NFL Heroes: All the Humans (and Machines) That Make Football Great

It’s August. Hard Knocks came back last week. Preseason football is happening almost every night now. It’s time. Slap on some eye black and start mainlining over-the-counter adrenaline boosters that probably shouldn’t be legal. Football is here.

To prepare, I’m writing about all my favorite humans in this crazy-ass sport. There are all kinds of people who make it more complicated to love the NFL in the 21st century, but today we focus on the guys who make it simple. The heroes who remind us of everything that’s always been awesome about football, even when the league itself drives us insane.

Should we start? Let’s start.

The list begins in Houston.

Click here for more from our 2014 NFL preview.

J.J. Watt

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That Mays profile changed everything here. I always knew J.J. Watt was good, but so are a lot of different linemen, and they’re still linemen, so it’s tough to get too excited. The key difference with Watt is that he’s certifiably insane. From Mays’s profile:

“When it comes down to that moment,” Watt says, “when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough. You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know — and so do I.”

Jesus.

That quote actually makes me feel like less of a man.

J.J. Watt knows I didn’t work hard enough — and so do I.

More:

Watt has never been quick to make friends. “He’s not the type of person who meets someone and after two weeks says, ‘This guy’s my buddy,’” John says. “It takes a while to get close to J.J.” The week after Memorial Day, they noticed the remnants of a party from the weekend. There’s a hint of relief in John’s voice as he remembers it. “I barely know one person outside of the organization,” Watt says.

More:

He’s tried dating, but it tends to end the same way, with him admitting he can’t give a relationship the time and focus it deserves. “For me, it’s kind of what I need. It’s hard to understand the life that I live and rationalize some of the things that I do. I don’t need someone questioning every move that I make, asking me why I don’t just relax. When there’s no one asking me those types of questions … to me, it’s peaceful.”

Look: No friends is one thing, but even Navy SEALs have wives. Even Barack Obama has a wife. Even Mark Wahlberg in Shooter, he drives off with Kate Mara in the end. But not J.J. Watt. There is no Kate Mara in this movie. There is barely anyone outside the organization. His only mission in life is to turn his body into a quarterback-killing machine — and then to go kill quarterbacks.

I’m not sure if that’s actually cool, but it’s definitely terrifying.

Watt is here for purposes of sheer awe, then. Awe and terror. That’s what football’s all about, right? J.J. Watt is football.

Err … wait. He’s one part of football.

Cordarrelle Patterson

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings

What actually makes this sport great is that it’s a game full of J.J. Watts AND Cordarrelle Pattersons. And someone like Patterson (three inches shorter than Watt, 70 pounds lighter) can be just as deadly.

We could also include Tavon Austin here, or Randall Cobb, or DeSean Jackson, or the Rookie Punt Return Artist known as DAT, or a handful of other guys whose sole role on a football team is to just be faster than everyone on the field and embarrass defenses. These are the guys who make the RedZone channel great — basically anyone who compels sportswriters to reach for the word “electrifying” to describe them. These are also the guys who look like they should get broken in half every time they set foot on the field, which makes it that much more incredible when they explode past everyone.

Anyway, all these players are awesome, but Patterson’s the choice here because he’s a little bit under the radar, and maybe more exciting than any of them. Also, he might even have a quarterback this year.

Teddy Bridgewater

I had totally forgotten Teddy Bridgewater was in the NFL until Chris Ryan emailed me a couple weeks ago.

On draft night, everyone spent so much time in shock over the Blake Bortles pick and the Johnny Manziel free fall that we forgot to notice when Bridgewater landed in what might the best possible situation for him.

He can play right away, he’s inheriting a team that’s not that far from competing with everyone, especially on offense, and he’ll have Adrian Peterson to lean on, plus Patterson and Greg Jennings in the passing game. Of course, all this goes out the window if Mike Zimmer decides to stick with Christian Ponder or roll with Matt Cassel.

But if Teddy Bridgewater wins the job? Why can’t the Vikings shock the world and steal a playoff spot? This is a team that played the last few years platooning Ponder, Donovan McNabb, Joe Webb, Sage Rosenfels, and even Josh Freeman at one point last year (who gave us one of the most disastrous Monday Night Football performances we’ve ever seen). Give that team a decent quarterback, and it has to get a lot better, right? Let’s just say yes. Walk with me. Follow Teddy Bridgewater. Whether he’s great or horrible, at least Vikings games (and seasons) aren’t a foregone conclusion anymore.

The Defenses of the NFC West

The NFL seems to tweak the rules every year to make life a little easier for offenses, and it’s given way to an era when, in any given week, a third of the league can look like the Peyton Manning–era Colts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for someone like me, who hates change, there are times when it’s a little frustrating to see nine different quarterbacks throw for more than 4,000 yards, including 37-year-old Manning going for 5,500 like it’s nothing. It’s cool when one team puts up arena league–type numbers, but not necessarily when it happens all over the league.

Anyway, in case you have any of your own hot-take fears of the league someday turning into one, long extension of the Pro Bowl, look west and take solace. The NFC West is where defenses still maul the shit out of people on a weekly basis.

