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Do we overrate leadership in athletes like Ray Lewis because we can't define it?


Leadership is one of the media's favorite buzz words. You hear it tossed around a lot when people talk about older players, especially when they can't perform the way they once did. It's usually a justification for why they maintain Alpha Dog status on the team, or a salary no longer in proportion with their ability. "He's a great leader, so you have to have him on your team," we're often told. "He does things behind the scenes that people never hear about. He makes other people better."

I've been thinking a lot about this since the Ravens re-signed Ray Lewis, and as we get closer to the start of the 2009 baseball season, with the Yankees creeping increasingly closer to the inevitable day when they are forced to admit Derek Jeter can no longer be allowed to give away runs in the field because his defense is so subpar.

Even more than what Jeter means to the Yankees, Ray Lewis is the Baltimore Ravens. The franchise says it plans to build a statue of Lewis to stand next to John Unitas' statue when he's done playing, and considering the football demons that No. 52 helped this city exorcise by bringing it a Super Bowl, it will be well deserved. But don't focus on Lewis' legacy for a second. Focus on the current NFL linebacker, the one who will be 34 years old before next season. Is he worth $22 million over the next three years?

As a player, probably not. That's an uncomfortable truth that's hard for some people to admit because it sounds like heresy. But there is a reason he didn't get so much as a sniff in free agency before re-upping with the Ravens this year. He doesn't cover the same kind of ground anymore. Part of the reason is that he's heavier. He bulked up this past season, hoping it would help him stay healthy, and for the first time since 2005, he was able to play essentially a full season (in 2005, he played 15 games). But he's blockable. He still shoots gaps and makes big plays, but he also gets caught in traffic a fair amount, and he can't run down plays from behind they way he used to.

Despite being voted to the Pro Bowl yet again -- an honor that is about reputation more than performance -- he averaged fewer tackles per game (7.31) than any full season of his career. (In 2004, he averaged 9.8 tackles per game.) If you don't believe me, watch this video (after the jump) that highlights several plays Lewis just missed in the Ravens' December loss to Pittsburgh. (I apologize in advance for the Will Smith backing track.) Eventually, even the maximum amount of film study can't compensate for age.

In some ways, though, the debate isn't about whether Lewis in 2009 is comparable to Lewis of 2004. It's about whether the entire package that he offers is the best available option for the Ravens. And this is where it's worth discussing how we define leadership, and what monetary value we place on it.

To hear some people tell it, Ray Lewis is still the second coming of William Wallace in Braveheart, the intense and spirited general who is so charismatic, every last man is willing to follow him to the gates of hell and back. The reality, though, is more complicated, and this isn't necessarily specific to Lewis. (Although to suggest he is universally loved in the Ravens locker room would be false.) Professional locker rooms are complex environments, full of layers that aren't easily explainable, especially in sound bites. Certain players may be respected or even loved, but inspiration, for professional athletes, is far more individual that we care to believe. It's not a very compelling narrative to state that a professional football player might be playing harder because he wants to increase his value in a contract year. It makes for a better mythology if he's doing so because he's part of a Band of Brothers and he's inspired by the loquacious superstar and his approach to the game.

Does Ray Lewis inspire teammates to spend more time in the weight room, or study more game film? Absolutely. Especially some of the younger players. Le'Ron McClain even said this year that it was Lewis who pulled him aside when McClain showed up overweight at camp, and Lewis told him he needed to be more of a professional if he wanted to see the field. McClain internalized it and ended up in the Pro Bowl. That's one of the reasons the Ravens were willing to pay more than market value for Lewis.

"He has unbelievable leadership ability in the locker room, in the weight room and out on the practice field," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "He helps our young kids not just be football players, but to become professional football players. And that makes a big difference.”

But some of this is also about perception and PR, which is what brings us back to Jeter and the Yankees. There's no question that Jeter has been one of the main forces driving the Yankees' 13 playoff appearances in the last 14 years. And like Lewis, his leadership -- often described in undefinable terms like "intangibles" -- is a regular topic of discussion when assessing his value. The Yankees don't dare dream of asking Jeter to play center field or third base, even if it would make the team better defensively, because of what he theoretically "means" to the team. And maybe there is some truth to that.

