Haven’t done what I’m about to do for a while, but I thought it might be fun and generate some good discussion.
Who are the 22 most influential NFL people in 2022? (I cheated. I did a bonus person, number 23.)
I tried to mix the business of the sport with the sport of the sport. They’re all in here: eight from the playing field (and a ninth player for a specific reason as the bonus person) six from the league office, two coaches, a media guru, a media kingmaker, four owners (one new, one reviled, two mega-men), 20 men, two women. There are surprises at numbers six and 10, but not surprises to me.
The landscape of the game is changing. I’m sorry that the eight players of 22 are all quarterbacks, but I tried to make an argument for Aaron Donald or Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill, but I couldn’t find it in my heart to put a Donald, say, in the 22 most significant figures of football in 2022. Quarterbacks rule. Argue with me: firstname.lastname@example.org will be the repository for your arguments.
Here is my list of the 22 most influential NFL people in 2022:
1. Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner
Throughout a tenure of major growth for the league—Goodell will mark 16 years in office on Sept. 1, nine months shy of predecessor Paul Tagliabue—the commissioner has survived storms, some of his own doing. He’s got three major ones coming this year: presiding over the presumed appeal of the presumed sanction to Cleveland quarterback Deshaun Watson; what do with the owner driving the Washington franchise into the ground, Daniel Snyder; and how to adjudicate the inter-owner brawl over who pays the $790-million bill in the settlement over the Rams relocation from St. Louis. Messes abound.
We had all assumed Goodell, 63, would be riding off into the sunset from the high-pressure gig by now. But he doesn’t really want to do anything else. Those who know him say he wants to stay in the job past the end of his current deal (March 2024). I’d expect an extension of three to four years in the not-too-distant future. But, I’m told, that extension will expire before the next CBA negotiations, so his successor, a total mystery right now, can have a couple of years to get used to the heat of the job.
2. Deshaun Watson, Cleveland quarterback
Watson will be more in the news for his legal troubles than his football exploits. It’s already happening, which was the easiest 2022 NFL prediction of this entire season to nail after Cleveland traded for him and signed him to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230-million contract. Jimmy Haslam will find that this contract—the biggest guaranteed contract in the 102-year history of professional football—may one day be the key to the Browns winning an NFL title. But for now, it’s the distraction that keeps on distracting. Two weeks ago it was a sordid HBO Real Sports story with two of the 22 women accusing him of sexual assault in civil suits. Last week, it was a 23rd woman coming forward to sue Watson, with graphic and quite disturbing charges about three encounters with the quarterback—which Watson’s lawyer denied.
It’s hard to imagine the NFL’s disciplinary process won’t result in a long suspension of Watson, or some suspension this year and perhaps more next year after the civil suits have been adjudicated. I am still amazed that Haslam showed so much faith in a man with 22 (now 23) women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
Last point: Some franchises with nowhere near the Haslam family fortune (Mike Brown’s Bengals and Dean Spanos’ Chargers) have quarterbacks who are months from negotiating huge contracts with young quarterbacks who have had Watson-type impact. The Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert deals could be nightmare contracts to negotiate, thanks to Haslam’s bizarre largesse.
3. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay quarterback
Behold the power of Brady:
• FOX will pay him $375 million for 10 years as a broadcaster and ambassador when he retires, per Andrew Marchand. Including this season, per Over The Cap, Brady’s total football earnings will be $317 million in 23 seasons. Life is weird.
• The NFL chose the Bucs to play the first league game ever in Germany this year, leading one NFL wag to tell me: “Brady in Germany will be like the Beatles coming to New York City.” An exaggeration of that half-century-old event, but I do expect some mayhem in Munich when Brady and the Bucs play Seattle on Nov. 13.
• When Brady retired last winter, the Bucs were the 15th-most-likely team to win the Super Bowl, per Vegas odds. When he un-retired, the Bucs moved to second.
• Brady’s “Man in the Arena” doc won the Sports Emmy in May for Outstanding Documentary Series.
• He is not washed. Brady did benefit from a 17th regular-season game last season, of course, but at 44, he led the NFL (by 302 yards) with 5,316 passing yards, his career best.
