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Thanos, Pirate Jordy Nelson, and Amari Cooper on the Piano: Ranking the Good, Bad, and Truly Absurd ‘Monday Night Football’ Graphics

The ESPN team leveled up this year and produced art more in line with Picasso’s than that of their peers in the broadcast industry. Which cut scenes were the most inspired?

Graphic showing Deshaun Watson riding a mechanical bull ESPN/Ringer illustration

The best team of the 2018 NFL season is not the Kansas City Chiefs, the New Orleans Saints, or the Los Angeles Rams. The best team this year isn’t even a football team. It’s the graphics department for Monday Night Football. Fueled by a surprising creative license from ESPN, an astounding bravery, and (presumably) microdosing, the graphics squad for MNF is on an unparalleled hot streak that has given us the best season of in-game broadcast graphics in NFL history, and produced a series of masterpieces closer to Michelangelo and Picasso than its peers at CBS and Fox.

This group was already rounding into prime form last season …

... and gained notoriety when Last Week Tonight dedicated a segment to the graphics shenanigans earlier this year.

Its work can only truly be appreciated in totality, so in honor of the final Monday Night Football game of the season this week between the Broncos and Raiders, here are the 17 best MNF graphics from 2018. You may disagree with these rankings, and that is OK. Art’s true impact depends on how it lands and settles in the contours of one’s soul.

No. 17: Adrian Peterson on Mount Olympus

A Baby Groot–sized Adrian Peterson emerges from a fabergé dragon egg into a room of running back “Gods” sitting on discount Iron Thrones. It seems the graphics team couldn’t settle on whether to choose the Greek Pantheon, a Catholic church, or Game of Thrones as the unifying theme for this image, so they decided to incorporate all three like it was the Cheesecake Factory. Why are the old guys wearing armor plating and velcro sneakers? Why are there dinner plate blades protruding from their shoulder pads? Why is Emmitt Smith seated all the way to the left instead of dead center? And what on earth is with his belt buckle?

No. 16: Deshaun Watson Riding a Bull

There are only four seconds featuring Deshaun Watson riding a mechanical bull in this video, but there are 10 seconds of Dan Marino and Kurt Warner standing completely and utterly still while wearing championship wrestling belts.

It’s unclear why Warner and Marino don’t move. I assume they have died and are propped up Weekend at Bernie’s style, but I shouldn’t have to be a detective when I’m watching these things.

No. 15: McVay’s Magic

I hope Sean McVay is insulted by this depiction of his hair as unkempt. Real-life McVay wears enough hair gel to impale someone like a rhinoceros. (In fact, Monday Night Football should work that into their graphics next year.) He does a backspin worthy of an Olympic discus throw to cast a spell but then stands and breathes heavily like a video game character in a loading screen. I appreciate that he isn’t motionless and possibly dead—there’s a reason it ranks ahead of the bull-riding graphic—but the way he stands there is a different kind of creepy. It’s even creepier when you look at his sketchy cart.

Does Sean McVay drive a rickshaw, or is that cart attached to a horse? Did they animate a horse and then cut it out of the frame at the last second? Was the horse originally Jared Goff? I bet the horse was Jared Goff.

No. 14: Yeti Russell Wilson

“That’s not the Abominable Snowman,” Joe Tessitore booms. “That’s Russ!”

We know, Joe. He doesn’t look like the Abominable Snowman—he looks like the world’s biggest paper clip magnet.

No. 13: Roster Construction

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman notices a football fall off of the girder they’re sitting on and drop hundreds of stories below, potentially killing somebody on the street level. And he does nothing! He doesn’t even look down, nor does he seem concerned. Perhaps it’s a subtle shot at his attentiveness to New York’s quarterback position.

As rich as it is to imagine what Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur are discussing over lunch, I have a soft spot in my heart for when teams are depicted as their literal mascots. It’s wonderful to see John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan sifting for gold like characters in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but this is a huge missed opportunity to portray Jimmy Garoppolo as a “golden boy” and quarterback Nick Mullens as “a diamond in the rough.” The MNF graphics crew left some meat on the bone here.

