So on the heels of Monday's top 10 Most Annoying Humans In Pro Football, it's time to look at the other side of the coin. The people that make us love this stuff.
Despite's chronic waffling, Tony Dungy's pedantic moralizing, Roger Goodell's No Fun League, and the rest of the league's underbelly, we still love the NFL. Why? Well, because nothing beats the ritual of a Sunday afternoon drinking and watching football, eating disgusting food, and screaming at your television for eight hours straight. But other than that ... Because there are a handful of guys that make the game special on a regular basis.
They make things fun, they make things interesting and they keep us coming back.
The NFL may be inching closer to an all-business-no-fun league where TEAM trumps all, but every year, the NFL churns out individuals that remind us it doesn't have to be that way. Guys that exist to have fun AND kick ass. This is why we love football. (And again, by "we" I mean "me" ... This list is completely subjective.)
Pacman Jones? Sadly, not on the list.
(America still loves you, Pacman.)
And yes, a few places on this list include more than one person. Number seven, in fact, includes about fifty different NFL players. But they're one entity, for the purposes of this list. Without further ado ...
Guess who's not Brett Favre? This guy!
He makes the Top 10 for a few different reasons. First, because he's not Brett Favre. Second, because he's probably the best player of any up-and-coming quarterbacks in this league, and he also seems like the most likable one of the bunch. Finally, because he had this to say about Tony Kornheiser's career in the broadcast booth:
"Dennis Miller was a great comedian, but one of the worst Monday Night Football guys ever. And he was ten times better than Tony Kornheiser. His stuff was actually funny. Tony stuff wasn’t funny at all. He did no research. We’d sit in those production meetings and he would add absolutely nothing to the conversation. I’d be like, ‘What are we doing here? This is stupid.’… You get in there with Tony and he’s asking you all these dumb questions that have no application to the game you are playing or anything you are doing. He’s terrible… I don’t think he’s funny. I don’t think he’s insightful. I don’t think knows anything about sports."
We don't think he's funny or insightful, either. So kudos to you, Mr. Rodgers.
Oh, and Aaron: THANK YOU FOR NOT BEING BRETT FAVRE.
9. Steve Smith
If Rod Tidwell were a real NFL player ... he'd obviously be Steve Smith.
Perpetually disrespected (in his own mind), Smith takes small man's complex to its absolute extreme. Did he once punch a teammate in the face? Yes, but only because he's the most competitive dude on Earth, and might not understand that "limits" apply to him, too. And isn't that exactly what we want out of our football players?
On the one hand, he's just like all the other wide receivers in this league—relentlessly self-promotional, paranoid about imaginary critics, and 100% convinced that he deserves the ball on every single down. But on the other hand, he's cut from a different cloth.
Coming into the league, Smith was deemed too small to play receiver, didn't run routes very well and was relegated to returning punts in the early part of his career. Rather than accept that fate, Smith worked at his craft, used his size as an advantage to create fits for the defense, and after a while, it became obvious that whatever he lacked in measurables, he more than made up for with linebacker-level toughness and a never-ending stream of trash talk.
"Militant" would be a good way to describe him, but it's meant as a compliment. He's used it to his advantage, and gotten further than anyone would have ever expected. Like I said ... Rod Tidwell.
(Like Tidwell, he's also funny as hell.)
8. Josh Cribbs,
The only reason these players ever see the field is to make big plays. Relative to the rest of the team, these two guys exist solely for purposes of exciting us, and making defenses (and special teams units) look stupid. Basically, these guys are about as awesome as it gets. Whether it's Cribbs running the wilildcat in Cleveland, or Hester playing "receiver" and running go routes on every play (except for when he runs an end around), each man represents the only hope for otherwise hopeless teams. But that's not why they're on the list.
The coolest part about these two guys is that every time they take the field, the entire stadium expects them to get the ball, and the entire opposing team makes "Not Letting That Guy Score" their top priority. And then they go and score. Neither one of them even had a position when they entered the league—Hester as a wide receiver/cornerback, Cribbs as a converted quarterback/wide receiver/running back—and they still don't.