What does he do for an encore, at 45? The number of eyes on him to answer that question is why he’s such a significant person in the NFL in 2022.
4. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City quarterback
Surprised he’s this high, on a franchise that could have a different look without Tyreek Hill this year? Don’t be. Mahomes, in many ways, is the face of the NFL, the cool guy and electric player. My proof: Who did Amazon want for its historic debut game? Mahomes and Kansas City. What’s the Sunday night gem of the first month of NBC’s season? Mahomes at Tom Brady in Week 4. Starting in Week 1, 11 of KC’s first 13 games will be nationally televised: three on Sunday night, one on Thursday night, one on Monday night, and in late-window Sunday doubleheader games, four on CBS and two on FOX.
Obviously, even without Tyreek Hill, the NFL thinks: In Patrick We Trust. It’s a wise motto. The reports of Kansas City’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and will be as long as Mahomes plays quarterback there.
5. *Rob Walton, prospective Denver owner
*Bidding for the Broncos due this month. Walton, America’s 13th-richest person, is the favorite to win.
But whoever is declared the owner of the Broncos (likely by late August), the news will be that the projected $4.5-billion pricetag will be almost exactly double what David Tepper paid for the Carolina Panthers (an NFL-record $2.275-million) just four years ago. Even with an estimated $5-billion loss with the decline of Walton stock in the current American economic downturn, Rob Walton’s fortune is estimated by Forbes to be at least $60 billion. What makes him so attractive as an owner is not just his overall wealth but how liquid he is, meaning he’ll be able to address whatever issues come up in the running of a major sports franchise. The league could approve the winner’s bid in a special meeting before Labor Day.
Heady days for the Broncos, who have added quarterback Russell Wilson and imaginative coach Nathaniel Hackett this offseason. Could it be a rerun of the dawn of the Mike Shanahan-John Elway-Pat Bowlen era, beginning in 1995? In the first four years of that partnership, the Broncos won 47 games and two Super Bowls.
6. Marie Donoghue, Amazon VP/Global Sports Video
The thing about making a deal with a company the size of Amazon is whatever product they buy into won’t have a tight budget. Thursday night football games on Amazon, though hard to find for those (like me) of a certain age at first, will be 15 individual and well-hyped events. There will be an on-scene pre-game show every week, the premier production team in the game led by multiple-Emmy-winner Fred Gaudelli, the famous Al Michaels to legitimize the main TV team, at least one alternate broadcast team per week, and more of an emphasis on analytics than network games. “We think there’s an opportunity to innovate,” said Donoghue, who came from a big job at ESPN to lead Amazon’s world sports efforts.
And for those who wonder about Thursday night streaming games in sports bars, I’d expect a deal for the games to be in your watering holes to get made this summer, certainly in time for the Sept. 15 opener, Chargers at Kansas City. Amazon has a similar deal with sports pubs in the United Kingdom for their Premier League games.
7. Josh Allen, Buffalo quarterback
Allen’s here because he’s the quarterback on the best team in the league entering the season. The best test of a quarterback’s influence on a franchise is the TV schedule. In Allen’s rookie year, 2018, the moribund Bills played 15 games at 1 p.m. Sunday and one Monday night game. In Allen’s fifth year, 2022, the Bills have been booked for the season-opener at the Super Bowl champion Rams, two Monday night games, one Amazon Thursday game, a Thanksgiving Day game, a CBS doubleheader gem at Kansas City, and one of the best games on this year’s schedule: Green Bay at Buffalo, Sunday night, Week 8.
Allen’s out-front role with the Bills with the Buffalo supermarket shooting in May is an example of how he’s morphing from a lesser-known college player at Wyoming to a guy who’s ready for the bright lights of NFL stardom. Scoring 83 points in eight post-season quarters helps. The way the Bills ended the season was reminiscent of the Jim Kelly K-gun offense putting up 95 points in the division and conference title games in the 1990 playoffs. Now Allen will try to finish the job Kelly’s Bills never could, and we’ll be watching.