No. 12: Mariota Surfing

Congrats to ESPN for being the first to ever make Marcus Mariota look like Ben Roethlisberger. I think the purpose of this graphic was to demonstrate how the coordinator changes have created rough waters for Marcus Mariothlisberger, but I don’t know how “rough waters” equals “dumping barrels of sharks over the starting quarterback.” It’s a bummer for Mariota, who is covered in sharks, and it’s also a bummer for the sharks, who are just wriggling there at the bottom of the screen, suffocating to death. An all-around dick move from the Titans.

No. 11: Mission: Impossible — Rewrite the Record Book

Rewriting the record book requires [squints eyes] ... breaking into the “National Football League Vault of Records & Facts”?


There’s a lot of nonsense in this ranking—later you’ll see Andy Reid and Sean McVay depicted as being the same size—but the NFL having a vault where they keep crucial facts from the outside world doesn’t sound like a fantasy. It sounds like an Outside the Lines report.

It’s also amazing that this anonymous player navigates lasers, cameras, and not being assigned an identity from the name generator so he can stick a note card in a book.

Ah, yes, nobody will notice that.

[Turns on radio]

“Pull me up guys. Our work is done here.”

No. 10: Tom Brady Fights the Bills Mafia

It’s easy to tell when the MNF crew finds inspiration from a specific stat (i.e., Russell Wilson is good in December, so let’s make him the Abominable Snowman) and when they have a specific image they want to use and find an excuse to do so. This is clearly the latter. To celebrate Tom Brady beating Buffalo more than any other QB has beaten any team, the MNF Graphics crew had him “crash the party.” (Notice the faint sound of a gun cocking at the exact moment when Brady does his fist-pump. Whoever added that deserves a raise.)

No. 9: Amari Cooper Playing the Piano

If Brady jumping on a folding table was an obvious choice, then only God knows where they got the idea for Amari Cooper to play a piano in the middle of the field. Joe Tessitore says it’s because the last two seasons, “He wasn’t hitting the right notes.” What? How did we go from him leading the league in drop rate twice in four seasons to playing the piano? Couldn’t this have been Amari Cooper dropping everything, like the opposite of the Stefon Diggs commercial? The graphics team, not Cooper, was hitting the wrong notes here, but the result is still transfixing.

No. 8: Detective Patrick Mahomes II

By my count there are 12 ketchup bottles scattered throughout this video.

Is Patrick Mahomes a ketchup detective? If not, he should probably launch an investigation into why there’s so much ketchup in his damn office. Also, does he puts his helmet is on the coat rack like it’s a regular hat? It can’t go there!

No. 7: Literal Jets Quarterbacks

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything subtle about this video. (They’re the Jets, so we made the quarterbacks into planes! Get it?!?! ) But to the carefully trained eye, this is subversive art. There are four—count ’em, four—green trash cans with the Jets logo in this video.

These are not just trash cans. These bins are absolutely teeming with refuse. That cannot be an accident. Someone finished animating all of this, and instead of being done with work and going home to their spouse or dog or Arthur Morgan, they said, “You know what? I’m going to add more trash.”

I 100 percent guarantee whoever did this has friends who are Jets fans and did this to spite them. Imagine watching the first Monday Night Football game of the year, and your quarterback savior is the youngest starter in MNF history, and your annoying friend who works for ESPN is coming through the broadcast to remind you that your team is garbage.

It’s the most awe-inspiring flex since someone planted “Trust the Process” graffiti across the 76ers’ practice facility.

