February 18, 2021
BY Lance Cartelli

The Faces of the NFL

Baseball may be regarded as America’s national pastime, but it’s football that takes the proverbial crown as America’s favorite sport to watch.

In February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the league completely, 99.9 million viewers watched the Kansas City Chiefs take down the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.

Millions of people across the country enjoy football, but just how famous has that made some of the league’s top players? 

To find out how recognizable the faces of the NFL are, we quizzed over 1,000 people who watch only two NFL games (or fewer) each season with some pictures of football stars, including Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Donald, Cam Newton, Saquon Barkley and more.

Let’s take a closer look at how well nonfans were able to identify these players, who the least recognizable players were, and how well nonfans associate players with the right NFL team and position.

Identifying NFL Players 

Among the more than 1,000 people we tasked with identifying over 41 photos of current and former NFL players, 24% of men and 22% of women were able to correctly reveal the players by either their first name, last name or both. 

Overwhelmingly, the most recognizable NFL player among (arguably) non-fans was newly relocated Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom Brady.

Women (51%) were more likely than men (42%) to accurately identify Brady. At 43, Brady (a longtime New England Patriot) holds records for the most regular-season wins in NFL history and the best win percentage in the modern NFL era.

Off the field, Brady may be more recognizable as the man who married global superstar Gisele Bundchen. Brady might be the most recognizable face in the NFL, but Bundchen might be more recognizable in general. With a higher net worth and more followers on social media, Bundchen could be part of the reason Brady is so easy to spot among non-fans of the sport. 

In addition to Brady (47%), fellow quarterback Russell Wilson (41%), Aaron Donald (39%), Stephon Gilmore (38%) and George Kittle (37%) also earned top marks as players non-fans of the NFL were most correctly able to identify.

The least recognizable faces in the NFL included Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb, Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley and former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

There’s No 'I' in Team, But There Are Superstars

Identifying players might not have been nearly as much of a challenge as trying to place each player’s team affiliation, particularly among non-fans of the NFL.

Among the 41 different players we surveyed respondents on, non-fans were able to identify the player’s team 1 in 5 times, on average. 

Brady might be the most recognizable fan in the NFL among non-fans, but not the most synonymous with his (current) team.

Instead, Aaron Donald, defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams (25%), and Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback for the Miami Dolphins (23%), were the most accurately associated with the correct teams.

Having played for six different NFL teams since joining the league in 2010, Fitzpatrick — aka Fitzmagic — has only been with the Miami Dolphins since 2019. And while 20% of non-fans were able to accurately place Brady with his new team, just 11% of men and 5% of women were able to place Cam Newton as the newly minted Patriots quarterback to take his place. 

Despite the off-season fanfare surrounding Brady’s decision to depart the Patriots for the sunny fields of Tampa Bay, 32% of non-NFL fans were unsure which team Brady was playing for in 2020, and just 20% were able to place him accurately as a Buccaneer.

Another 10% of non-fans believed Tom Brady was still playing for the New England Patriots. 

Where Quarterbacks Lead the Pack

NFL contracts are constantly in fluctuation, hitting new record highs every year, making it difficult to identify exactly which position is technically the richest on any given team roster.

Of course, perhaps no contract managed to break as many records as the 10-year deal championship MVP Patrick Mahomes was able to ink in 2020. Worth up to $503 million, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback managed to sign a deal bigger than any other in sports history.

When asked to identify the position players helmed, eight of the 15 most accurately identified players were quarterbacks. Led by Tom Brady (37%), Aaron Rodgers (27%), Drew Brees (25%) and Russell Wilson (23%), the only non-QB player able to crack the top five was Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (22%).

Other notably identified quarterbacks included Patrick Mahomes (21%), Gardner Minshew (17%), Deshaun Watson (17%) and Marus Mariota (17%). 

A Blast From the NFL Past 

Professional sports often carry a certain “what have you done for me lately” kind of mentality where even some of the most famous players can be cut between seasons for the promise of newer, younger players.

And while it was active players that most commonly drew accurate recognition from non-football fans, some retired and former NFL stars have remained recognizable even years after their professional career ended.