8. Sean McVay, L.A. Rams coach
It’s amazing, really, what McVay has accomplished in five years on the job in L.A. Regarded as an extremely risky hire by the Rams in 2017, he’s morphed into the front-facing guy for a team that’s gotten to two Super Bowls and won one. And at 36, he just got wooed by the networks for an analyst job before deciding to return as Rams coach. McVay’s influence goes beyond his coaching and cheerleading the team, and in tempting the networks; McVay and the Rams’ hierarchy have built this team in a different way than the traditional long-term, through-the-draft path. So they just won a Super Bowl, then didn’t have a draft pick in the top 100 of the ’22 draft. They’re fine with that.
We’ve seen boy wonders in all walks of life flame out and move on. But the Rams are going to be good to very good again, and coaches around the league will continue to look at the McVay offense. Four of his former Rams’ assistants are now head coaches in the league, and two more are offensive coordinators. McVay’s influence isn’t slowing down.
9. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay quarterback
I might have him too low here, particularly since he’s trying to become the first NFL player in a quarter-century to win a third straight MVP. (You guess right if you said predecessor Brett Favre was the last to accomplish it, in 1995-96-97.) But Rodgers has capped his 2020 and ’21 MVP seasons with highly disappointing playoff runs, both at Lambeau Field, and he will play this year without the best receiver in football, Davante Adams, who chose, essentially, to go play with old friend Derek Carr in Las Vegas instead of Rodgers. So there’s a bit of a weird vibe around Rodgers and the Packers this year.
Still, he is the league’s biggest lightning rod. I have never seen live-tweeting of a talk-show appearance happen with the intensity of Rodgers’ session with Pat McAfee after the unvaxxed Rodgers tested positive for Covid and missed a game last season. And this season, the team will rely on him more than ever to get two rookie receivers up to speed after the loss of Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Ironically, if the rookie combo of Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs produce and the Packers again win home-field in the NFC, Rodgers’ case for a third straight MVP would be strengthened.
10. Matthew Berry, fantasy football chieftain
Of course this looks like a weird name on the list. It’s not weird to me. Sources in mediaville tell me after becoming a fantasy institution at ESPN, Berry is likely to be on the market in the near future. He is the undisputed fantasy-football king in the media world, and that means even more now that legalized sports gambling puts such high value on quality tipsters like him.
Berry, if he comes free from ESPN, would be the free-agent of the year in NFL media, now that Adam Schefter has re-upped with ESPN. Berry could be used by one of the major networks for both fantasy and betting info (imagine his value on a prop bet for the over/under on Cooper Kupp receptions this year), he has a clever weekly column, and his podcast dominates the field. With 27 million downloads on his podcast last season (the most in fantasyland), he’s going to bring traffic with him wherever he goes.
Why’s he so high on the list? Because fantasy football is a huge element of the popularity of football. A 2021 poll by Morning Consult showed that 51.7 million people play season-long fantasy sports, while a Miami (Ohio) University poll shows that 96 percent of fantasy players play fantasy football. When 50 million people do something, and the most important person in that space might be available in the burgeoning sports media business, he’s an easy pick. He’ll be an interesting story to watch this summer.
11. Brian Rolapp, NFL EVP/media.
Even though the biggest deals for TV and media (11 years, $110 billion) got done last year, several big media things are on the docket this year for Rolapp. He’s got to honcho the league’s first-ever commitment on a prime-time package of games on Amazon Prime. The league is negotiating a long-term home for NFL Sunday Ticket, which is in its last year on DirecTV; Apple TV has been aggressive in the bidding, which could reach $2.5 billion per year.
Rolapp also has a bit of a headache on his hands: what to do with the NFL Media property, including NFL Network. The league, ideally, would like to keep majority ownership of NFL Media while farming out production and operation to one of the major networks that telecast the games. How much exactly is NFL Media worth? That’s the big question.
12. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati quarterback
In today’s sporting/social landscape, it’s almost as important to be groovy as it is to be good. And Joe Burrow is Joe Cool. In leading the formerly woebegone Bengals to the Super Bowl last year, Burrow not only become a top-tier quarterback but a major influencer. Or, as the New York Times said during the playoffs last February, “The Bengals quarterback has achieved a crossover appeal that has inspired Joe Namath comparisons.”
