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.