NFL Face of the League Problem

The NFL Has a ‘Face of the League’ Problem

Stop if you’ve heard this before, but the NFL has some viewership issues.

Over the past two seasons for Awful Announcing, I have taken the opportunity to do what seemingly no one else has done since every football fan and journalist on Twitter suddenly became a Nielsen employee. Understanding that basically everyone with a vested interest in the league seems to be pissed off, it was critical to go deeper into the league’s TV viewership by examining the intersection of race, gender and age. Now-familiar theories rise up in order to explain why the NFL has seen steep viewership declines, with each one claiming greater importance over the others. Yet no matter what, there’s no denial that the league has entered relatively challenging times.

Yet, for a moment, let’s put aside all of the political turmoil, technological shifts and other concerns you could think of. Do you want to know what’s going to help the NFL get right going forward?

It’s going to be finding the ideal successor(s) to ‘the face of the league.’

The ‘face of the league’ concept is something that people are obsessed over with other sports, but until recently, has been one that the NFL and its sponsors have somewhat taken for granted. Despite unfairly heralding one or few players above all others, it’s one that helps sell a sport to folks beyond the die-hard fans of the game. It’s about their look, charisma and camera presence. It’s also, at its core, about ability to somehow not offend the ‘typical NFL fan’ by saying or doing the wrong things. (Feel free to typecast that fan any way you wish.) But in this league, those household names are rarely anything other than quarterbacks since they are the ones who are called upon the most as leaders of men.

It’s how Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were blasted into our homes and mobile devices for years and years. The NFL made sure to pit their best faces forward with annual matchups between the Patriots and Manning-led teams in Indianapolis and Denver. Of the 17 ‘Brady vs. Manning’ matchups – 12 regular season, five postseason – FIFTEEN took place between 2003 and 2016. (Keep in mind that the two teams shared the AFC East division until 2002 when the Colts were realigned to the geographically hilarious AFC South.) The matchup became football media’s Yankees/Red Sox or Celtics/Lakers with all the breathless tomes, even books, inspired by the rivalry. And while Brady is weirdly discriminate about his endorsements, P. Manning may still be the most recognizable face in the NFL because of his deals and TV appearances, two years after retiring and a few years longer after his quarterbacking peak.

Despite what Brady may say about desires to play deep into his 40s, the reality is that time waits for no man. And the truth be told, the same has to be said for Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and yes, even Patriot-killer Eli Manning. They are viewed as more than leaders of their teams, but with the exception of the Steelers’ signal-caller, they are pitch men and standard bearers in a way that few other players in the league are. They’re the ones that rank highest in N-scores and Q-scores, metrics that make advertising executives swoon and publicists drool. And save for J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr., the most nationally marketed non-quarterbacks in the NFL, this quarterback group tends to get top billing because each member has won at least one Super Bowl – with Eli, despite a blend of the good and bad within his play, getting extra rub since the Manning family is football royalty.

We’ve already witnessed to the two arguably best quarterbacks aged 30 and under struggle to remain in the ‘face of the league’ conversation in just a short amount of time – Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Newton, the former league MVP, has not been the same quarterback both on and off the field since hitching his Carolina Panthers over his shoulders into a Super Bowl berth. His on-field struggles are as much his own making that of poor roster construction and questionable coaching. However, since he emerged from being a flashpoint on racial animosity during the Panthers’ run towards Super Bowl 50, he’s stumbled frequently in the limelight, including his positions on race and the most recent faux-pas with a NFL reporter this season.

Wilson is a Super Bowl champion who played for a second title and he doesn’t have quite the self-inflicted wounds as Newton. But for some odd reason, he’s a bit of a punching bag by quite a few outside of the Pacific Northwest. Some of it comes from not playing with an offensive line that can block, making it hard to appreciate his brilliance like we did when he made Matt Flynn an expensive footnote in football lore. But unfortunately, there are digs about his persona to go along with extreme reactions about his marriage to R&B singer, Ciara, and the celebrated pettiness of Future, her ex-partner.

Looking at other active quarterbacks, you can easily pick at football reasons why they aren’t as prominent. Matthew Stafford has never won a playoff game. Phillip Rivers is fading away in a small soccer stadium. Kirk Cousins may or may not be as good as the franchise tag says he is. One-time Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco isn’t elite anymore, if he ever truly was. Matt Ryan has never struck the typical NFL fan as a must-watch player despite being last season’s MVP. Andy Dalton makes Bengals fans pull their hair out. Alex Smith may be traded after his career season. Injuries and ineffectiveness have harmed Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill’s respective stocks. And there’s the off-field history at play for Jameis Winston (as well as Roethlisberger).

If there’s a glaring example to the ‘face of the league’ conundrum for the NFL, it’s going to be pretty clear on Conference Championship Sunday. The NFL’s final four playoff teams feature three quarterbacks that normally would have been working on their putting games or camping in the woods this time of year. Considering the career paths thus far for Nick Foles, Case Keenum and the legendary Blake Bortles, it’s going to take more than a shocking Super Bowl run to make the country and even the league itself for any of those three to become a true, high-wattage star.

Maybe this time next year, the emerging Jared Goff, the impressive-thus-far Jimmy Garoppolo, a more dynamic Dak Prescott or healthy versions of Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson could be the ones in the playoffs, pushing to become the best of the next generation. As they do so, we’ll find out who resonates so strongly that he may become the next face of the NFL.

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