The reason why I think Burrow has shot to the top of NFL Q ratings is not only his ability and his Gen-Z-appealing fashion sense, but also his attitude. He really has some Namath in him, the ability to play like the ultimate tough guy and at the same time having an I-could-care-less-what-you-think-of-me attitude. He doesn’t get nervous or tight in big moments. And if his line could have blocked Aaron Donald down the stretch of Super Bowl LVI, he would have had the time to win it. Whether he’d have made the plays necessary to win, that would have been on him. But he just didn’t have enough time.
Burrow’s 25, a total team guy, coming off a 70.4-percent completion season in his first full year as a pro. He’s made an irrelevant franchise relevant in 25 months. What’s not to like?
13. Troy Vincent, NFL EVP/football operations
As the NFL’s point person on officiating, and on getting more minorities hired as head coaches, coordinators and GMs, Vincent has some pressure on him this year. Last season was just so-so for officiating. And until a late spurt at the end of the coach-hiring cycle, the progress particularly for Black coaches was lagging so much that one of the prime candidates, Brian Flores, sued the league over it.
Vincent is so passionate about boosting the prospects of Black coaches that at times he gets teary just talking about it. It’s no secret around the league that Vincent would love to succeed Goodell as commissioner one day, and the results of officiating and minority hires are big crucibles for him.
14. Daniel Snyder, Washington owner
The fact should not be dismissed that one owner told Jarrett Bell of USA Today prior to the May league meetings that votes on the fate of Snyder as Commanders’ owner were being counted. The dissatisfaction with Snyder and how he has run one of the league’s flagship franchises into the ground should not be minimized.
It’d be one thing if Snyder was just a bad owner, which he is. But the scandalous part of his ownership in a time of #MeToo threatens to drag the league into his mire. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform requested Snyder and Roger Goodell appear at a hearing June 22 in Washington as the committee investigates the team’s workplace for a “culture of harassment and abuse.”
As committee chair Carolyn Maloney of New York said, peevishly, in a statement: “The Committee has worked tirelessly to obtain critical information, including the findings of the internal investigation conducted by attorney Beth Wilkinson, only to be met with obstruction from the Commanders and the NFL at every turn.”
Since Snyder purchased the team in 1999, the team has won a grand total of two wild-card games and nothing beyond that. Washington has won 10 games once in the last 16 seasons. If possible, the teams has been worse off the field than on, and Snyder is being called on that now.
15. Jeff Pash, NFL legal counsel
I remember when Pete Rozelle walked away from the commissioner’s job in 1989, a beaten man. He built the NFL into the most powerful sports league in the country, but it had come at a cost. The litigiousness of the NFL beat him down year after year, and he was a heavy smoker, and seven years later he was dead. I bring that up because Roger Goodell has a trusted lieutenant in Pash who has taken so much of the legal burden off his hands and off his brain and allowed him to steer clear of some of the legal headaches.
This is going to be a big season for Pash, with so much legalness in the offing for the league. Deshaun Watson; Congressional testimony for his boss; Daniel Snyder; Mark Davis; the vitriol over the $790-million settlement with St. Louis and who pays for it. Pash will be expected to be the front-man in figuring out the solutions for all. The fact that he’s been with Goodell for 16 years in such a potentially volatile job tells you how good he’s been at it.
16. Bill Belichick, New England coach
Big year for Belichick, and the Patriots. The Bills are clearly better, so they’re likely battling a top-heavy AFC (including the Dolphins in their own backyard) for one of three wild-card spots. The Patriots backsliding would be a nightmare for Belichick and his owner, Robert Kraft. Still, of all the people associated with the NFL, Roger Goodell and Belichick are the two whose pronouncements are heard by everyone and parsed for meaning.
Also: Sometime in October, Belichick will likely move into second place on the all-time coaching wins list (regular- and post-season). With four victories this year, Belichick will pass George Halas and be looking up at only one man in history, Don Shula. As of today, it’s Shula 347 with wins, Halas 324, Belichick 321. It took Shula 526 games to record his 347 wins, and it took Halas 506 to get his. Belichick, 70 and looking 55, has coached 477 games in his NFL head-coaching career.