Kam Chancellor almost killed Wes Welker in the Super Bowl. The Rams have Chris Long, Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, and Michael Brockers on the defensive line — a quartet so ridiculous that it may not even matter that Sam Bradford’s still terrible. The Cardinals have Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett up front, and Patrick Peterson locking down the secondary. The Seahawks and 49ers have everyone, everywhere on defense, just like the last two years.

The hitting in the Seattle–San Francisco NFC Championship Game last year brought out a side of me I didn’t know still existed. Everyone on the field was destroying each other for 60 minutes, and it wasn’t about enjoying football in spite of the brutality, but specifically because of it. That game gave me an adrenaline rush, just sitting in my living room.

Actually, Darnell Dockett sums things up perfectly:

Matt Stafford

Not actually one of the heroes, but when I wrote the notes for this a few days ago, for some reason I put down: “Matt Stafford, get your shit together.” He won’t, but he should.

Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery

I have a folder on my computer full of random artifacts from the Internet that need to be preserved forever. One of those artifacts is this GIF of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall:

Cutler and Marshall

Watching that for five minutes is the perfect way to brighten any day. Nothing else matters when you remember what true love looks like.

Cutler is great for a variety reasons. He’s so thoroughly committed to his brand (brand = “uninterested shithead”) that you can’t help but love him for it. Every time Cutler slumps his shoulders in disgust after an interception, it’s just as beautiful as that Cutler and Marshall GIF above.

Meanwhile, Marshall has always been one of the better receivers in football, but off the field he’s overcome mental health issues and turned into the most prominent mental health advocate in a sport that desperately needs more mental health advocates.

Then you factor in former fat kid Alshon Jeffery — “For Bears’ Alshon Jeffery, fat was then, this is now” — turning into one of the most explosive receivers in football, riding cornerbacks into the end zone … The Bears always find a way to screw things up, but I will ride for this nucleus forever.

Chip Kelly

CHUMP KELLY IS BACK. Nothing will ever match the first half of the Washington Monday-night game last year, but, damn it, Chip Kelly’s going to try, and that’s why we’ll love him forever. Also, he showed up to training camp this year playing “Return of the Mack” for the first practice back. Long live the king.

Eli Manning

Eli might be the single most enjoyable human in the NFL. Katie Baker has already documented his pranks, and his interception faces are probably a top-five reason to be on Twitter for NFL Sundays. But here’s the thing: Eli is never mediocre in big games. There’s no in-between for him. He’s either a great big mushroom cloud of suck, or he turns into a god and delivers perfect strikes in clutch moments to ruin Bill Belichick’s whole year. In either scenario, everybody wins. If you ever find yourself wondering whether you should like Eli Manning, just remember how much Patriots and Eagles fans hate him, and there’s your answer.

Internet Commenters

You can either despise the way people talk about football on the Internet — soulless, ruthless, a little racist, and borderline illiterate — and root for this game to die, or you can understand what’s wrong with it and savor the special little wormhole of #TRUTH we get while it’s still here. I’m in the second group. PFT Commenter is the best part of the Football Internet, and actual Pro Football Talk commenters are even better. I didn’t feel like it was really football season until I was reading commenters shit all over Cam Newton:

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These people are the ultimate truth warriors. Patrolling the night, demanding professionalism. They stand watch for the rest of us. It’s so good to have them back for another season.

Richard Sherman

Speaking of crazy things on the Internet … Kanye Pacific Northwest will be a hero forever. Let’s review what we’ve seen so far with Richard Sherman: He’s spent the past few years telling everyone he’s the best corner in the game because it would force them to watch him, then it worked and everybody watched him, and he played like the best corner in the game. Then he got paid like the best corner in the game. You can hate the tactics, but nobody can argue with the results.

Actually, screw it, I love the tactics, too. I’ve loved the tactics ever since the email to his dorm at Stanford. Ever since he harassed Tom Brady. Shit-talking in the NFL makes everything more entertaining. All athletes should declare war on Michael Crabtree and spend offseasons tweeting pictures of their Super Bowl trophies at angry fans. If that weren’t enough, just about everything he’s said in public since the NFC Championship Game has been more intelligent and more interesting than 98 percent of what we get from the rest of sports. Long live Richard Sherman.

NFL Films

Would you pay for a channel that showed only old NFL Films movies and old episodes of Hard Knocks and various miked-up segments from the last 50 years? That’s what the NFL Network could theoretically be, but that’s not what it actually is. That’s not what Roger Goodell wanted when he deemphasized NFL Films’ role in the NFL Network a few years ago. Now they’re discussing actual football news on there 365 days year, and that actually makes me like football less.

NFL Films is the polar opposite. They make the game look and sound 100 times cooler than some debate about whether Philip Rivers can bring the Chargers back to the playoffs this year.

So if the NFL is the most powerful league on earth, why can’t it just make an extra channel for everyone?

The NFL Network can stay exactly the same, and then we can also have an NFL Films channel dedicated to showing old specials, old games, and documentaries all year. There’s almost nothing on television for the entire summer. I would watch Warpath! The Story of the 1987 Washington Redskins in a second if it were on television in July and August.

