The tipping point might have come this summer, when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, one year after opening an opulent, $1.2 billion stadium that will host this season's Super Bowl, surfaced playing himself in a recurring role in Entourage, the cameo-heavy HBO series in which another regular guest star is extroverted Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (and yet another is a porn actress). Or perhaps it was when Jets coach Rex Ryan virtually hijacked HBO's sixth season of Hard Knocks, adding "Let's go eat a goddam snack" to the lexicon of football history, alongside Vince Lombardi's "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," and Hank Stram's "65 Toss-Power Trap!"
Maybe it was in July, when the Bengals (Hard Knocks, 2009) signed Owens to join Ochocinco after having added notorious defensive back Adam (Pacman) Jones to the roster in May. The Ocho Division would also have to include not just the Cowboys but also the Redskins, who are strongly defined by quick-trigger billionaire owner Daniel Snyder's fits of petulance. And you can throw in the Raiders, who, though a pale imitation of John Madden's misfits on the field, haven't lost their flair for melodrama.
The Welker Division would include, most prominently, a group of teams coached by Bill Parcells's protégés, including the Patriots (Belichick), Giants (Tom Coughlin) and Browns (Eric Mangini), from which information escapes the compound at a trickle and there is little or no effort at creative public interaction. The Steelers and the Colts, staid and traditional NFL franchises, would also fall into that category. "Even though [Colts QB Peyton Manning] is in more commercials than any other player in the league and I can't even think who would be second," says pop culture author and essayist Chuck Klosterman. "But all the ads he does feed into the idea that he's a player who fits the way people perceive players from the 1970s."
Brady may have even more of the trappings of celebrity than Manning. Brady married a Brazilian supermodel, has appeared on Entourage and The Simpsons, hosted Saturday Night Live and pitches high-end products such as Movado watches and Audi cars. Yet despite all that, there is no sense that he is pushing himself on the public, and fans see very little of Brady's private life beyond what the paparazzi can capture. Last Thursday he agreed to the contract extension that will reportedly pay him a guaranteed $48.5 million, shortly after he emerged uninjured from an accident in which his Audi S8 was struck by a minivan near his Boston apartment. His cool performance on the back end of the week was typical Brady, and typical New England.
Even in a changing universe of behavior, it was Ryan's performance in Hard Knocks that established a new level of NFL personality. The Jets' edition was the highest rated in the series' history, and Ryan—unfiltered, profane and passionate—towered over everyone and everything else on the show. "As we're preparing to do Hard Knocks," says HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, "I look at the head coach as the lead actor in a series. We've had Brian Billick [of the Ravens in 2001], Herm Edwards [Chiefs, 2007], guys like that. Rex has just captured the lead actor award for the history of the series, and we knew that would happen."
Jones, whose Cowboys (Hard Knocks, 2002, '08) suffered a painful NFC East loss at Washington on Sunday night, was big long before Ryan. For at least a decade he's been the most recognizable owner in a league in which many of his peers hide in their offices for the work week and behind the plexiglass of their luxury suites on Sunday. But Jones sees himself as only building on the business plan installed by Tex Schramm in Dallas in the 1970s. "The Cowboys, in my mind, have always had a glitz about them," he says. "That's not an accident; it's deliberate. Can that lead to a polarizing effect, where people don't like everything about us? Absolutely. But that can be very positive for the franchise as a whole. And it has been."
Billick, whose team was coming off a Super Bowl win in that first Hard Knocks, and who was accused of dominating the show with his ego, says of Jones, "It's a reprise of the old good news, bad news, doesn't matter, just spell my name right. There are people who would argue that Dallas is at the center of the football world, yet it's not a [big] market like New York or Chicago. Jerry has been very successful at the game."
In the eyes of the league, the polarization created by oversized personalities is neither accidental nor undesirable. "The goal is to have 32 strong clubs," says commissioner Roger Goodell. "That includes developing a brand and an identity for each of the franchises. There's something for everybody. And sometimes in there you do get the old issue of good versus evil." In this case, of course, good versus evil is not used literally but rather as the default description of polar opposites. There's no suggestion that Rex Ryan is sinister—it's just that he may not be universally loved.
And conflict sells, especially in the nationally televised games on Sunday night (NBC), Monday night (ESPN) and, later in the season, Thursday night (NFL Network), when themes are broader than in the regional Sunday telecasts. "There's no question that you would rather have those polarizing figures in your games," says Jay Rothman, lead producer for Monday Night Football on ESPN. "There's more controversy, more intrigue, more oddballs watching because they don't like Ochocinco or T.O. and they want to see them get jacked up. There's a built-in love-hate factor, and truthfully those games are easier. The story lines fall into your lap. Those games rate. And every broadcasting partner wants them."
Klosterman, who has lived in numerous cities, never found himself embracing the local franchise. Until now. "I've been in New York for eight years, and this is by far the most I've been interested in the Jets," he says. "I know I've been affected by Hard Knocks."