But again, like Lewis, he's not quite the player he used to be. There is a book put out each year called The Fielding Bible, and to compile it, an organization called Baseball Info Solutions tracks every defensive play made by every MLB player. They've assembled a database showing how often each type of play is made. For each fielder, they keep track of how many unusually good and how many unusually bad plays he makes and express it as +/- number. The last three years, Jeter has been: -22, -34 and -12. He's ranked ranked 34th, 34th and 31st among shortstops. That's pretty bad. Alex Rodriguez may be a head case who makes out with himself in a mirror during magazine shoots, but there is no way he would be that bad.


If Jeter is such a remarkable leader, why didn't he offer to step aside and play third base instead of letting the Yankees ask Rodriguez to do it instead? And during the last few seasons, when A-Rod was struggling to fit in in the Yankee clubhouse and with Yankee fans, why didn't Jeter publicly stand up and make a statement of support? Why did he let his teammate twist in the wind when a few words from him could have easily called off the dogs? Isn't that what you ask from your captain?

Lewis has had a few moments in recent years that made me wonder if he and Jeter aren't alike in more ways than we'd care to admit. No one was more supportive of Lewis during Super Bowl week in 2000 than Brian Billick. Whatever his faults were, I always thought it was pretty clever the way Billick went after the media and declared "You're not qualified!" during his interview session. He came off as an arrogant jerk, but in retrospect, that seemed to be exactly the point. For one day, reporters were firing arrows at Billick, not Lewis. Billick's reward, when it was his turn on the hot seat, was to have his star linebacker go on his radio show and criticize the coach's play-calling after a loss to the Bills. Was that leadership? Lewis has certainly shown in recent years that he is great to have when things are going well, and somewhat difficult when things are not.

A few years ago, Tom Brady's contract with the Patriots was nearly up. Peyton Manning had just signed an extension with the Colts that included a $33 million signing bonus. Brady's response to the Patriots was that he was willing to sign a contract for far less, below market value, if the team was willing to use some of the money they could have spent on him and invest it back into the team. He also agreed to restructure his contract, lowering his base salary, so the Patriots could sign Randy Moss a few years later. Lewis had an opportunity to make a similar gesture and passed it up for a shot at the open market. In the end, he signed for the amount Baltimore was offering all along, one that didn't break the Ravens bank. Was that leadership? Or at the end of his career, did he have the right to chase one last potential payday?

The reality of professional sports is always more complicated than the mythology. Leadership certainly does exist in some ways. There is no doubt Ray Lewis helped create a culture of success for the Ravens' defense. But at some point, has the idea become more than the man? Even if it is true, when is it outweighed by his inability to move from sideline to sideline?

Instead of seeing it as some broad magical quality, maybe we should view it as simply another skill set. Too often, we throw around the term leadership to explain the undefinable, and thus, it's a scary thing to pay millions of dollars for.

The Ravens either paid millions of dollars because they believe that magical quality still exists in Lewis, or because he was the simply the best option available, and the PR hit of losing him and admitting he was past his prime, despite all he'd done for the franchise, was too much to bear.

The truth, as usual, would probably be found somewhere in the middle.


The reality of professional sports is always more complicated that the mythology. That = than?

Great stuff Kevin. Thank you for taking ample time to fully develop these ideas. Ray is a complicated subject, and ought to be the subject of a great book someday.

Welcome to retirement.

Bienvenido a jubilacion'.

The Ravens have a good crop of young linebackers who should benefit from Ray's leadership. The time may have come, however, to take Ray out on passing downs and replace him with a younger, lighter and faster LB. A blow to his pride, perhaps, but likely necessary.

Great article.