Whether it’s Hard Knocks, A Football Life, 30-year-old movies, or just random miked-up segments, all the NFL Films stuff is so much more fun than the forced debates that engulf this sport all year long. Most important, though, just make sure you skip to the 2:30 mark of that video for the opening song to the Skins movie.

Steve Smith

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Reminder that the Carolina Panthers inexplicably released real-life Rod Tidwell this past spring.

Reminder that he was asked about revenge afterward, and he said, “I want to make sure that whatever team I go to, they’re going to get the best, in-shape 35-year-old guy they can get. If that happens to run through Bank of America Stadium, put your goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”

Reminder that Steve Smith signed with the Ravens.

Reminder that Ravens-Panthers happens on September 28. That game will be in Baltimore, not Carolina. But still.

Blood and guts EVERYWHERE.

Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas

In a league full of guys who have given their whole life to football, there are a handful of players who ignored it to play basketball, then turned 22, realized they weren’t making the NBA, and said, “OK, cool, I’ll give football a shot.” And they were AWESOME.

This will never stop being great. Tony Gonzalez doesn’t count because he was always a football player first. Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas are the standard-bearers here, with Jordan Cameron poised to join them (although he played three years at USC). More than anything, the biggest reason I love these guys is because their success is proof this game isn’t always as complicated as some people make it sound. If you’ve got a player who’s bigger and faster and can outjump everyone, good things will happen. Whether it’s watching Thomas climb over helpless defensive backs or Graham streaking past safeties and linebackers, the lesson is clear: LeBron James would’ve been the greatest NFL tight end of all time.

Until LeBron crosses over to play with Johnny Football, here’s to hoping Julius Thomas continues terrorizing people on fades this year, and Jimmy Graham unleashes hell on the league with 25 touchdowns, and dunks that football every goddamn time.

Rob Ryan

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints

Forget what I said about Eli Manning. Rob Ryan is without question the most enjoyable man in football. (That guy on the right is no. 2.)

Johnny Manziel

I just can’t get over the Money Phone. It’s such an important cultural document. I will never get over the Money Phone.

Manziel is tough to talk about, because anyone who embraces his whole persona comes off like a fratty douchebag, and anyone who lectures him about it comes off like an uptight moron. Nobody has any idea how he’ll actually play in the NFL, so we’ve just been having the same arguments for going on 18 months now. But just forget for a second whether we should be rooting for Johnny Goofball.

It comes down to a few questions:

• Outside anyone on your favorite team, what player are you most excited to watch this preseason?

• If you’re with friends and choosing between watching Jadeveon Clowney in Houston, Blake Bortles in Jacksonville, Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota, or Johnny Manziel in Cleveland, who wins?

• If RedZone cuts to a Browns game when Johnny Manziel takes the field on opening weekend, is there any way you change the channel until the drive’s over?

• When else in your entire life has watching a Browns game sounded appealing?

The answers are pretty clear here. Love him or hate him, everybody will watch. He’s Evil Tebow, but without the moralizing undertones that turn football into some second frontier in the culture war. He makes the whole league more fun, and more fun to argue about, and I love him for it. Now, let’s all go watch some Cleveland Browns football and find out what happens next.

LeSean McCoy

Maybe he’s not the best running back in football, but he’s definitely the most entertaining. Actually, maybe he is the best. The highest compliment you can give LeSean McCoy is that nothing really does this justice.

This happens in NBA all the time. Players are so hypnotizing that it turns into a contest to see who can come up with the most ridiculous descriptions. Someone like Russell Westbrook — he’s Point Godzilla, he plays like he’s pissed off at the universe, he bounces off people like it’s Mario Kart and he got the star, he’s a kamikaze pilot throwing himself at the rim, his celebrations could power entire civilizations, he’s a religion — forces everyone to use their imagination. It’s not enough just to say he’s good, because how he’s good is what makes him great. The NFL doesn’t really have those players. It’s just not how we talk about football. The end result is the only thing that matters.

LeSean McCoy is the exception. The same way Randy Moss was in his early years, the same way Barry Sanders always was. Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson probably count here also, but even with those guys, the first thing you use to describe them are their stats.

Shady’s the guy whose stats — 2,100 all-purpose yards, 11 touchdowns, last season — don’t tell the whole story. What he does isn’t half as cool as how he does it. Talking about 2,000 yards misses the point. And that’s what makes him great.

Bam Bam Kam

We already mentioned the NFC West. I know. But:

1. Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor, possibly the most vicious tackler in the league, believes he is going to hit players harder this season than ever before in his career. “I’m 100 percent and it’s kind of scary, literally,” Chancellor said Tuesday on 710 ESPN Seattle.

2. “I do live in a dark place,” Chancellor said. “People don’t know it because I smile a lot, but anytime I’m on the field, I’m in a dark place.”

3. “I look at myself as a machine,” Chancellor said. “And the machine has to get back on the field to perform with his troops and do battle.”

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The machine has to get back on the field to perform with his troops.

I don’t know if that’s how machines work, but just go with it. Let’s all go to that dark place with Kam Chancellor. Football is here.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Richard Sherman, LeSean McCoy, J.J. Watt, Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles

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Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp