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Talent Wins, But Reputation Rules In NFL

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Jan 5, 2004 at 5:00am ET

Honk if you're sick of all those Don Cheadle commercials.

Honk again if you think that the whole world thinks that the Miami Dolphins are the best team in the AFC East.

Honk one last time if you have been made to think that the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXXVIII by losing to Carolina, 29-10, because they're America's Team with the Tuna at the helm.

Cheadle, who is perhaps more appreciated as an actor for his role as an angel in the movie The Family Man, rattles off still another rambling and contrived commercial on a "diamond ring". He then picks one NFL star to singularly embody the meaning of a ring.

The star? Brett Favre.

It's because of all the Vinces he's won, right? Pardon us if we give pause to wonder if Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw were considered. Or, even better, one Charles Haley, the former defensive lineman who holds the NFL record for most Super Bowls won by an individual player (five, two with San Francisco and three with Dallas).

Let's say Cheadle tries to make such a commercial ten years from now, and Tom Brady has won five Super Bowls total in the interim. We'll take bets right now to see if Cheadle still uses Favre as his singular personification of a ring.

This is not to diss Favre, or the great work he has done in his career. But when you step back and look past his heroics, his swashbuckling style, and his resolve, what you have is a quarterback who has won as many Super Bowls as Brady has (for the moment), and that one win was against a team whose head coach wasn't really trying to win. The fact remains that Favre's incredible appeal to football fans nationwide makes him a symbol of something he really isn't a symbol of.

We mention the Cheadle reference to Favre to make a bigger point. Favre's reputation as a glamour figure in the NFL (and his league MVPs make a darned good case) seems to elevate him to a pantheon he perhaps doesn't belong in. And reputation doesn't apply only to Favre. If Super Bowl wins are how you judge players by, he isn't even the best quarterback in Packer history. Despite the tremendous talent of the Packer squads that went to Super Bowls XXXI and XXXII, they would be hard pressed to match the Lombardi squads of Super Bowls I and II, and the incredibly efficient Bart Starr as the quarterback of those two teams.

And it is the Lombardi legacy, great it is at that, which makes Favre and his team even bigger than they are. Lambeau Field is the Boston Garden of the NFL. What sells more, Terrible Towels or Cheese Heads? The nation sees all this dairy stuff, listens to what the media tells them, and the Packers are the greatest thing in the NFL despite their halcyon days in franchise history coming before the merger.

In the NFL, winning makes you champs, but reputation makes you respected, beloved and insulated. The insulation factor cannot be ignored, as we have been bombarded with several instances of teams with great reputations who are insulated from criticism because of who they are rather than what was done to them. Or, better yet, what the great reputation teams or players didn't do themselves.

This is chiefly why certain teams in the NFL are looked upon as sacrosanct, and teams like the Patriots may forever be either looked upon with skepticism, or considered more lucky than good, when they do well. For a league which has the labor relations, money management and fan appeal all at higher levels than any other major sports league, it is quite contradictory that teams which aren't considered "sexy" on a national platform have such a struggle with gaining their due respect.

One of the greatest examples of having a great reputation and little else is the Miami Dolphins. It seems that the nation fell in love with them in 1972 when they went 17-0, and they have walked on water ever since. There were about three years between the retirement of Bob Griese and the advent of Dan Marino. The Marino Era consisted of passing records galore, a handsome glamour figure at the helm, and the quickest ball release in the history of the league.

The Marino Era also consisted of exactly one Super Bowl appearance and zero wins. But thanks to the reputation the Griese Dolphins gave him, Marino flourished tremendously, and totally overshadowed the great work of Griese. The Marino Era also engendered a huge national following of bandwagon Dolphin fans who, thanks to a major assist from Miami Vice, looked at Miami as a sexy and trendy city to root for.

Marino carries that reputation with him as a studio host. His Dolphin bias is noticeable, in that his disappointment and disbelief when the Dolphins fail is loud and clear, though he doesn't go overboard when they win. It is too bad that Marino cannot look to his predecessor for total objectivity. The elder Griese was an ABC booth analyst when his son Brian won the Rose Bowl MVP in 1998, capping off a perfect season for Michigan. Dad Bob kept a total even keel during the game, and dealt with Brian as merely another player. Only at game's end did Dad let his guard down, saying "You 'bout lost me, pardner!" Keith Jackson told him to just go ahead and cry.

So, why all the hubbub over a team which hasn't been to a Super Bowl in 19 years and hasn't won one in 30 years? The Dolphins have literally spent the last 19 years doing nothing but underachieving, especially in the crunchtime of December. Instead of calling their failures "shocking" and "disappointing", one should perhaps call their failures "normal" and "predictable".

The Dolphins and Packers have their following, but perhaps the worst case of a team flourishing on reputation alone are the Dallas Cowboys. The 29-year Tom Landry Era in Big D is a fitting legacy to the great coach. But in 29 years, Landry made it to five Super Bowls and only two wins. Many NFL franchises would kill for "only two Super Bowl wins", but if you factor in all the Cowboy hype and history, in this case the word "only" fits just fine. To top things off, the team acquired the moniker "America's Team", and it is not a reach to say that it was the Cowboys that perhaps hung that nickname on themselves (how silly it was that the Atlanta Braves tried to do the same thing thanks to their cable television deal with TBS).