Basically, they are professional X-factors. How cool is that?
Here, a Blair Witch-style video of Cribbs last year. His first of two TD returns that day:
7. The U
In past years, The University of Miami's NFL fraternity would be higher on this list, but because many of them are firmly entrenched on the downside of their careers, we can't put them in the Top Five. But still. If you were explaining the NFL to a non-football fan, the whole mystique about "The U" would be one of the best details.
"Yeah, and there's this group of guys that all went to the same college, and they all train together in the offseason, they all play with the same attitude and swagger, they even dress alike on the field. And yeah, those guys are some of the best players on the planet."
No other sport has anything like it—there may be guys that share the same alma mater, but the thing with Miami guys is, they're all good for the same reason. The equation gets taught over and over down there, every offseason: (Insane athleticism) minus (fear) plus (tireless work ethic) multiplied by (decades' worth of swagger).
... And now, a brief interlude to remember how badasswas.
Before the commenters remind me—I know this is an NFL article, we're supposed to be talking about the coolest people in the NFL. But that's just the point. This concept of "The U" doesn't really take shape until these guys make it to the league. The fraternity takes on a whole new meaning at that point; that's whyspends every offseason training next to in Miami, instead of next to his teammates in Washington. It's why lobbied for the to draft , then forced Reed to watch film with him every week. It's why and still have have any friends in this world.
This little clique might be annoying to some, but the problem is, nobody can deny that whatever it is, it works. They win, they win their way, and then they tell you about it. In no particular order, look at the names:
Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Clinton Portis,, , , , Devin Hester, , , , , Edgerrin James, , Jeremy Shockey, Antrell Rolle, , , Kellen Winslow, Brandon Merriwether, and at least ten different people I'm forgetting, one of whom is probably a Pro Bowler.
Not only have they all been massively successful, but most of them are successful in the same way, for the same reasons. What other sport has this sort of dynamic? To put it in broader terms: Miami is to the NFL as Princeton is to investment banking. And the Miami guys are about one million times cooler than those Princeton douchebags.
6. The NFL Network
The antidote to nauseating pre- and post-game coverage from ... Fox Sports, ESPN, CBS, NBC, and ... Everyone, really. But the NFL Network stands out because the studio crew features informative hosts, and more important, a group of people that actually seem capable of laughing at themselves.
, Deion Sanders, Steve Mariucci and most of all, Rich Eisen. Together, they create one of the more enjoyable highlight shows this side of TNT's Inside the NBA, and they understand the one thing that seems to elude everyone else: THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN.
These guys do it the right way, and by that I mean: back-and-forth banter that has nothing to do with the highlights they're supposed to be talking about, long, rambling anecdotes from Deion Sanders, acerbic wit from Eisen, and steady stream of jokes that, if ever so briefly, make it seem like the NFL is a game, and not the Most Important Thing On Earth. Keep fighting the good fight, NFL Network. It's much appreciated.
5. Wide Receivers
We often hear about wide receivers that should just "Shut up and play the game." We also hear about contract holdouts, bitter press conference rants, extravagant endzone celebrations and all sorts of the other stuff that the NFL's traditionalist base has been conditioned to hate. And that's fine. Some of it's completely warranted. But then ...
Without divas around, how would we be entertained?
4. Ed Reed
Earlier this year, he said, "This is not nothing I'm not lying about ... I could retire. I don't need the money. They could come and get the money if they want. Money don't make me. Money didn't put me here."
That doesn't completely make sense, but coming from Ed Reed, we'll let it slide.
He's flashy, but he works as hard as anyone in the league. He makes big plays, and he does the little things. He studies film, but his greatness is borne from instinct. He's Deion Sanders minus the self-promotion, plus bone-crushing hits. He's everything anyone loves about football, and at least once a month, to remind myself why football's awesome, I watch this clip.
3. Rex Ryan
There were three negative reactions to my "villain" rankings yesterday. I ranked Favre way too low (fair criticism), I included Tony Dungy as a villain (inevitable criticism) and I didn't include Rex Ryan on the list of most hated people in the NFL (wait ... WHAT?).
It boggles the mind how anyone can dislike Rex. I mean, I understand: he's someone you either unconditionally love, or intensely loathe. There's no in between as far as the reactions to Rex. But I'd just like to say, if you don't like Rex Ryan, we can't be friends.
Let's take a closer look at the man, himself:
- Rex cares about winning—first, last and always.
- Rex is cartoonishly fat, despite numerous strategies to reduce his waistline.
- Rex doesn't care what anyone thinks.
- Rex actively cultivates an us-against-the-world mentality in his players.
- Rex may be obnoxious, but he's unique.
- Rex language is ugly, immature and downright offensive at times.
- Rex once said, "Last year, we were under the radar, that's a good place to be ... F@#K that! The best place to be is when expectations are high. Get used to it."
- Rex sometimes gives stirring speeches that, when you think about them, make absolutely no sense.
- Rex has made a name for himself by having a killer instinct, and a defense that consistently rises to the occasion.
- Rex may not be perfect, but the people on his side absolutely love the guy.
Guys, Rex is America. And if you can't get behind Rex Ryan, then you can get the hell out. Sorry, would-be Euro trash, but in this country, we want to lead the world in f—kin wins.
2. Chris Johnson
In sports, nobody ever seems as good as the superstars we watched growing up. In the battle against the past, athletes of today face an uphill climb. For one, we're humans, and with anything—sports or not—we romanticize the past at the expense of the present. But for another, the superstars we watch as kids literally defy our understanding. A 10-year-old can only comprehend so much.
So of course Barry Sanders seemed supernatural to me; it would have been unthinkable to understand that his lateral movement, combined with speed, vision and the ideal size for his running style, made him next to impossible to contain. To me, he just seemed like somebody that couldn't be tackled, running around the field at will, like football was a video game, and only Barry Sanders had the cheat code.
And when he was contained, like in the playoffs against the, when he carried 13 times for -1 yard ... Well, we just don't remember that stuff. There's nothing romantic about -1 yards on 13 carries.
So between our romanticisation of past legends and our increased understanding of what makes present stars so successful, it's hard to appreciate contemporary greatness in the proper context.
All of which is to say, we should appreciate Chris Johnson. He's as electrifying as Barry, or Dickerson, or anyone else that's ever played football. He's not funny, he's not particularly interesting, his team sucks, and who knows? He might get injured tomorrow. But for now, he's the most captivating football player in the league, with talent that's just as incomprehensible as any of the All-Time Greats before him.
And on the field and in his career, he'll be gone before you know it. Savor this while it lasts.
Come on. Did you expect anyone else?
He's good looking, he's humble, he's got an unlikely success story, he cares about the city of New Orleans, he would have been great at just about any sport he played, he supports the troops, he performs better in big moments, he leads his team ... Drew Brees is basically an All-American Hero. Don't be jealous, just accept it.
If you had to point to one person as an example of why football is awesome, you'd probably choose Drew Brees. He's beaten the odds at every stop to turn himself into a borderline Hall-of-Famer, and his team into Super Bowl champions. What's not to like?
For God's sake, he turned the SAINTS into winners.
Maybe one day, Drew Brees will stop being the most productive quarterback in the NFL and he'll spend his days doing commercials telling us how awesome he is, offering opinions on stuff that has nothing to do with him, and generally, acting like Brett Favre. For now, though, he's the anti-Favre and the Anti-Manning. He does his job better than anyone else, doesn't really talk about it, and off the field, he seems like one of the most genuinely "cool" players in the NFL.
Is this me outing myself? Do I have a mancrush on Drew Brees? Yes, and you should, too.
He's the coolest player in the coolest sport in America. Doesn't get more awesome than that.