remember either of these two in ten years, after all?
The Player: DeMarcus Ware (LB), Dallas Cowboys
The Character: Doomsday, Superman: Doomsday
The Connection: Total annihilation: that’s what these two bring to the table, and that’s what you instantly know about both of them the moment your eyes first see them.
DeMarcus Ware weighs 247 pounds and stands 6’4, taller and heavier than Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis, Derrick Thomas, and Lance Briggs, and with 92 career sacks and counting, Ware already has almost 10 more than any of those guys did during their first seven seasons in the league (and this year isn’t even over yet).
In fact, even though Jared Allen has the most sacks in the NFL since ’04, Ware is just three behind him right now in second place, and he’s only been in the league since 2005 (he’s also been the league-leader in two of his six seasons as a pro).
Doomsday, to compare, is a superhuman alien rock monster who looks like he was carved from a mountain top and, just like DeMarcus Ware, he’s that rare kind of imposing figure that also walks the walk: Doomsday is best known as the one who killed Superman, the only comic book super villain to accomplish such a feat.
Initially human, Doomsday was genetically engineered through decades of repeated cloning to hate all life and survive under all possible conditions, and wherever the abomination goes, a trail of utter destruction necessarily follows.
The same can surely be said of Ware, who already has a sack against 26 of the league’s 32 teams, who also shares another of Doomsday’s most defining characteristics, adaptability, and who often instills in opposing quarterbacks the same frightful look Superman displayed after Doomsday mercilessly pummeled him to a pulp.
How on earth would you go about trying to stop either of these guys?
The Player: Terrell Owens (WR), Free Agent
The Character: Bart Simpson, The Simpsons
The Connection: In contrast to Ochocinco, T.O. is not simply trying to have a good time, he’s genuinely out to cause trouble wherever he goes.
There’s just no other way to look at his career at this point after being run out of town in at least three different NFL cities and playing for five of them over his 15-year career, and if there’s a cartoon character out there who thinks they get a bigger kick out of creating chaos just for the fun of it than Bart Simpson, they’ve got another thing coming.
Bart Simpson once spiked his principal’s coffee with Viagra. He once tricked the entire town of Springfield into thinking a young boy was trapped in a well just to screw with them. He was born on April Fools Day, for heaven’s sake.
Terrell Owens, on the other hand, once suggested his own team’s starting quarterback was gay. He later claimed the $7.5 million he was set to earn in 2004 wouldn’t be enough to “feed his family,” then threatened to stage a hold-out because of it.
Nobody is more single-handedly responsible for the league-wide crackdown on touchdown celebrations than Owens, and no current free agent deserves to be universally disrespected in the open market to the extent T.O. has more than Owens himself.
You don’t leave Bart Simpson unattended without expecting some sort of havoc to be wreaked, and you don’t sign Terrell Owens to your football team without expecting some sort of embarrassing public catfight to play out within your own organization shortly thereafter.
Everybody knows that.
The Player: Albert Haynesworth (DT), Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Character: Fat Albert, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
The Connection: Well let’s see, here.
Actually, to be fair to Fat Albert, the truth is these two really don’t have that much in common at all, beyond the fact they’re both fat black guys named Albert, of course.
Fat Albert is jolly. Fat Albert Haynesworth always seems pissed off. Fat Albert the cartoon character helps people and is easily motivated by anything he’s passionate about. Fat Albert the notoriously overpaid professional football player has trouble performing routine physical tasks, even when you offer the guy $100 million just to complete them.
But hey (hey hey!), they are still both fat guys named Albert are they not?
The Player: Ray Lewis (LB), Baltimore Ravens
The Character: Papa Smurf, The Smurfs
The Connection: Ray Lewis is such a larger-than-life superstar you could probably compare him to every mutant in the entire Marvel universe if you really wanted to.
At this late stage in his career, however, Lewis’s image has evolved beyond simply that of the most menacing middle linebacker in NFL history and today the defensive standout is just as likely to inspire confidence in his teammates as he is fear in opposing quarterbacks.
The modern Ray Lewis is still powerful and intimidating, but his years of experience and eagerness to lead have transformed him into the NFL equivalent of a mystical old wise man (the full beard he often sports doesn’t hurt either).
And when it comes to being old and wise, we all know Papa Smurf is as qualified as they come.
Papa Smurf is over 500 years old. He’s responsible for keeping order over an entire village full of indecipherable hyperactive little runts, he often has to cover for his subordinates’ mistakes, and, just like Lewis, he has no trouble summoning up a little magic every now and then whenever the situation calls for it.
If Lewis is Papa Smurf, however, then who does that make Gargamel? James Harrison?
The Player: Darren Sproles (RB), New Orleans Saints
The Character: Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog: The Animated Series
The Connection: Sproles is one of the most elusive NFL players of the last decade, and few players in NFL history have ever matched his annoying combination of super speed and noticeably diminutive size.
Sonic the Hedgehog, the anti-Mario Sega mascot who debuted on the Genesis in 1991, has a remarkably similar skill set to Sproles, he also happens to share his undersized build (Sonic is actually just a fraction the size of his arch nemesis, Dr. Robotnik), and if you give either of these guys enough open space to work with, you know both of them will make you regret it every single time.
If only they’d have hired Sproles to play Beast in the last X-Men film, the resemblance would be even more apparent.
The Player: Jay Cutler (QB), Denver Broncos
The Character: Pig-Pen, The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show
The Connection: They’ve both got that shaggy-haired, just-woke-up-and-threw-something-on look down pat, and both are almost always surrounded by a hazy cloud of dirt.
Pig-Pen is a little more open about his filth fog, as he actually has the ability to clean it off and apparently just chooses not to, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily dirtier: since joining the league in 2006, Jay Cutler has spent more time rolling around on the ground than any quarterback not named Ben Roethlisberger, and even though he’s only gone down twice in his last three games, he’s still among the five most-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
Pig-Pen has a knack for playing the drums.
Jay Cutler has a knack for being pounded like a drum by opposing defenses.
The Player: Antonio Cromartie (CB), New York Jets
The Character: Glenn Quagmire, Family Guy
The Connection: Cromartie has the appalling distinction of being the NFL’s most notorious deadbeat dad, while Quagmire has the amusing distinction of being Quahog’s smoothest lifelong bachelor (though he did try settling down that one time).
Both fare just fine with the ladies, and both find themselves in heaps of trouble as a result of their promiscuous behavior fairly often.
Quagmire once slept with one of his best friends’ wives and nearly took a baseball bat to the face after getting caught.
Cromartie once racked up so many custody-related court fees the Jets gave him a $500,000 advance on his paycheck.
Quagmire could never match Cromartie’s prowess on the gridiron, but in the bedroom he’s as fierce a competitor as the veteran cornerback is ever likely to find.
And that, quite obviously, is about as pathetic as it gets. Might even be a new low for Cromartie.
You know, if he hadn’t already feathered nine kids with eight women in six different states, of course.
That’s a pretty tough act to follow.