No one expects him to quit anytime soon. Mac Jones’ ability is likely to determine how long it will take Belichick to get the 27 wins he needs to pass Shula. “He still attacks the job the same now that I saw him attack it when I first started in 2001,” said his former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. Difference is, now he attacks the game without Tom Brady.
17. Trey Lance, San Francisco quarterback
I fear the 24/7 nature of NFL coverage these days could stunt the growth of this sincere and earnest and talented young quarterback. You know the story: The Niners traded the farm to move up in the draft and chose Lance third overall in 2021. They let him mostly sit and observe in his rookie year as Jimmy Garoppolo quarterbacked (sometime shakily) the team to the NFC Championship Game. Now it’s likely Lance’s team.
He’s on this list, ahead of deserving impact guys like Aaron Donald and Tyreek Hill and Kyler Murray and all the filthy rich guys in NFL broadcast booths, because San Francisco has a very good defense and is coming off a 2021 Final Four appearance. I just want the football world to keep this in mind about Trey Lance: He’s 22. He threw 318 passes in his college career, at a level below the top level of college football, at North Dakota State. And he played sparingly as a rookie in San Francisco. He needs time to develop, to make mistakes, to make dumb throws, to not have judgment passed on him after a three-interception game in Week 3.
A reminder: As a rookie with the Colts in 1998, Peyton Manning threw 3, 3, 2 and 3 interceptions in his first four games. After four games, he’d thrown three touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. The world survived. Remember that, Niner fans.
18. Robert Kraft, New England owner
Normally, Kraft would be higher, as the owner of a mega-team and the powerful head of NFL media and compensation committees. But the Patriots are trending toward good and not great, so he drops down a bit. This year, he’ll have an outsized influence on the media negotiations for Sunday Ticket and NFL Media, as I explained above in the Brian Rolapp section. And if the owners get serious about an extension for Roger Goodell, Kraft will be the key negotiator there.
One of the reasons Kraft belongs on this list almost any year is his devotion to all concepts NFL. At the Super Bowl, he was observed having dinner with and working a potential future partner, Warner Bros./Discovery CEO David Zaslav. With the bulk of the media deals having been finished months earlier, this dinner meeting was more an investment in the future as much as anything else. But it shows Kraft’s energy in looking toward the future, always the future.
19. Dasha Smith, NFL EVP/chief administration officer
Smith is the league’s point person on diversity, equality and inclusion. I asked a key league person recently about the importance of that today in the league office, and I was told there is no more important short-term issue on Roger Goodell’s to-do list. Thus the inclusion of both Troy Vincent and Smith on this list.
Smith was an engine behind the league’s Accelerator Program at the spring meetings two weeks ago. After talking to several owners and top club officials at the combine, she and a small group of NFL execs became convinced that one of the reasons for the poor hiring record with minority coaches—particularly Black coaches—was because most owners simply didn’t know most of the top candidates. Part of the Accelerator Program was a speed-dating-type of program, with owners getting to have conversations with multiple coach and GM candidates.
Whether that event and future ones will bear fruit in the next couple of hiring cycles will determine, in part, whether Smith has succeeded in energizing an issue that has long frustrated the league.
20. Stan Kroenke, L.A. Rams owner
The most contentious issue among NFL owners right now is who should pay how much of the NFL’s stunning-in-its-excess $790-million settlement with the city of St. Louis over the Rams’ move to Los Angeles. It has divided the owners into three groups: those who feel Kroenke committed to paying the legal fees and settlement for the relocation of his own franchise (I’d bet nearly a third of owners are adamant that he should) … those who feel Kroenke has built such a landmark stadium and a franchise fit for the enormity of Los Angeles that the other 31 owners should pitch in some smaller amount (say, $7 million to $10 million per team) to defray the costs … and those who would be fine (a small group) with Kroenke’s costs being capped because it wasn’t all his decision to settle for such a monumental amount.
Where will this land? I don’t know. I went back and forth over where Kroenke belonged on this list, or whether he belonged, because the public doesn’t care who pays when billionaires have to share a bill in the millions. It’s more of a Sports Business Journal story. But I decided Kroenke belongs because he’s the Super Bowl-winning owner, his franchise is very high profile, and the Rams, in short order, have solved a major NFL headache by making Los Angeles viable after a generation of L.A. being a dead market.
21. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore quarterback
I never draw many conclusions when players don’t go to voluntary offseason workouts. You know, on account of the English language and the meaning of “voluntary.” So where Jackson has been in the month of May doesn’t concern me. I’m also in the minority about the meaning of Jackson not engaging about a new contract; I think it’s not important, so long as he is in training camp and plays the 2022 season—and there is no indication that he intends to skip either.
If Jackson stays healthy, I believe Baltimore will challenge Cincinnati for AFC North supremacy. I also think there is still a question about how much money the team should pay him in his next contract. Jackson, through four seasons, has been a marvelous regular-season quarterback and a C-minus postseason quarterback. He’s 37-12 with an 84-to-31 TD-to-pick ration in the regular year. He’s 1-3 in the postseason, and has averaged scoring 13 points per game in those four outings. If I were Jackson, I’d want to play this season out and prove I can play well in the playoffs. If I were the Ravens, I’d want the same thing.
22. Peter O’Reilly, NFL EVP/special events
The NFL is going all-in on international games and special events, determined to own more days on the calendar, and determined to create another time slot on the TV calendar to boost viewership of NFL games. Case in point, 2022: Aaron Rodgers in London, Tom Brady in Munich, Saints-Vikings in London all at 9:30 a.m. ET (and 9:30 p.m. in Beijing).
In addition: I expect Dolphins owner Stephen Ross may push for a game in Brazil or Spain as early as 2024. I expect the Rams to continue to investigate playing a regular-season game in Australia sometime in the future. These games and opportunities to advance the NFL’s brand in foreign countries are going ahead, full steam. O’Reilly will ride herd over those. He’ll oversee the first Vegas Super Bowl, and drafts in new markets like Kansas City and Detroit. But this year, O’Reilly’s big agenda item is sending big players and big teams overseas for important marketing opportunities. And spectacles.
Bonus: Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit defensive end
One player on the list who’s not a quarterback, and I just had to get Hutchinson here. The reason is his importance—symbolically and in Xs-and-Os—to a hungry franchise. Hutchinson is a symbol of progress for a franchise that needs one in the worst way. He actually wants to play for the Lions. And the NFL, by putting the Lions on “Hard Knocks” this summer and awarding the city and the Lions the NFL Draft in 2023, is placing a bet that the Lions won’t be a laughingstock much longer.
Hutchinson is at the center of it. The most accomplished player at the highest level of college football last year, he and his family were in Vegas the night before the draft, and I told this story in my column: Hutchinson’s sister, Aria, said as the pre-draft pressure was getting to everyone in the family: “Please, please, please let him get picked by Detroit!” Think of that. When’s the last time someone has wanted a loved one to go to the Detroit Lions? Night Train Lane? Joe Schmidt? In the end, the Lions’ record will be more on Jared Goff than Aidan Hutchinson, but this franchise, and this region, needs the player and person that Hutchinson is.
Sue L. Robinson, a retired former U.S. District Court judge who will hear the Deshaun Watson discipline case once the NFL investigation into Watson’s behavior is complete … Kevin Burkhardt, FOX number one play-by-play man … Kyler Murray, Arizona quarterback. He is miffed at not having a new contract yet, and that will dominate some of the pre-camp buzz in Arizona … Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay coach. Not many Black coaches get second chances, and ever fewer get them with legit Super Bowl contenders … Sean Payton, retired coach (for now). Payton, 59 on Dec. 29, will be the most attractive candidate in the 2023 coaching carousel … Marcus Brady, Colts offensive coordinator, and Aaron Glenn, Lions defensive coordinator, impressed at the league’s Accelerator Program to incentivize minority hiring and should get some looks at head-coach jobs next winter … Jerry Jones, Dallas owner. Just because … Mark Davis, Las Vegas owner. Talk about a succession of dark clouds over a franchise. Anyone still work in that front office? … Brian Flores, Pittsburgh assistant coach. He’ll coach the Steelers linebackers while wondering if he’ll ever get another head-coaching shot.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column