NFL Mirror Images

Same Game, Different Name

By Mike Tanier | Artwork by Tyson Beck

November 30, 2016

Adrian Peterson and Jim Brown

No one will ever dominate the NFL the way Jim Brown did. But Peterson dominates the league in his own way. Peterson’s rugged rushing style harkens back to Brown’s glory days; when he batters the defense 25 times per game, it feels like 1963 all over again. Yet Peterson’s most Brown-like qualities are his perseverance and almost superhuman durability. Brown remains an outspoken, indomitable presence decades after he left the field. Peterson will become the same … if he ever leaves the field.

Russell Wilson and Fran Tarkenton

Every big play these hard-nosed, pint-sized freewheelers produced looked like it was drawn up in the dirt—and then kicked away as they escaped a collapsing pocket. A pair of undersized overachievers who could have been overshadowed by their Legion of Boom and Purple People Eater defenses, Wilson and Tarkenton instead carved out their own reputations. Tarkenton was a determined leader and jazzy improviser on the field, a compelling media personality off it. Wilson has taken all of those things to a new level, winning the Super Bowl that eluded Tarkenton to boot.

Von Miller and Derrick Thomas

A high sack total can actually obscure a defender’s overall impact. Miller, like Thomas before him, is a relentless force off the edge on every single down. But he is also a disruptive run defender, a passionate competitor and a dedicated leader in the locker room. Like Thomas, Miller is as committed to his community as he is remorseless when closing on a quarterback. D.T. left us too soon, but his legacy lives on in Miller, who modeled his entire game—right down to the 58 on his jersey—on Thomas. 


Odell Beckham Jr. and Lynn Swann

Beauty is as fundamental to football as brutality, style as essential as savagery. Swann brought acrobatic grace to the trench warfare of '70s football with his balletic leaps and jaw-dropping catches. Beckham has reimagined the circus catch for the CGI era, leaping, pirouetting and snatching footballs from the air as if the rules of physics do not apply to him. Neither Swann nor Beckham is the guy you want clashing with safeties in the middle of the field for tough first downs; they’re the ones you want soaring above the fray, scoring touchdowns that will be remembered forever. 

Rob Gronkowski and Kellen Winslow Sr.

Winslow made playing tight end sexy. He was the most dangerous piece on the chessboard, lining up anywhere and threatening the defense vertically and horizontally. Gronk is the next stage of tight end evolution: lining up where you least expect him, exploiting mismatches against whomever he faces. Gronk downshifts into blocker mode better than Winslow did, and his playful personality masks a fiery competitive streak, but no one who watched an exhausted Winslow get dragged off the field after his 166-yard, two-TD playoff masterpiece in 1982 ever dared to question his competitiveness. 

Cam Newton and John Elway

Forget late-'90s Elway, the grizzled old field marshal, or 2016 Elway, the cagey exec. Think instead of late-'80s Elway: the rifle-armed, fleet-footed athletic marvel who was also brash and susceptible to Super Bowl pummelings at the end of heroic regular seasons. Elway was accused of acting “bigger than the game” early in his career; later, he proved that he was big enough to carry his franchise into a golden age. Newton carries similar weight on his shoulders. So far, he’s doing it with style and a smile.

J.J. Watt and Reggie White

On the field, they redefined their positions and gave opposing quarterbacks nightmares. Off the field, each inspired a generation and captured the imagination of a nation. Like The Minister of Defense before him, Watt can attack inside or outside, defeating blockers with overwhelming power, subtle technique or cunning—or all three on one snap. The Minister also had a fun-loving streak as wide and deep as his talent and faith. If selfies were a thing in the '80s and '90s, White totally would have pretended to pose for a few with quarterbacks lying at his feet. 

Antonio Brown and Tim Brown

For both Browns, the story begins with incandescent talent. But it doesn’t end there. Tim Brown spent 16 years honing his craft, harnessing his breathtaking athleticism to become the complete package at wide receiver: reliable and precise short, capable of gliding past defenders who don’t respect him deep. Antonio Brown’s career started quietly—he wasn’t a collegiate superstar like Tim Brown—but he has grown into the NFL’s deadliest combination of talent and technique at wide receiver. Both Browns could do it all, and do it with flair.

Tyrann Mathieu and Rod Woodson

Woodson wasn’t like the other cornerbacks of the late '80s and early '90s. He blitzed like an elite pass-rusher. He tackled like a linebacker. He slid inside to thwart mismatches. Woodson became the early prototype for a role that the Honey Badger perfected: slot cornerback, the defender who does a little of everything. Woodson and Mathieu could have been typecast as stellar athletes who lacked a true position. Instead, each used talent, intelligence and tenacity to redefine their position.

Tom Brady and Otto Graham

The only true peer for Brady, who has won five league championships and reinvented the quarterback position, is Graham, who won SEVEN league championships and INVENTED the quarterback position. Before Graham, quarterbacks were “pivot men” who handed off and heaved lob-passes in primitive offenses. Pre-Brady quarterbacks will soon look pretty primitive, too, once the huddle is obsolete and ultra-precise short passing replaces “establishing the run," even at high school levels. Brady and Graham are more than champions and legends. They are revolutionaries, placing them in a class all their own.