Football might be the ultimate team sport, but the NFL is dominated by larger-than-life talents -- those players who, through sheer force of skill and personality, seem able to single-handedly drive their squads. A player like that can become everything to his organization, defining its identity and dictating its fortunes. In other words, he becomes the face of the franchise. Of course, though, one man can carry the franchise torch for only so long, as time is a cruel thief. Eventually, the onus falls on someone else.
Looking ahead to the 2014 season, Bucky Brooks has identified the face of each franchise, along with a player waiting in the wings to potentially take up the mantle in the future. Below you'll find analysis for each NFC South team. Click here to access the homepage of this division-by-division series.
To the dismay of Cowboys fans around the country, Romo remains the face of the franchise despite his inability to come through in key moments. While his critics continue to point out his failures, Romo's supporters argue that he is the most productive passer in team history and has single-handedly carried a team that isn't nearly as talented as it appears. Jerry Jones' steadfast commitment to Romo -- even with his flaws and injuries -- means the Cowboys' star quarterback will remain the team's premier representative for the foreseeable future.
The temperamental pass catcher is arguably the Cowboys' most explosive offensive weapon. In addition, he is the spark plug to an offense that feasts off his production and emotional outbursts in big moments. Sure, some will question whether Bryant's volatile personality will ever allow him to be a respected leader in the locker room. But his combination of production and talent will undoubtedly elicit respect from teammates looking for someone to take charge on a storied franchise that's lost its way.
Whenever a quarterback produces Super Bowl rings, he automatically earns respect from his teammates and peers around the league. Thus, Manning's status as the Giants' franchise player is unquestioned in New York despite his perpetual turnover woes. The Pro Bowl passer led the NFL with 27 interceptions last year, marking the third time in his career that he has tossed at least 20 picks in a single season. Manning is often let off the hook for his mistake-prone game, with inured playmakers and an ill-fitting offensive scheme used as justification. But it's time for the former No. 1 overall pick to re-gain his form and take his game to another level. New coordinator Ben McAdoo's system should help, as it's better suited for the skills of the Giants' young, athletic receiving corps.
Sure, it's tough to think a 10-year veteran will be the next face of a franchise, but the Giants don't have an established young star waiting to take the role. Jason Pierre-Paul's been hurt and hasn't been playing at the same level as he did his first two seasons. Victor Cruz is solid, but his success is dependent on Manning.
Which leads us to Rolle. The Pro Bowl selection has become the defensive leader of the G-Men by being a consistent performer in the backend. He led the team in tackles one season ago while also notching six interceptions and two sacks. Those numbers jump off the stat sheet at first glance, but it's the on-field impact that truly allows him to be the vocal leader on the defensive side of the ball. With Rolle continuing to impress his teammates with his versatility, playmaking and performance, the wily veteran will continue to serve as one of Coughlin's key lieutenants in New York.
At a time when running backs are seemingly devalued around the league, McCoy is unquestionably the Eagles' most important player. The NFL's reigning rushing leader sets the tone for Chip Kelly's offense with his electric running style, exhibiting exceptional quickness and burst between the tackles. Most important, McCoy is an explosive threat capable of consistently topping the 100-yard mark when given a reasonable workload (seven 100-yard games, including six contests with at least 130 rushing yards in 2013). Given Kelly's desire to punish opponents with an unconventional running game from spread formations, the Eagles' offensive success begins and ends with McCoy.
Quarterbacks are quickly thrust into the spotlight when they perform at a high level in the NFL. It's not a surprise then that just one year after posting a 119.2 passer rating and a 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Foles has entered the conversation as a potential elite quarterback. While critics wonder if he's simply a "one-year wonder" after his sensational run last season, the Eagles believe they have discovered their quarterback of the future. If the third-year pro can prove that his remarkable play is sustainable, he will soon have a blockbuster contract solidifying him as the team's franchise player.
When the Redskins mortgaged the farm to land RGIII in the 2012 NFL Draft, there was no doubt he would immediately become the face of the franchise in Washington. Griffin affirmed his status as the franchise player by guiding the team to a division title, then winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Although a disappointing sophomore season -- caused in part by a lengthy recovery from a torn ACL suffered in the 2013 playoffs -- has led to questions about his leadership skills and overall ability, Griffin is poised to reclaim the franchise player mantle under new head coach Jay Gruden. If the savvy offensive coach can design a system to help his young quarterback get back on track, Griffin could even re-emerge as one of the faces of the NFL in 2014.
Although Hall is entering his 11th season, he has quietly become one of the team's biggest leaders. The elder statesman in the Redskins' secondary has played at an exceptionally high level for the team throughout his tenure in Washington, while also exhibiting the work ethic, savvy and toughness that teammates respect in a leader. With Hall still producing on the field (four of his 43 career interceptions came in 2013), the veteran still has the clout to command the locker room when needed.