More than any other retired NFL players, Michael Vick (22%), Colin Kaepernick (20%) and Aaron Hernandez (18%) were the most accurately identified among those we polled.

Each famous for very different reasons, Kaepernick has perhaps been the most likely to be included in recent news stories. After kneeling during the national anthem for the first time in 2016, Kap became a lightning rod for criticism, raising the question for many about athletes using their platform for protests. After excessive media attention to the issue, commissioner Roger Godell admitted in 2020 that the league was wrong in its subsequent efforts to silence players from protesting peacefully during games. 

Other retired or former NFL players non-fans were more likely to recognize included Peyton Manning (18%), Andrew Luck (15%) and Michael Strahan (15%). Instead of following a path into broadcasting after leaving the NFL in 2007, many non-fans may recognize Strahan as the former Live! With Kelly and Michael co-host or from his time on Good Morning America.

Methodology and Limitations

Using A/B testing, we presented survey respondents who said they watch eight games or less of NFL each season with photos of various NFL players. No team logos were included or identifiable in each player’s photo. There was a combination of current and past players. The players included in our study were as follows:

  1. Lamar Jackson
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Aaron Donald
  4. Patrick Mahomes
  5. Michael Thomas
  6. Christian McCaffrey
  7. George Kittle
  8. DeAndre Hopkins
  9. Stephen Gilmore
  10. Derrick Henry 
  11. Le’Veon Bell
  12. Nick Foles
  13. Deshaun Watson
  14. Tom Brady
  15. Rob Gronkowski
  16. Drew Brees
  17. Aaron Rodgers
  18. Deshaun Watson
  19. Amari Cooper
  20. Odell Beckham Jr.
  21. Colin Kapernick 
  22. Stefon Diggs
  23. Jimmy Garoppolo
  24. Ryan Tannehill
  25. D.K. Metcalf
  26. Larry Fitzgerald 
  27. J.J. Watt 
  28. Saquon Barkley
  29. Julio Jones
  30. Ryan Fitzpatrick
  31. Gardner Minshew
  32. Adam Thielen
  33. Carson Wentz
  34. Nick Chubb
  35. Todd Gurley
  36. Dalvin Cook
  37. Marcus Mariota
  38. Cam Newton
  39. Ezekiel Elliott
  40. Frank Gore
  41. Aaron Hernandez 

Each participant completed 12 different guessing tasks. We looked at each participant’s 12 guesses independently, while maintaining the background, or demographic information, of the participant who completed the particular guessing task. The first manipulation performed was to create a data set where each row represents one individual guess from a participant (the data set went from 1,064 rows with 12 guesses each row to 12,720 rows with one guess each). The last modification we needed to make was to only keep participant data where the values for the number of games watched were 0, 1, or 2 games, as were attempting to analyze non-NFL fans.

Note: Even with this, we still had over 100 guesses for each of the photos and scenarios we presented.

Once we had the data set up for accurate analysis, we wanted to assess all the possible names in the data set. When doing this, it was noticed that with Le’Veon Bell his name was recorded as Bell, so it was formatted to Le’veon Bell. Another observation made was with Odell Beckham Junior. The most common spelling of the suffix Junior is Jr. Therefore we changed Odell Beckham Junior to Odell Beckham Jr (this decision was actually made after an initial analysis, as there was a 0% match for Odell Beckham Junior but various guesses with Odell Beckham Jr). Punctuation (’ or .) was removed from the Actual Name and Name Guess columns, and every name was capitalized (our checking is not case-sensitive). 

This analysis is meant for entertainment purposes only and has not been statistically weighted. It also relies completely on self-reporting. Self-reported data can be host to issues, like telescoping, recency bias, and exaggeration. We may not have encompassed every misspelling or partial spelling for each player, therefore there may be a few guesses that were not marked as correct for this analysis.

Fair Use Statement

Know a football fan who will enjoy this study? Or even a nonfan? You’re free to pass this study along for noncommercial purposes; we just ask that you link back to this page so that readers can explore the full study and methodology.

Photo: Getty Image