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Commentary: Will the NFL Need a Post-Lockout Savior?

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As the NFL lockout confusion reigns and there’s no real football action to digest, focus on the upcoming NFL draft has intensified to the point where Cam Newton can’t fart without pundits questioning whether the resultant weight change will affect his draft status. For Bengals analysts it’s becoming a paralysis of indecision about who the team might select with the fourth pick in the draft: A. J. Green? Nick Fairley? Patrick Peterson? Newton? Sammy Baugh’s corpse? The team's draft strategy has, as we all know by now, been problematized by the ongoing rift between owner/(billionaire?) Mike Brown and player/millionaire Carson Palmer, which has transformed an organization already fraught with image problems into a PR nightmare and alienated fans even further. The organization is making sad, desperate attempts to pacify angry fans and whitewash its image, but without any worthy face to turn toward the crowd the team can only dredge up ghosts of the gloried past, which isn't making them look any better. This got me thinking about whether the Bengals' current PR problem is just the future of the NFL in microcosm.

I'm going to go out on a pretty safe and secure limb here to say that there will be NFL games at some point in the future. Things will get resolved and play will resume, but until that happens the downtime allows for all kinds of speculative questioning, like the following: Will the NFL be able to recover it's popularity after the lockout?

That question is, of course, somewhat rhetorical. It’s a bit like asking whether Taco Bell will now go out of business because their "meat" isn’t as meaty as we’d all deluded ourselves into thinking. Sure they may permanently lose some customers who suddenly realize their body is a thing worth investing more than $0.79 in (or maybe just don’t want to pay $1.49), but the majority of us will get past our pangs of conscience the next time we’re drunk or hurried, though we may never quite trust the advertised quality again. Like Taco Smell, the NFL will continue making money hand-over-fist once it resumes it's regular activities, but the whole operation will have a lingering funk surrounding it that will require a little more than a mint or Axe Body Spray to be wholly attractive to fans again. The sense of betrayal that many spectators bring back to the game will be hard to suppress. Some diligent PR work will need to be done to rebrand the league and assuage its fans' distrust. 

With the baseball season in full swing, it's hard not to think about the current NFL lockout in relation to the MLB strike of 1994-5, another dispute labeled as millionaires v. billionaires that suspended professional baseball for 232 days. When play resumed after the strike, MLB attendance dropped significantly. Many of the fans who did show up made their opinions about the dispute between the players and owners known: three fans donning t-shirts with the word "Greed" scribbled across them ran out onto the field at the New York Mets home opener tossing dollar bills at the players, while others held up signs voicing their anger. Fortunately for MLB, they had long-time Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. around, whom many now credit with saving baseball after the strike by restoring fan confidence in the game and its players.

When the 1995 season started, Ripken was only 116 games away from breaking "Iron Horse" Lou Gehrig's 56-year old record of 2,130 consecutive games played streak, and MLB (with Ripken's own awareness of his role) used that to their advantage. He was the perfect symbol that the league could tout as representative of the purity of the game, and he was cast as a player who brought a blue collar ethic to baseball, showing up to work everyday and seemingly playing "for the love of the game" rather than avarice. MLB cleverly emphasized Ripken's accomplishments and his everyman image as a way of renewing fan faith in the inherent goodness of the sport. As he approached and finally broke the record, MLB made a big to-do of the affair, and by the end of the '95 season Ripken had become the new face of baseball (so much so that Ken Burns’s newest installment of his Baseball documentary has a segment devoted to Ripken having "saved" the game), priming fans for the absurdity of the steroid years and the 1998 home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

And while the role Ripken played in restoring baseball's popularity is arguably overstated, it is clear that MLB capitalized on Cal’s wholesome image in an attempt to rebrand itself after the nastiness of the strike. Once the NFL resumes activity, they'll likely need to do their own major PR overhaul, a big part of which may be finding an honorable representative of the current game and then marketing the hell out of him. 

So does the NFL have a Cal Ripken waiting in the wings? Not exactly. With Brett Favre having ignominiously exited the game and many in the old guard having made themselves afterthoughts (Terrell Owens, Randy Moss), there are few reputable and established players trending toward historic status that the league can lean on. Sure, there’s Tom Brady who is a superlative player, but his rock star status (super model wife, mega-mansion, etc.) make him a sort of aloof figure. There’s also Drew Brees, who became the darling of the NFL after the Saints’ emotional run through the playoffs in 2009 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans region. But as good as he’s been, Brees isn’t approaching any NFL all-time records that I know of. But if they're in need of a posterboy to help rebrand themselves with a positive image, the NFL does have one person it can turn to. Yep, you guessed it – Frank Stallone.

No, I'm talking about Peyton Manning, of course. Manning would be the perfect guy for the league to start promoting as everything estimable about the game.

Let’s start with the Cal Ripken stat: Manning has never missed a start in his 13 year NFL career, which puts him at 208 consecutive games (227 if you count playoff games). That’s still at a far cry from Favre’s 297 consecutive regular season starts, but way ahead of anyone else in the NFL (brother Eli has the second longest active streak for a QB at 103). At 89 games back, Manning would need to play about five and a half more seasons to catch up, assuming a full regular season schedule for the upcoming season, which would put him at age 41. If the lockout creates a shortened 2011 season, we’re looking at 42. That’s older-than-Brett Favre-old and a very slim chance, but not totally out of the realm of possibility since Manning has shown a remarkable talent for avoiding serious injury, aided by his ability to audible against the blitz and get rid of the ball quickly. Regardless, the games-played record is likely out of his reach, but the Ripken-esque I-show-up-to-my-job-everyday ethos is something the league can play up to offset the greedy owners/greedy players sentiment the lockout has begat.

Beyond character, there's also the fact that Manning is approaching a pretty rarefied stratosphere of NFL QBs. Manning is currently sitting on 399 TD passes. While that’s still quite a ways from Favre’s record of 508, it’s only 21 behind Dan Marino’s second place number of 420. Since Manning averages 30.7 TD passes per season (29.1 if you remove his outlier 2004 season where he tossed 49) it’s almost certain that, barring injury or an overly shortened schedule, Manning will surpass Marino in the upcoming season. It’s not quite a Ripken countdown that you can slap on the side of a warehouse, but it’s pretty impressive and something the league can talk up. Manning is also closing in on second place all-time in passing yards. Favre sits at the top of that mountain with 71,838 and Marino follows with 61,361. But at 54,828, Manning trails Marino by only 6,533. In his career, Manning has averaged 4,219 yards a season. If he hits exactly that average next season, Manning would finish at 59,047, leaving him 2,314 behind Marino, easily attainable the following year. There’s also the all-time record for pass completions with Favre at 6,300, Marino at 4,967, and Manning at 4,682. With an average of 360 completions a year, which he’s exceeded that last three years, Manning will easy reach the 286 he needs to pass Marino. Maybe not an accomplishment to throw a parade over, but again, still pretty impressive.

There’s also the off-the-field intangibles: Manning is infinitely likeable. From his 2003 Pro Bowl slam of Mike Vanderjagt to his series of Mastercard commercials, Manning's proven that he connect with fans through his charm and humor (and if you don't think Manning can be funny you haven't seen this). He’s a natural in front of the camera and comes off as smart, self-deprecating, a bit folksy, and genuinely affable. The guy's a marketing dream, which advertisers have taken advantage of for years. And he may ultimately end up being the face of the NFL, that is, if the league is smart enough to get that kind of value out of him in his remaining years. Fans all know who Manning is, but the post-lockout era might be the time to transform him from commercial pitchman to ambassador of the game. Put a sustained spotlight on him to keep him in the public eye; trump up his achievements; hell, make him mayor of somewhere -- it may be just the thing fans will likely need to get the fake beef lockout taste out of their mouths.