No. 6: Ravens Offensive Coordinators

This graphic was for a 2018 preseason game, and it was clearly made with a preseason budget. I’m confused as to why Flacco’s five coordinators in seven years are depicted as toys. I think they’re comparing Joe Flacco to a 7-year-old child. As Jason Witten says, “Building a relationship with a coordinator is hard.” Perhaps, but building something with blocks is easy, so they might be comparing Joe Flacco to a dumb 7-year-old child? Also, Flacco is the one driving this bus (duck boat?), crashes it into a brick wall, and remains in the driver’s seat as everybody else goes flying. This may look like the cutest and cuddliest of all the graphics, but the implication is clear: Flacco might not throw his coordinators under the bus, but he’ll send them flying off of it.

Still, this isn’t even the most confusing Joe Flacco–related MNF graphic. Here’s a graphic they used in 2017, which you might not want to watch if you plan on falling asleep tonight.

As The Baltimore Sun (never afraid to ask the tough questions) asked in 2017, “Why is he shedding so much?”

No. 5: The Raiders Walk the Plank

I’m not an expert in piratry, but I have seen three of the five Pirates of the Caribbean movies. From what I have gleaned, nobody wants to walk the plank (because you’ll die). So watching this graphic where two dozen people form a human assembly line to nosedive overboard is profoundly disturbing. It also implies that these players (who were released, not retained or traded) left the team of their own accord. If there were any justice in this world, MNF would have portrayed Jon Gruden as the captain with an eye patch, a peg leg, and Derek Carr as the parrot on his shoulder while he forces Khalil Mack off the ship at hook point.

I understand why they couldn’t do that. Gruden is a former colleague of the MNF booth, and it might be considered offensive if they portrayed him with an eye patch, a hook, and a peg leg. They need to be sensitive to—wait, is that Jordy Nelson wearing an eye patch, a hook, and a peg leg?

Yes. Yes it is. And that peg leg is on his right side, the same one where he tore his ACL in 2015.

No. 4: Patrick Mahomes With a Flamethrower

It’s short. It’s visually stunning and viscerally satisfying. It’s brilliant. Technically flawless. Perhaps the best execution of any graphic this year.

No. 3: Andy Reid and Sean McVay in the Lab

Let’s just get this out of the way: Andy Reid is way too thin here. He looks roughly the same size as McVay, which, lol. Secondly, the clipboard Reid is holding says “Master Plan” like he’s a third-rate Scooby-Doo villain.

In fact, Andy Reid seems to be the head chef in a McDonald’s test kitchen.

If “Andy Reid keeping human beings in cryogenic chambers” wasn’t creepy enough, he has a (McDonald’s-colored) DNA double helix on his desk.

Perhaps Reid is just developing a genetically modified chicken for a new McNuggets recipe or perfecting Franch sauce. But do Reid and McVay need to store their players in cryo-chambers like their Master Chief from Halo?

Also, why are all those wires in front of them? They’re going to come out of cryo-sleep and immediately faceplant.

No. 2: Bills Quarterbacks Lake Trip

This is what we call a rich text. There’s the late-’90s boy band album cover …

… there’s Josh Allen doing a Taylor Swift impression as Nathan Peterman personally rearranges the chairs on his own Titanic …

… and then there’s A.J. McCarron embracing the sweet release of death.

It’s one thing to play “Would you rather” between “Dive off of Niagara Falls” and “Play for the Buffalo Bills.” It’s another to watch Tyrod Taylor and A.J. McCarron actually float off the edge of a cliff.

No. 1: Thanos Kills the Seattle Seahawks

“This is some cool stuff now,” Joe Tessitore says about a space alien murdering eight members of Seattle’s 2014 defense. “The defensive corp disintegrated through free agency,” Tessitore says as the souls of three human beings disappear into a boundless void. “I think [Earl]Thomas would be Ironman,” Tessitore says of the Seahawks safety who broke his leg in October and is out for the season.

What Tessitore does not say, but is clear from examining the scripture, is that the genocidal alien depicted is Tom Brady.

It’s stunning. It’s bold. It’s intensely confusing if you have not seen Avengers: Infinity War. It’s the best graphic in the history of broadcast sports.