As for the loyalty issue (Billick's to Lewis during the SB run vs. Lewis' lack thereof during Billick's embattled period)...In my opinion, the major thorn perpetually in Lewis' side was the organization's decision to not only draft Kyle Boller, but to not back him up with a legitimate #2. Nothing against Boller, but I maintain that the Ravens have at least one more Super Bowl appearance, if not championship(s) with, say, Kerry Collins or Kurt Warner at the helm. While the front office as a whole was at fault for that decision, you know Billick was the driving force behind Boller. There was absolutely no reason to waste years of a championship caliber defense while attempting to develop a very raw QB prospect.

I think that decision stuck with Ray, and probably some other players in the locker room feel the same way.

Ray Lewis is a future hall of famer and perhaps the best player to ever play the middle-linebacker position. Whether he is overpaid or not is irrelevant, and it's an issue between him and Biscotti. Why do people feel the need to speculate how much someone should get paid? Football is a business like any other. Do you go around and question how much your co-workers should be getting paid? Ray Lewis and everyone who has a job is entitled to get the salary they have the ability to negotiate. It's the reality of the job market and nothing more. Let's not use the notion of "deserving salary" to piggy-back personal Lewis' hatred. What he has done for the Ravens and the NFL speaks for itself, year in and year out.

The Ravens need to be aggressive but not bonehead aggressive. That is what cost them 20 yards at the end of the last Pittsburgh game.


Terrific think piece. Comparing Lewis and Unitas is interesting. I worked with John for 5 years as the producer of the Colt broadcasts and as co-host with John on his pre-game show.

Their leadership style was at opposite ends of the spectrum. Both earned great respect from team mates and opponents.

They both had a dedication to the game. They know/knew it so well that their minds are football computers at reading the offense/defense in front of them.

They also had the talent to be best and inspire in their own way to make those players around them better.

Football is a game of adjustments. As the game progresses, these guys have/had ability to make the change at the line or recommend the changes to the coaches.

Lewis is worth the money. When Unitas was 60, a reporter asked him what he command as a salary if he was playing then. John said, " A million dollars." Just a million? "Well, I am 60."

John would be 76 this year. He was a few months older than I am.

It would be nice to read an article in the Sun that supports our team and its star players for once. If you don't think Ray's leadership is priceless to this team, then you must be delirious. Its sad that I have to go to the NFL Network to hear something positive about the Ravens. Mike Tomlin has more positive things to say that all of the Sun writers (except Schmuck) combined. Kevin, thanks for your insight. Fortunately you aren't an NFL GM. You are an idiot who got A's on their 5 paragraph essays in high school. That must be all that's needed to be a columist for the Sun. What a joke.

This article is all about the questions and provides no answers. Then makes negative insinuations. What is the purpose of "Toy Dept" anyway, a BS forum? I can visit the bar and hear these stupid discussions. I guess that's the whole point... bring off-the-wall bar convo's to the web.
This year, we find out if Ray Lewis was a good investment. Ravens have all the components (except WR) to go all the way. 3 yrs ago it was 13-3 and the eventual SB winners never scored a TD on our defense in a losing playoff effort. 2008 season, 11-5 and defense kept AFC Chamionship winable, except rookie QB made a rookie mistake. 2009 is Miami-or-Bust (I may have made a pun!)

Eric, it's too bad that you feel any nuanced discussion of Ray Lewis is out-of-bounds. I don't deny that Lewis is a leader, but it's clearly not as simple as we're often led to believe. Ed Reed is a pretty darn good leader, and he doesn't have to remind everyone about it on a daily basis. It's not really my job to write fawning tributes star players, although I have written a few. I usually try to write something that makes a reader think, and examine an issue differently than they might have before, agree or disagree. (Although my Orioles analysis yesterday was admittedly weak.) For what it's worth, I got mostly B's and C's on my high school essays. My grammar and spelling have always been suspect.

Excellent, quality post Kevin. Keep up the good work.

And could you maybe ask your editor about firing Preston while you're at it?

Yawn. OK, something to write when nothing is happening. As others said, no real conclusions about anything. A waste of time.

This is a very interesting and thought provoking article. I would actually expand the scope of the article to include non-athletes. In other words, do we as a society tend to overrate leadership in general. For instance, do we overpay individuals to lead corporations? Do we overpay politicians to lead us? Do politicians lead us, represent us, or rule us? I think that implications of this concept when applied to things beyond athletics creates a very important discussion.


I think the discussion of Lewis’ skill fading is overblown. The voters for the AP all-pro team are writers or course, and not players, so you would think their decisions were not about sentimentality or reputation. They had no problem leaving him off in previous years. The fact is that Ray Lewis was the leader on the 2nd best defense in the NFL. Ask Rashard Mendenhall if he has slowed down. Look also how the Ravens’ defense went in the tank the last 2.5 games of 2007 when he was out. He makes a marked difference when on the field, especially defending the run and short passing game. Comparing stats to 1999 or other years is really irrelevant. The Ravens have always been one of the best defenses in yards per play. When the offense is sub-par, the defense has to get on the field more, hence more tackles and opportunities for tackles. This year, with the offense having the best time of possession in the league, there were fewer opportunities to make tackles, but the same or better in yards per play given up . Heck, Ray Lewis’ best years in terms of tackles were 1996-1998, when the defense was not as good. He HAD to run down all those players because the upfront guys couldn’t cut it. A better stat would be comparing his tackles per play with other players in 2008, not himself.

Ray Lewis could run a sub 4.5 out of college, even if he now runs a 4.7 that still is considered good for an interior linebacker. His accumulated knowledge gives him the ability to know where plays are going to be and put himself in the right position to make the play, much like Cal Ripken used to do. Although he is not the ATHELETE he once was, he is close to being the equal as a PLAYER. Really, who else at the interior linebacker position in the NFL reads plays, attacks the ball carrier, defends the pass and causes havoc as well as him? Maybe one guy, Patrick Willis. His age doesn’t matter, except for how Preston and others have commented that he slows a little bit down near the end of the season. But who doesn’t?

Another thing, this guy plays AND practices while hurt. I remember a few years ago Preston was knocking Lewis for not playing with a “little old thigh injury” in 2004. Well, after the season he had to have surgery on the quad for the supposedly insignificant injury. And when the Patriots were making their run at a perfect regular season in 2007, Bruschi was 34, Vrabel 32, Seau 38, Adalius Thomas 30, and Roosevelt Colvin 30. Yet the Pats had the 4th ranked defense in terms of yards and points allowed, with an over 30 linebacking corps. No one seemed to mention age as limiting their ability. It also wasn’t the Pat’s defense’s fault that their o-line was manhandled by the NY Giants d-line.

The bottom line for me is that overall, the stats don’t show a decline, his play doesn’t show it and we shouldn’t expect it to decline greatly. He is still extremely effective when compared to other interior linebackers in the league and worth every penny, even without the leadership and motivational skills he possesses.

This is an ongoing argument with my girlfriend, who played college volleyball, and me, who never played on the collegiate level. So, I may be totally off base on this.

Just what is leadership? Mostly what passes as leadership in pro sports is a guy just doing his job--practicing, playing hard, studying film, and not being too much of an a-hole. (You can still be an a-hole, just not too big of one and be considered "a leader.") I totally think that while leadership and other intangibles are important, it's the physical talent that are necessary and drive leagues. That's why TO will always have a roster spot as long as he body holds up.

And, Ethan, while I appreciate the accompanying video, I really think it doesn't encapsulate what type of season Ray had. In the beginning of the season (as Mike Preston has pointed out), Lewis was great. He did tail off down the stretch. In support, I submit Football Outsiders breakdown of the Ravens' LBs:

While Lewis misses some tackles (and pretty painfully in this video), he's still a superior LB, even if his intangibles are touted far too much in comparison to their actual effect on the game.

By the way, I really like the Toy Department blog. Constant posting and usually long posts, which I prefer to those two or three sentence posts.

The article has some merit of Ray Lewis performance, but the video tape is based off a regular season game against a running back(Willie Parker) that averages less than 3.0 yards a game against the Ravens. What did Ray Lewis do in the playoff? 29 tackles, and 2 force fumbles (Ray snatched the ball away from Willie Parker). I dont speculate on anyones salary these days and time will tell if Ray Lewis is worth his the money the Ravens have invested in him.

