Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there’s not much more I need add about Barbara Walters.
Yes, Barbara Walters.
In honor of her annual 10 Most Fascinating People selections, I’m doing the same from an NFL standpoint. But rather than list entertainers and politicians, I’m sticking with those who have made a significant impact on the league in 2010.
1. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick
It isn’t hyperbole to say this is the greatest redemption story in NFL history and possibly all of professional sports. Vick’s comeback from a 19-month prison sentence began in 2009 but didn’t truly get rolling until the first game of the regular season against Green Bay.
Vick was so spectacular replacing the injured Kevin Kolb that he wrested the starting job from coach Andy Reid’s handpicked replacement for Donovan McNabb. Among Vick’s 2010 highlights was one of the greatest single-game performances for a quarterback in league history. He accounted for six touchdowns and 413 combined rushing and passing yards in a 59-28 blowout of Washington.
With his speed back to pre-arrest levels and his throwing accuracy much improved, Vick has reestablished himself as the NFL’s most exciting player.
And besides an off-field hiccup at a birthday party celebration gone awry during the offseason, Vick has stayed away from trouble as he tries to rebuild a reputation marred by his dogfighting past. He keeps in regular communication with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and can even count President Obama as a fan. Only one more achievement is needed to complete this storybook comeback: a Super Bowl ring.
2. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre
The beating he took in last January’s heartbreaking NFC Championship Game overtime loss to New Orleans was nothing compared to the abuse he suffered both on and off the field after deciding to emerge from retirement (again). The injuries that Favre battled all season finally took enough of a toll to end his NFL-record string of consecutive regular-season starts at 297 games.
As the Vikings went down the tubes, so did Favre’s reputation when Deadspin.com posted messages and graphic photographs that the married 41-year-old had allegedly sent to media personality Jenn Sterger while both were with the New York Jets. If all this wasn’t enough to permanently send Favre out to pasture in 2011, nothing will.
3. Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow
No player in NFL draft history faced more scrutiny than this 2007 Heisman Trophy winner. The quirks in his throwing motion and lack of experience in a pro-style offense at the University of Florida made him the draft’s biggest enigma. But a combination of upside, intangibles and leadership skills led to his being the No. 25 overall pick by Denver. Ironically, the head coach who showed such faith in Tebow (Josh McDaniels) was fired before the rookie made his first start in Week 15.
The uber-religious Tebow also created some off-field controversy by participating in a commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLIV. Tebow, though, is proving to have far more supporters than detractors. He sold more jerseys in 2010 than any other NFL player.
4. New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan
His initials couldn’t be more appropriate. Ryan earned an R-rating by flipping off a fan at a mixed martial arts event, spewing profanities throughout HBO’s “Hard Knocks” preseason series and possibly serving as the cameraman for one of the foot-fetish videos his wife uploaded to the Internet.
But while Ryan’s antics would make even his salty father, Buddy, blush, Jets players swear by their leader — and understandably so. Ryan has guided New York to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with a style all his own.
5. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
It’s hard to pick what’s prettier: Brady’s flowing locks, supermodel wife (Gisele Bundchen) or on-field performance. Brady set one of the NFL’s most impressive records last Sunday against Buffalo by extending his streak of passes without an interception to 319.
Brady adroitly adjusted to the midseason trade of wide receiver Randy Moss and has New England (13-2) rolling into the playoffs as the league’s clear-cut Super Bowl favorite. A second career NFL Most Valuable Player honor is in the offing. And he got a new five-year, $78.5 million contract to boot. Feel free to envy.
6. Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb
No player is waiting for Jan. 1 more than McNabb. That’s because next year can’t get any worse than what he experienced in 2010. After leading Philadelphia to an eighth playoff appearance in 10 seasons, Eagles brass felt he had peaked and decided to cut ties. Adding insult to injury, Philadelphia traded him within the NFC East to Washington.
Amazingly, the subsequent difficulties McNabb would have with the Shanahans (head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle) make defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth’s relationship with the team seem buddy-buddy in comparison. McNabb recently slid down the depth chart from unquestioned starter and team leader to third string behind Rex Grossman — Rex Grossman! — and journeyman John Beck.
The fact McNabb signed a contract extension during the season when problems were festering makes the situation even more bizarre. McNabb is assuredly a goner during the offseason. The question now is what team will have interest in a 34-year-old whose skills are diminishing at a rapid rate.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison
He became Public Enemy No. 1 as the NFL began its concussion crackdown on blows to the head. Harrison didn’t just draw $125,000 in fines. His outspoken opposition to the NFL’s hard-line stance and critique of questionable calls during Steelers games triggered nationwide debate about player safety, the shaky state of officiating and the direction the game is headed.
To his credit, the controversy hasn’t affected Harrison’s status as one of the best defenders on one of the NFL’s top units.
8. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees
He won Super Bowl XLIV MVP honors and is enjoying another outstanding season in 2010. Brees, though, is just as celebrated for his off-field work. He has played such an integral part in the rebuilding of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans through his charity efforts that Brees received man-of-the-year awards from The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated.
9. Tennessee Titans wide receiver Randy Moss
He actually makes Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco seem well-adjusted. Concerns that Moss would become a locker-room cancer when not given a contract extension by New England led to his being traded to Minnesota in October. Moss rankled then-head coach Brad Childress so much the receiver was cut less than a month after his arrival. Moss was claimed off waivers by Tennessee, where he has entered NFL purgatory.
One of the most dangerous deep threats in league history doesn’t have a catch the past three games while mired in a reserve role. At age 33 and with a lousy reputation, Moss not only faces an uncertain NFL future. He also will be watching from home as New England embarks on a postseason run that could end with the Super Bowl victory Moss has never enjoyed.
10. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
The NFL has never enjoyed as much financial prosperity, but such success hasn’t come easy. Goodell has worked tirelessly to maintain the league’s popularity while making decisions in 2010 that weren’t popular with everyone. Among them were Goodell’s successful push to award a winter-weather site (New Jersey) an outdoor Super Bowl in 2014, an overtime rule change for the playoffs and rules enforcement that defensive players believe is too strict even for safety’s sake.
But all that is child’s play compared to the challenge Goodell is about the face: striking a new labor deal with the NFL Players Association before a work stoppage is set to begin March 4.
If both sides don’t finalize a collective-bargaining agreement and the discord lasts for too long, not even Barbara Walters could salvage a list of the NFL’s 10 most fascinating people for 2011. That’s because there won’t be any games being played.