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Friday, December 19, 2003
Updated: December 22, 4:43 PM ET
 



THEY'RE FACELESS, NAMELESS AND FUN-LESS. MEET THE STARS OF THE NFL


It started off innocently enough, when a couple of Writers' Bloc members carefully perused yesterday's Pro Bowl selections and wondered, "When did the NFL superstar become an endangered species?" Well, one thing led to another, and pretty soon the WB Wildcats were doing what they do best, ripping each other new ones like the beasts of prey they really are.

In the end, the general though uneasy consensus was that the NFL is bereft of superstars, which is kind of weird, given that it is the most popular league in the country. And there's not much the NFL can do about it, even if it wanted to, which it probably doesn't. After all, O.J. was a superstar, and the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots had no superstar. So there you go.

An army of one | From Patrick Hruby:
In part, it's a league thing. The NFL goes out of its way to promote teams over individuals  and when the standout guys manage to get a little love, it's almost always as the embodiment of their squad and/or city.

In his wildly overstated, metaphorically mismatched manner, this may have been what Warren Sapp was getting at the other week.

Meet the Bloc
Here's the full Writers' Bloc roster:

From Page 2: Jim Caple, Patrick Hruby, Eric Neel, David Schoenfield, Dan Shanoff, Ralph Wiley.

From ESPN The Magazine: Eric Adelson, Shaun Assael, Luke Cyphers, Alan Grant, Tom Friend, Peter Keating, Tim Keown, Steve Wulf.

Other hired guns: Gerri Hirshey, Chuck Hirshberg, Melanie Jackson, Robert Lipsyte.

Does this limit the individual earning/endorsement potential of fellows like Sapp? Probably. Is it better for the overall financial health of the league? Absolutely. The NFL is a lot of things  controlling, rigid, ultra-corporate  but stupid is not one of them. Not if ratings, ticket sales and Miami's neon-orange alternate jerseys mean anything.

Besides, an NFL shift to the NBA model of hyping names over jerseys likely wouldn't work. Among the major sports, football is the most team-oriented (hockey runs a close second, with the superstar goalie/scorer occupying the same plane as the star quarterback).

You've got outsized rosters. Guys playing on one side of the ball. A television viewing angle that leaves half the field a mystery at any given time. Simply put, it's a lot harder for a star player to have an obvious impact on the game, all by their lonesome, play in and play out. Even if they're Ray Lewis.

Clinton Portis doesn't make fantasy football owners happy unless someone  make that a bunch of someones  paves the way with a block. Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison are very good, Montana-to-Rice-good. But like the 49ers duo, they're better together. (Hey Ya!) Randy Moss might be the league's most-feared game-changer. But how many times does he actually touch the ball, with or without the Randy Ratio?

A singular, befuddle-11-other-guys talent such as Mike Vick or Barry Sanders comes along once a decade. And half the time, he blows out his knee. The NFL would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

Blame it on the Bossa Nova | From Dan Shanoff:
Blame the helmets: Fans identify with faces.

Blame the "fun police": Fans identify with displays of

personality.

Blame the game: Encourages subjugating the identity

of the "one" to the identity of the "team."

And yet: The NFL is the strongest sports league -- by

far. The other leagues with more "stars" would trade

them all en masse for the NFL's singular popularity.

You want the truth? | From Ralph Wiley:
This is like asking who is the superstar among the Borg, or the Army infantry in Iraq.

Having said that, Vick, Lewis, Favre, et al, do rate with Bonds and A-Rod and Shaq and Kobe. It's just that when you put on a helmet, you gain ominous mystery, and lose a certain human accessibility. That's why the league wants everybody to keep their pots on their heads, wear certain numbers at certain positions, like rank, and uniforms by a strict code.

Football is not war. And: That didn't hurt.

TWO LIES!!!

Faceless in the crowd | From Robert Lipsyte:
It feels like the 'Cats have answered the question. Where else can we go with it? We've been conditioned to believe in the fungibility of NFL players  there will be always a new head to fill that helmet/shroud  so superstars don't get a chance to pop the way they do in other sports. No wonder anyone who grew up learning that "the white man's not going to give it, you got to take it" (as Ali's Dad told him) whips out Sharpies and cell phones to distinguish himself from the faceless.

But, so, where do we go from here?

Both sides now | From Patrick Hruby:
Okay, forget about promotion for a moment.

Marketing aside, would an NFL that was more like the NBA vis-a-vis individual superstars be a better or worse league to watch?

I vote worse. And better.

Worse for the fans, since the quality of play would suffer. But better for us, since the Pro Bowl would be a big deal, like the NBA All-Star game ... and as such, those of us in the sports media would stand a much better chance of getting a free yearly trip to Hawaii.

Aloha means goodbye, right?

Re-shape the ball | From Robert Lipsyte:
Patrick's onto something. How would you make the NFL more like the NBA?

Citius, altius, fortius
| From Eric Neel:
Forget helmets and team uber alles. Don't tell me football ain't a stars' game. A few short months ago, with a sound leg, through-the-roof sales of Madden 2004 with his picture on the cover, and with room to roam on a 100-yard field (much bigger and more inviting to individual wizardry than a basketball court or a hockey rink, by the way; just ask Dante Hall), Michael Vick was as big a star as we had in the world. He changed a game we thought we knew inside and out. Nobody, not even Shaq or Barry, could carry his jock. And, the ankle gods willing, Vick will be back and and bigger than ever a few short months from now.

Donovan McNabb, the guy peddling soup on my television right now, he plays football, doesn't he?

So what are we talking about?

Too much of nothing | From Alan Grant:
Former NFL tight end and philosopher king Jamie Williams described this country's identity in terms of sport: "Baseball is who we wish we were, but football is who we are."

That said, superstardom is achieved once there is a consensus. It's not achieved in regard to actual talent or charisma, but simply because we have decreed it so.

Read: Britney Spears.

Talk the talk | From Luke Cyphers:
A wise Philly sports writer (an oxymoron, I know) once told me as I was struggling to cover an NFL beat, "Don't worry. In football, no one knows anything."

I think this applies to the superstar issue, which I'm glad the WB has decided to take on after formulating strategies for Iraq. The game's just too fast and too complex for anybody watching on TV, or on the sidelines for that matter, to really have any clue as to what they're witnessing. That includes having a clue about who's good.

Come on, quick, name the top three cornerbacks in the league right now. (Please recuse yourself, Mr. Grant.) For all we know, the best player in the league is probably Will Shields. (He's a guard for the Chiefs; I looked it up on NFL.com). But nobody can watch him play and follow the ball at the same time, so nobody really appreciates how good he is or isn't.

To follow up on Alan's point, we concentrate on, and make superstars of, the things we see: QBs, receivers, backs and defensive linemen with funny sack shtick.

In Rummy-speak, those are the known knowns. But it's the unknown unknowns who probably make the biggest difference. Although I don't have any first-hand knowledge of that.

So if you can't think of an NFL superstar, just pick one off a roster and make him up!

I'm starting the Shields for Superstar campaign forthwith.

An idea's time has come | From Patrick Hruby:
This is a great idea. First dibs on Mike Vanderjagt ... unless those mind-readers at ESPN The Magazine beat me to the punch.

Love 'em and leave 'em | From Robert Lipsyte:
Time out!

We're approaching this as a problem to be solved rather than a blessing to be enjoyed.

A game with no superstars would mean never having to say we're sorry. The ultimate league would be monster trucks without human drivers. We're stuck with superstar memories that turn cold (Teddy Ballgame), that get corked, juiced, picked over by Court TV. The first great cross-over NFL superstar was ... O.J.

If we don't really know who they are, we can use 'em and lose 'em.

Who's who? | From David Schoenfield:
Look, in the NFL we all know the Quarterback is The Man and The Man is the superstar.

Steve McNair? This is the first year he's even made the Pro Bowl.

Donovan McNabb? Since when does 12 TD passes make you a superstar?

Peyton Manning? Geez, maybe he should win a playoff game first.

Brad Johnson, Tom Brady, Trent Dilfer: These, fellow 'Cats, are your last three Super Bowl winners.

Trent Green? How hard is it to hand the ball off to Priest Holmes?

Daunte Culpepper, Matt Hasselbeck, Jon Kitna, Chad Pennington? Doesn't remind me of the QB crop of '83.

Now, we do have the greatest linebacker ever to play the game going right now, but, you know, the media doesn't like him too much ...

Mea culpa | From Shaun Assael:
Oh, what short-term memories we have at the WB. Wasn't it earlier this week that we were trashing Joe Horn for being a show-boater? Now we're B&Ming about the lack of look-at-me types in the NFL? Pick your poison. Personally, I'm fine with a league where a running back like Curtis Martin can creep past John Riggins into 11th in career rushing yards without his own sneakers. But if you guys aren't, methinks you all owe Mr. Horn an apology.

And you are . . . ??? | From Patrick Hruby:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin ... oh, screw it! I can't remember what I wrote an hour ago, let alone on Monday.

Who is this Joe Horn you speak of?

All-points bulletin | From Eric Adelson:
Everyone shut up. Just shut up. (Except Shaun.)

Know where I'm from? Michigan.

Know how many playoff games the Lions have won since 1957? One.

Our superstar is Barry Sanders. And he's been gone for years. Our next-best thing is Joey Harrington, who can't even win on Monday Night at the Mic. (Though props to you, Dre Bly, on making the Pro Bowl. Sweet.)

The shining moment of the '03 Lions season was the ESPN "SportsCentury" on Barry last month. That was the only place to find a highlight in which the camera actually follows the guy in the Honolulu blue jersey. (Even the Bengals have highlights now!) The only way the Lions make news is when the GM says something moronic. Otherwise our oracle is Mel Kiper, Jr., who will tell us who the Lions will pick in the spring. (Welcome to our nightmare, Sean Taylor.)

You people shrugging at NFL superstars? Send them to Detroit. Please.

Night of the iguana | From Chuck Hirshberg:
Here's a little story about the league with no superstars:

My friend Josh is a New York artist, a little fireplug of a guy with spiky hair, a collection of novelty watches and a pet iguana named Buster. He pays his rent by creating wonderful, though odd, illustrations for magazine articles; not long ago, Rolling Stone hired him to draw a detailed schematic diagram of Christina Aguilera, showing the precise location of all of her known tattoos. As you might expect, Josh knows very little about sports. And yet, he probably knows more than his Japanese wife, Miyuki.

Nonetheless, two years ago, despite their football ignorance, Josh, Miyuki and Buster sat down to watch the Super Bowl. Isn't that a hot one? Of course, they had no idea who to root for; they just wanted to participate in a national ritual. They watched as the St. Louis Rams' players were introduced, one-by-one. The names "Kurt Warner" and "Marshall Faulk" meant no more to Josh and Miyuki than they did to Buster. But then the New England Patriots were introduced: "At their own request," the announcer bawled, "as a TEAM!" At which point, all three members of that charmingly diverse little family  one Jew, one Asian and one reptile  had precisely the same thought: "THAT'S the team I'm rooting for!"

Imagine my surprise the next time I saw Josh and he told me that he'd enjoyed the Super Bowl because "the good guys won." I told him I couldn't agree more.