I like the overveiw of this article and in some aspects its somewhat acurrate, but highly inacurrate in others. While speaking treason from Lewis to Billick and being a free-agent. However he wanted what everyone else did and that is what's best for the team and we know Billicks days were numbered reguardless of his new contract. It was what was best for the team. Even though he talked about different teams as a free agent can you blame him for trying to see his true value even if it was this late in his career. Let's face the fact that if he was even 30 he would have had offers that the Ravens may not be able to have matched. He also had a very good year for his age. Speaking of his age he may have lost a step but he is still a better player than most. He proved he could still drop back in coverage because by mid- season he lead the team in passed defended, which is one of the most important and yet underrated stats. And if you watched the games last year, in which I watched each game at least twice (one for enjoyment and the others to breaking down film), he is still always around the ball and still lead the tem in tackles. I've also seen him still working through trash to get pressure on the QB. He slowed down toward the end of the year, but so did the whole team overall. He also chased down a few guys from behind even if it was a short distance. He did miss on some tackles this year but then again the whole team seemed to have trouble at times wrapping up. His leadership is still unquestioned and will continue to make the others around him better players as well as men. Also some players are built for football. Ray stays in great shape and still plays at a high level even gaining weight to help bar injury. Seau played for how long!! Ray is better than Junior. Bottom line is Ray is one of the greatest ILB of all time if not thee best. He still is one of the best ILB in the league now. The problem is that people have made a God out of a living legend and there is only one God. Remember that and watch more film before anybody wants to criticize people.

The trouble with raw numbers is, well, they're raw. Some are comparing Lewis in a predominantly 4-3 formation to a 3-4. And while many offenses are designed to avoid Lewis, he still leads the team in tackles.

If one wants to talk about leadership, it is actually quite easy to define and observe.

How prepared is Lewis? No one is more prepared. He sees the play selected by the opposition before most players, and relays that to his teammates.

How demanding is Lewis? He accepts nothing less from his teammates than 100%. He is not ignored because he accepts nothing less than 100% from himself.

Does Lewis make those around him better? Please don't make me give the full laundry list of those who left Baltimore's D, and didn't fare as well. And that was with three going on four different defensive coordinators.

Yeah, Lewis tossed Billick under the bus (which delighted the Billick hating dolts) and angled to get the best contract possible. Those qualities speak to other things which make up Ray Lewis (and perhaps what some people want in a leader) but it doesn't speak to actual leadership.

You clearly lack the wisdom to understand the impact Johnny Unitas had on every other player on the field, even after his skills were diminishing. Ray Lewis is respected not just on the Ravens, just as Unitas was respected universally, but throughout the league. Lewis is the unquestioned leader of this team, with the acquiescence of management because they have the wisdom to know the value of his presence on the team. You just don't.

ray earns his money and deserves what he gets. he still the best mlb in the game at 34 years old. the reason he was missing tackles in december was because we didnt get a freaking bye week. he was worn down and you could see it. cj was too fast for him in the playoff appearance but then again cj was burning every ravens player at that point.

ray will still be playing at a high level until he calls it quits. he keeps himself in supreme shape year in and out and has the supporting cast in his defensive line to ensure he doesnt get blocked on every down.

and his leadership is priceless. he will be a coach with the ravens for years to come and a staple in this city after he retires.

I grew up in Minnesota watching the Vikings. Carl Eller and Alan Page were the leaders then......and good ones. While I respect Lewis's incredible talent and ability to motivate young players, I have never been able to get past his urgent need to be "front and center" all the time. He's a great player, but as a leader, well I'm not so sure about that. Lots of stuff away from the field too that draws negative attention to the organization.

I think the article was cohesive, well thought out, and very thought provoking. I agree it's not a reporters job to write sonets about the stars of the team they cover. I don't find this to be a slander piece at all. I rather like like the fact that it allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. Ray is iconic. It's a status few athletes ever truly reach. The comparison to Unitas is both apt and intriguing. My personal opinion is that I'm glad he's still a Raven and will remain one for life. That final year in San Diego for Unitas was painful to watch.

Damn, Eric, he leaned on you! It really isn't Kevin's job to be fawning over Lewis like you seem to want him to...

Fantastic article for one reason- it's thought provoking. I suspect most Ravens fans don't want to accept that he's getting older. Everyone here is right- he's slowed down but is still a fantastic player and a team leader. As far as his contract- it's simple- if anyone deserves a legacy contract, it's Ray Ray. I challenge someone to name the "bad contracts" (players- not Billick) Ozzie has done ...anyone?...Leon Searcy maybe but I'm struggling to think of one...the thought of Ray in a Giants uniform is unsettling enough that I think this is a good deal. Let's face it, we didn't give 20 million like, for example, the Skins just gave DeAngelo Hall, a guy who's done nothing. Most fans around the league can immediately think of multiple "do-over" contracts they'd like their team to have back.

Good stuff Kevin...Bravo!

El Doaker

If Lewis has such a positive effect on the "character" in the locker room, why could he not straighten out C-Mac?

Every reasonable observer had the same take on re-siging Lewis. It made sense as long as the contract did not put the team into cap jeopardy.

From the supportive posts here one would think the Ravens would fall to 4-12 immmediately w/o Lewis. His mentoring made Reed a better player but it is not reasonable to assume Reed would suddenly become mediocre w/o Lewis around or that Reed does not have the same effect on young players.

It's fine having Lewis back but I would have preferred to keep Bart Scott. We'll find out soon enough. Clearly the most important Raven will soon be Flacco if he isn't already. If anyone doubts that just look at what Cutler brought in a trade. And thats for a QB who is maybe half as good as Joe.

Ray Lewis has been the single constant element throughout the Raven's history on Defense. Not a single linebacker who played along side Ray Lewis has exhibited an empirical improvement when playing alongside any linebacker not named Ray Lewis, Last year, those Ravens defenders (as a collective) had the 2nd best defense in the NFL. Ed Reed is a playmaker and he can be a leader, but he is usually only taking a leadership role when his teammates perform poorly. Ray Lewis inspires his teammates. We've repeatedly heard of Ray Lewis inspiring his teammates either individually or as a unit.

When I talk of empirical evidence, I mean that last year Ray Lewis led the Ravens' front seven in passes defended, tackles and interceptions. I mean that Ray Lewis finished #3 in sacks, #2 in interceptions, #1 in passes defended, #2 in forced fumbles, #1 in recovered fumbles and #10 in tackles in the NFL among inside/middle linebackers. He had a better statistical season than any other middle linebacker in the NFL this year.

What we overrate in athletes is potential, not leadership. Too many veteran players who could play just as well (if not better) than anyone else on the team got bumped because of "potential."

We create these archtypes of when a player is supposed to be in his prime and when he'll start to decline and it's sad when a veteran player doesn't fit that archtype, but everyone still treats him that way. That's what's going with Ray Lewis.

Not a single other middle linebacker in the league (not Patrick Willis, or anybody) played as well as Ray Lewis.

Ray Lewis is old news. No one is going to get excited about Ray Lewis because he's declining. People will get excited on guys with no ceiling, because the "good years" are still yet to come. It's bullshit.

In direct reaction to the article and its title....while talking about Ray Lewis, NO leadership is not overrated. Dont forget the man is only human but what he brings to the table and gives to others around him is far greater than what most are capable of.

Interesting topic but to some extent I disagree with the premise (as opposed to the question of whether Ray is overrated).

I'm not sure I understand why you say we "can't define" leadership. Most of us work at jobs where we have formal bosses as well as informal leaders. Some are really good leaders for a variety of reasons that you can usually identify (they are good at their job; they are smart; they work hard; they are nice; they help you do your job when they can). Some are not (they are bad at their job; they think of themselves as leaders first, instead of part of the team; they're jerks; they go out of their way to make life more difficult for their colleagues; they are looking out for themselves).

It's really not hard to define leadership at all (and there are dozens of books on the topic). We may overrate leadership; but we rate it highly because it has been proven in sports, business, school and pretty much every other walk of life, to be really important.

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