Commentary

Jets need leaders more than captains

Rex Ryan can do without Cs on jerseys, but not without leadership

Originally Published: July 6, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

A letter on a jersey doesn't make a man a leader any more than the zeros at the end of his paycheck make him one. Being a leader isn't about being the richest guy in a locker room or the most popular or the best player or the one that has a C on his jersey. It is about being accountable and accessible -- in July when the spotlight isn't on and in December when it is at its brightest.

After the debacle that was the New York Jets' 2011 season, coach Rex Ryan has opted to do away with the NFL-wide practice of anointing captains. The Jets won't have any this season, not officially anyway. Not Mark Sanchez or Santonio Holmes or Darrelle Revis or even that natural-born leader Tim Tebow, who is serving as Sanchez's backup.

Ryan doesn't need captains, and that is all well and good within his discretion. He had captain-on-captain crime last season. He doesn't need that again. But what he needs -- what every team needs -- is leaders, on offense, defense and special teams. He needs men who can lead by example, who can lead with their voices, who can spread Ryan's message and stand up when things go awry.

Ryan needs that just like the other 31 head coaches in the NFL need that. The C on a jersey is merely a formality, a manufactured acknowledgement of a player's status. Captains you can live without. Leaders you must have.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez, Rex Ryan
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireHe won't be a captain, but Mark Sanchez has to be a leader for Rex Ryan and the Jets.

Holmes was a captain for the Jets last season, but he wasn't a leader. You can't be the former if you aren't the latter.

The whole captaincy thing in the NFL is overrated. Players know who is, and who isn't, a leader on their teams. The leaders prove it day in and day out, with how they conduct themselves when they are at work. Leaders come in all forms. They can be quiet and let their actions, how they train, how they prepare and how they bring it on game days speak for them. They can be vocal, correcting teammates who make mistakes or don't work hard enough or miss assignments.

They can be the voices of reason or the ones to ask pertinent questions or the ones who stand up after a particularly rough defeat and take responsibility, even when the responsibility wasn't theirs alone to take. They can stand up to their coaches, be the voice of the majority, and have clout that has been earned over time.

They can't disappear or whine or point fingers or deflect blame. They can't mope and sulk. And they certainly can't be all about themselves in a sport where all 53 players are needed in order to succeed.

We are winding down what has been an unusually newsworthy offseason. Soon, mercifully, the talk will pivot from lawsuits and bounties to position battles and training camps. In the summer heat under new, relatively relaxed practice rules, teams will begin to take shape and leaders, whether christened with a C or not, will emerge.

Given the new practice parameters set forth in the CBA -- parameters the NFL Players Association fought hard to win for its constituency, at a significant cost -- coaches have bristled that the game has become more cerebral. Coaches don't like having limited practices, less hitting and fewer opportunities to teach and evaluate players. Now more than ever, it is incumbent on the player, whether a 10-year veteran or an undrafted rookie free agent, to work on his own, to study his playbook and make sure he knows what to do.

That will make leaders even more valuable resources. They will be extensions of their coaches, teaching and instructing even when their coaches cannot.

So while it won't matter that the Jets don't have any official captains, they must have leaders, and if Sanchez isn't one of them, that will be a problem. He has certainly tried to be one. His "Jets West" camp in California, where he invites his skill-position teammates to work out with him on his home turf before training camp starts, is a great thing. But he will have to do more.

Sanchez must lead by example and produce. He will have to be accurate, steady, resilient and effective. The Jets have a formidable early slate of games with Buffalo, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston and New England among the opponents on tap before a Week 9 bye. Sanchez will have to deftly lead the team and endure whatever pitfalls the Jets encounter.

He would be wise to take a page from his crosstown peer Eli Manning, who never wavered last season when the Giants lost five of six games to drop to 7-7 with two games to play. Manning never hung his head, never called out a teammate, never did anything but keep pushing forward and trying to get better. He didn't let calls for his coach's head bump him off message. "Stay together and finish" was a mantra Tom Coughlin preached and Manning echoed.

Manning was the quintessential leader: Quiet but effective, steady and strong.

When this season finally starts, plenty of teams will have captains, even if the Jets will not. The ones that have strong leaders, though, will be the ones with the best chance for success.