When the team passed from Bum Bright to Jerry Jones in 1989, Jones tossed Landry out on his ear and made Jimmy Johnson the head coach. Dallas then proceeded to win three more Super Bowls in the 1990s; even though Barry Switzer was the coach in Super Bowl XXX, it was clear that he won with Johnson's men. The Cowboys went into steep decline soon after, and only now with the advent of the Bill Parcells Era in the Metroplex are the Cowboys back to their old winning ways. But in the moribund period between Johnson and Parcells, there was no luster at all gone from the Cowboy shimmer, thanks to their reputation.

When you combine Parcells and Cowboys, you could just predict the outcome. Bill Belichick won Coach Of The Year on Saturday, but you might wonder how Parcells finished as low as third when everyone nationwide had the Tuna a lock for this award. Now that Dallas has been bounced from the playoffs by Carolina, all the talk has been on what a great job Parcells did, how Dallas could have possibly lost to Carolina at all, and what Dallas did wrong in the game. The Tuna/Cowboy hype totally overshadowed the fact that John Fox perhaps did a better coaching job in Charlotte, and that the Panthers were the far superior team in every phase.

The Cowboys perhaps lead the NFL in saturation coverage and exposure. Every other NFL Films feature somehow involves the Cowboys. Parcells cannot have a hangnail without it being national copy, and the same could perhaps be said for Jones. This sort of reputation goes back to the Landry Era, but Parcells alone has pushed the Cowboys back into the national consciousness, especially given that his players are basically anonymous (except perhaps Terry Glenn, at least around here).

At least the Cowboys, from a view high atop the mountain, have some jack to back up their rep. Five Vinces ties San Francisco with the most among all NFL teams. But in this year of Parcells coming to Big D, you got a team which fared well in a conference which is Philadelphia and St. Louis and not much else. But the Cowboys got huge press thanks to those two giant forces merging, and the victims are the Carolina Panthers, who are an up and coming NFL power and were clearly the better team on Saturday night.

If reputation totally ruled in the NFL, including true talent and ability, here is how the league would end up every year:

AFC East: Miami, Jets (Wild Card), Buffalo, New England

AFC North: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati

AFC South: Tennessee, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Houston

AFC West: Oakland, Denver (Wild Card), Kansas City, San Diego

NFC West: Dallas, Washington (Wild Card), Giants (Wild Card), Philadelphia

NFC North: Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit

NFC South: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina

NFC West: San Francisco, St. Louis, Seattle, Arizona

This is why announcers look disappointed when teams like New England or Carolina or Seattle happen to do well. Atlanta had the audacity to win in Green Bay last January, and little was said about how well the Falcons did (although, in keeping with the spirit of reputation, you were made to think Michael Vick was a one-man team, and 2003 more or less proved that). The media in general was more shocked in how poorly Oakland did versus how well Kansas City did. As a studio analyst for ABC Saturday night, Buccaneer coach Jon Gruden seemed like a Cowboy fan at halftime.

So, at the Super Bowl, CBS may have you believe that it will be Miami or Oakland versus Dallas or Green Bay. That's what you want to see, not New England versus Philadelphia, right? Those teams are the "true" NFL, not the teams who actually deserve to be there. That's just the way it is, you figure.

In the end, it all comes down to marketing. It may take some time before Brady becomes a bigger commodity than Favre. Belichick winning top coaching honors is really something, considering that he is still perhaps better known as the Giant defensive coordinator because at the time he was based in New York (as opposed to his tenure as DC of the NYJ; the Jets will always be the bastard stepchild in Gotham). Guys like Jake Delhomme, Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez, Mark Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck and Shawn Alexander may have to be content with merely being good.

Patriot fans by now are used to the occasional diss from national media personnel. The Patriot players feed off it, and play at higher levels because of it. Some media types around the country have already declared that Tennessee is the tougher of the two teams going at it Saturday night in Foxborough. As long as the Miami Dolphins are in the AFC East, the Patriots will never be the "stars" of their division. They may have better teams on paper, but football fans nationwide will want to see the Fish more than the Chowds.

You might say that Carolina fans now know how Patriot fans feel, or if they don't, they soon will. In Charlotte, beating the Cowboys in the playoffs (and they also did in 1996) is tremendous, but nationally it is looked upon as sacrilege. What if Hasselbeck's daring coin flip prediction had come true? Because he did this at Lambeau Field, and that it eventually failed directly of his own doing, Hasselbeck's national reputation is dirt, though in Seattle it is just fine.

That is why in the NFL, worry only about winning, and not being famous. Winning is the only way to go, and being famous is more a negative than it is a positive.

We leave you with this thought: Outside of the northeast and Arizona, I dare you to find one non-Patriot football fan that knows who Tedy Bruschi is. Try it.

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