The emergence of outsized personalities like Ryan and the running themes of good and evil could be nudging the NFL toward professional wrestling territory. Except for one very central distinction: The outcome isn't fixed. "The good guy isn't going to win [just] because he's good," says Klosterman. "The charismatic manifestations give people a way to think about football when the games aren't on, but they aren't going to help you win."
There is evidence to suggest that those polarizing qualities aren't much use on Sunday and Monday. The Steelers, whose style generally reflects their historically utilitarian city, have won two of the last five Super Bowls (although quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's unraveling has clearly damaged the team's family-friendly image). The Patriots have played in four of the last nine Super Bowls and won three; the Colts won the title four years ago and the Giants the year after that. All those teams are vigorously conservative in their public image. "In some ways your circumstances are going to dictate how you behave," says Billick. "The Jets have always been the poor stepchild to the Giants. So they put themselves out there. The Patriots have three Super Bowl trophies in their pocket, so nobody will grumble about the way they do things."
Baltimore won the title in the 2000 season with a team full of characters led by the demonstrative, controversial Ray Lewis, the last contrarian franchise to lift the Lombardi Trophy. The Jets played for the AFC title a year ago. "I don't think there's any one way to be successful," says Goodell. "And I think fans grasp that."
When it comes to players as big personalities, former Chiefs and Jets coach Edwards says, "You have to keep the chain of command in place. There's Twitter now. There's Facebook. There's reality television. Football players have opportunities to promote themselves that they've never had before. But you've got to make the players understand that it's not you and the team, separately. It's just the team. If the team is losing and you've got guys out there, you're going to have to reel them in."
Says Jones, "I've never seen the promotion of the team negatively impact the quality of play." And despite his ubiquitous presence in the mainstream, he says, "I spend five percent of my time on marketing and 95 percent on managing the team."
The 2010 Jets would appear to be the control group in this ongoing experiment. If they win big after going all-in on Hard Knocks, other teams might be more compelled to join the act and follow the nontraditional path in general. A year ago, says Greenburg, HBO was approached by the Texans and owner Robert McNair, the first time an NFL team had sought to be on the series.
"At that point we were too far down the road with the Jets," says Greenburg. "But I think the series has done a lot to dispel the old notion of the No Fun League. Times are changing quickly. I won't be surprised if we get a few calls this year from teams that would like to be on the show. And I think it's only a matter of time before one of the real old, traditional franchises agrees to do it."
On the first play of Sunday's game, Owens ran a go pattern down the left sideline and nearly plucked the ball off the back of rookie cornerback Devin McCourty for a terrific catch. When Owens's name was announced as the intended receiver, the crowd booed loudly. On Cincinnati's next series Carson Palmer completed a short pass to Ochocinco, and Patriots fans jumped on the mention of that receiver too. Between them, the two wideouts, who call themselves Batman and Robin, caught 19 passes for 212 yards and were booed while other Bengals were just ignored.
But if this was at least in part a reaction to the would-be Dynamic Duo's philosophical distance from the team-first Patriots, New England fans will be challenged to decide their future treatment of Randy Moss, who on Sunday took the occasion of an uplifting, season-opening win to vent his frustration at the lack of a new contract. "This probably will be my last year here as a Patriot," Moss said near the end of his 551-word opening diatribe, "and I'm not retiring." His rant could not have been more horribly timed and his behavior more at odds with Belichick's locker room doctrine.
At the same time, Ryan's Jets were being investigated by the NFL for reported harassment of Ines Sainz, a female reporter for Mexican network TV Azteca. It's fair to ask if the coach's irreverence, however endearing, leads to an atmosphere in which the lines of appropriateness are blurred.