Now that Tom Brady is done, the NFL will hold auditions for a new lead in the play over the weekend.
The casting notice: You are a young, charismatic leader ready to win. You’re not inclined to offend the good old U-S-of-A and never kneel outside church. A little movement is preferable (pocket passers are very 2015). Fourth-quarter comebacks a plus. Shampoo endorsements optional.
Among the contenders, we can scratch a few names off the list right away: Ryan Tannehill (boring), Kirk Cousins (boring and bad), DeShaun Watson (not totally boring, but still a little boring) and Aaron Rodgers (definitely not boring, but he’s auditioned for this part too often).
The next NFL poster boy is somewhere in the midst of the four remaining quarterbacks in the playoffs.
The winner of this ad-hoc competition becomes America’s ur-athlete because there’s just something about quarterbacks.
You’ve never been in a business meeting and heard someone say, “Eva is point-guarding this project to completion,” or “Who’s goaltending this proposal?” Quarterbacking is the one position in sports that has become a widely used verb.
That may be because it is the only athletic job in which intelligence, as well as athleticism, so evidently plays a role. For all our modern talk about “high IQ” athletes, most of them are making the most of an instinctive genius. They’re acting on an intuitive impulse that’s been sharpened their whole lives, like wolves.
Quarterbacks are actually thinking out there. You can see them doing it. And while they do it, four or five exceptionally large men are trying to decapitate them. It is the closest sports gets to simulating war. Short of the guns, it’s not really a simulation.
Brady was perfect for this job. It was his sangfroid that separated him from his peers. When we picture him at his best, he is standing stock-still in the midst of chaos, untroubled by imminent violence, going through his progressions like a hard drive attached to a body.
He came of age in an era of super-cool, James-Bond-esque stars – Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Sidney Crosby, et al. Guys who didn’t emote; guys who didn’t feel any need to flaunt their mastery.
The early 21st century was a time when we put a lot of emphasis on being good while not seeming to try very hard. This was period in North American pop culture when everything was going to be okay. We admired people who carried themselves as though they understood that.
Slight change – everything’s no longer okay. It’s time for a new sort of star. Someone who does it the hard way. Someone who looks as though they’re trying. Someone a little like the rest of us – vaguely uncertain, figuring it out as he goes – but also superhuman. It’s a hard ask.
Scratch 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. As the man who was once considered Brady’s heir in New England, he has the lineage. What he lacks is any human component. Garoppolo looks like he was built in a 3-D printer. The key words used in his design were “Southern California” and “Saturdays are for the boys."
He’s entirely overshadowed by his team’s defence and has never had a single memorable public utterance. He’s Trent Dilfer with good hair.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson has the pedigree. He’s won a Super Bowl for Seattle. But though he’s only 31, Wilson already feels like yesterday’s man. He’s trapped somewhere between the old model (stand fast) and the new one (make things happen on the move). Whatever “it” is that turns exceptional people into pan-cultural obsessions, Wilson doesn’t have it. Even the people who like him will never love him.
That leaves two possibilities – Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.
A year ago, you’d have said Mahomes was the obvious choice. He is a brand manager’s dream. He has all the prerequisites – talent, looks great on camera, a sense of fun.
Fun is a top priority for the NFL these days. For the past 10 years, we’ve been force-fed a diet of stories about how football kills people. That’s hard to frame an ad campaign around – “The NFL: Die Like a Man” or, “The NFL: Three Quarters of Us Do Not End up in Wheelchairs“.
Mahomes looks as though he’s having fun. He gives off lightness. The NFL could use some lightness to balance out the toughness.
But no one currently at work does that more so than Jackson. The go-to modern word to describe his ability is “freakish.” Jackson is like the rest of us, but much more. Bigger. Faster. Smarter. Most important, he is fearless. He plays football like he’s never seen a documentary about football.
The NFL hasn’t had an up-out-of-your-seat presence like Jackson since Barry Sanders. Whenever he begins to move, you cannot help yourself but move with him (after putting the pretzels on the floor so they don’t end up all over the place). You can see the instant he stops thinking and starts acting. Only the great ones can throw that switch so quickly.
Off the field, Jackson is a shy, charming presence, the opposite of big league. What Jackson does best is put in the work. Every time he tucks the ball, he makes some of the best athletes on Earth look foolish. He is that rare combination of a savant and a grinder.
Adding to Jackson’s lustre is the fact that all the experts got him wrong. He was the fifth quarterback picked in the 2018 draft. Each of the ones taken ahead of him looks like the president of a Connecticut chapter of Sigma Chi. This is where typecasting and groupthink gets you in football – on vacation in January. People love a man who was overlooked.
Jackson is still a bit of a discovery. He’s been a starter for just over a calendar year. You won’t see him in any ads.
But, with all the caveats about staying healthy in place, he is the future face of football. All he has to do now is win.