What does it take to be America's Team?
For the Dallas Cowboys, it came down to a simple choice by NFL Films to use the term in the voice-over and title of the Cowboys' end-of-season highlight film following the 1978 campaign. Of course, the label grew to mean much more than that, becoming one of the most famous monikers in sports.
I was working for the team when that happened, and I remember coach Tom Landry was chagrined, because it brought too much pressure; imagine traveling to play in other cities as America's Team. General manager (and marketing genius) Tex Schramm loved it, because it brought additional visibility to our team and to a league that was still scrapping with college football and pro baseball for the public's attention. I liked it because it helped boost our profile, but I wasn't crazy about the way it made an already difficult task -- winning football games -- that much harder, giving our opponents extra motivation to put us in our place. (I can still remember a sack of Roger Staubach being punctuated by this mocking question delivered by the sacking player: "How do you like that, America's Team?")
In an interview with NBC's Peter King last week, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers suggested the Packers are America's Team. Personally, I still feel the Cowboys are the rightful owners of that title, buoyed by tradition and the fervor of a fan base that passes its love for the organization down from generation to generation. However, Rodgers' comment inspired me to consider which other teams could be candidates to become America's Team, in a hypothetical ranking behind the Cowboys.
Below, I've ranked the five candidates I'd slot after Dallas. Two notes before we begin: 1) This is obviously a highly subjective exercise. 2) Dallas is my default No. 1, so for the purposes of this piece, we are setting the Dallas Cowboys aside. They are America's Team, and that is not changing because of one season-opening loss. The teams below are ranked 1-5 as the candidates who are next in line.
1) Green Bay Packers
Other than Canton, Ohio, there is no city more closely associated with professional football than Titletown. Nearly 49 years after he last coached in the NFL, Vince Lombardi's name is still synonymous with winning among the football-watching public. This team has an unbelievably rich history, populated by a cast of legends (Lombardi, Bart Starr, Brett Favre) and punctuated by legendary moments (like the Ice Bowl and Favre's unforgettable tribute to his father, when he threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns the day after his dad passed away). And, of course, the Packers are currently led by arguably the NFL's best player in Aaron Rodgers, who keeps them in Super Bowl contention year after year. For evidence of Rodgers' impact on the football world, look no further than his jaw-dropping comeback win against the Bears on "Sunday Night Football."
Whenever I'm taking calls on Sirius XM Radio, the Packers are among the top five in terms of teams people want to talk about. America loves an underdog, and the idea of rooting for a team from such a relatively small city as Green Bay likely appeals to folks who aren't from the area. And, of course, there is a special tie between the fans and the publicly owned team, going back to the 1920s, when a stock sale was organized to save the Packers from potential dissolution. Entering their 100th season, the Packers are still going strong.
2) Jacksonville Jaguars
Owner Shad Khan is the embodiment of the American Dream, as an immigrant from Pakistan who transformed himself into a businessman worth $7.6 billion (according to Forbes) and took the reins of a now-ascendant American pro sports franchise. Thanks to Khan's global vision, the Jaguars are also the NFL's unofficial ambassadors to London, in the midst of an agreement to play annual games in the city. Thus, it's reasonable to assume that, to a large percentage of NFL fans overseas, the Jaguars are America's Team.
The organization would seem to have a relatively limited geographical area from which to draw in Florida, hemmed in by the Falcons to the north, the Dolphins and Buccaneers to the south and the sea to the east and west. And yet, the Jags seem to be among the teams experiencing the biggest leaps in popularity. Of course, it can't hurt that this talent-rich group went from three wins in 2016 to the doorstep of the Super Bowl last season. Jacksonville likely still carries some of the goodwill that is often extended to reformed lovable losers while also boasting one of the best defenses in the league.
3) Philadelphia Eagles
Yes, it might seem shocking for me to include another team from the NFC East on this list. But let me remind you that I'm putting the Cowboys aside for the moment. The Eagles are interwoven with the fabric of a city that is dripping with American history. Their star quarterback, Carson Wentz, transformed himself from a relatively scrawny high schooler with a big arm (as a third baseman on the baseball team, he couldn't see first base, but he could get the ball there with some steam on it) into a powerful athlete. It probably doesn't hurt his popularity with a certain segment of the fanbase that he's an avid outdoorsman. Head coach Doug Pederson, meanwhile, remains relatable even as he directs one of the league's up-and-coming crews. The Eagles still must prove that they have staying power beyond last season's surprising run to their first Super Bowl title. But the "underdog" theme that they adopted in 2017 is as American as it gets, embodying a spirit that has been associated with the city since "Rocky" hit theaters in 1976.
4) New England Patriots
At this point, the most successful U.S. sports franchise of this century is like the Dallas Cowboys (or New York Yankees): The Patriots have a lot of lovers and their share of jealous haters. But you can't deny New England's staggering record of success under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. And while this team might not be everyone's cup of tea, the Pats have aligned themselves with the national consciousness at times. Who could forget owner Robert Kraft's inspirational words -- "We are all Patriots" -- after his team won the first Super Bowl to take place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? And then there's the mantra that was popularized during the 2014 season: "Do your job." Not only did Malcolm Butler's heroic interception on the goal line to close Super Bowl XLIX grab the attention of the country, but the spirit of no-nonsense hard work that drove that title run seemed to dovetail nicely with American ideals.
5) Los Angeles Rams
A generous dose of Hollywood chic boosts the Rams' stature in this conversation. The franchise is a reflection of its surrounding community, directed by an aggressive young coach-general manager combo in Sean McVay and Les Snead and bankrolled by ownership that is willing to spend whatever it takes to field a winner. Stan Kroenke has written several big checks over the past few months, and it's resulted in a star-studded roster -- highlighted by Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley -- that has them squarely in contention for a Super Bowl title.
Their visibility is probably enhanced nationally by the fact that, as a West Coast-based team, they tend to play in the late-afternoon games on Sundays, when, I'd imagine, the bulk of the football watching audience is parked in front of the television. The Rams are building a new stadium that could eclipse Dallas' AT&T Stadium as the most celebrated in the league. And they have a strong history. The Rams pioneered the use of logos on their helmets with the famous ram horns, while they also helped reintegrate the NFL in 1946, breaking a longstanding color barrier by signing African-American player Kenny Washington.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.