For more than a decade, the Baltimore Ravens have been synonymous with Ray Lewis. The iconic inside linebacker has been the beating heart, the praying soul and the screaming face of the Ravens franchise.
Just before the Ravens took the field for Super Bowl XLVII, Lewis stood up to give his last pregame talk. Per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Lewis's emotional 11-minute speech moved many Ravens to tears.
The man who led the Ravens deep into the playoffs year after year—and to two Super Bowl titles—is now a full-time dad.
All NFL teams that achieve perennial success have at least a few outstanding players, and many of them are built around one remarkable star—a legend—who serves as the inward and outward face of the franchise.
Once that player is gone, how can a team retain its winning identity—or re-shape itself around a new one? How can a team move on after losing a franchise player?
Have a Succession Plan
The most natural way to replace a franchise player, it would seem, is to have his replacement already on the roster.
By planning for the franchise player's departure ahead of time, the team doesn't have to scramble to find a replacement. When Minnesota traded Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders, it immediately reached for the tallest, fastest receiver it could at No. 7 overall—and took legendary draft bust, Troy Williamson.
Planning a succession isn't easy.
First, there's the question of when the franchise player will move on. Most franchise players expect, and get, the luxury of choosing their own time to go, as Lewis did.
For many players, retirement is something that weighs on their minds for years before the pain and work tip the scales away from the competition, camaraderie and cash.
Knowing enough in advance that it's their "last ride," as Lewis frequently called it, to draft a replacement may not happen. Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders famously called the Detroit Lions to inform them of his retirement the day before training camp, leaving them desperate for a running back.
If the heir apparent really has what it takes, and is carrying a top draft pick's salary, pressure is immediately on the coaches to get that player on the field. Even with a position like quarterback that can benefit from extended time on the bench, there's only so long a top prospect can wait.
The Packers were put in an impossible spot: let the potential future of their franchise wither on the vine, or tell a living legend it's time to pack his cleats and go.
The Packers wisely chose the latter, but Favre's forced retirement kicked off a mutli-season drama. Favre retired, attempted to un-retire but was rebuffed by the Packers, got traded to the Jets, played a controversy-filled season, retired, un-retired, signed with the Packers' rival, the Minnesota Vikings, played well, returned for another season, played poorly and finally retired.
Meanwhile, the Packers won a Super Bowl with Rodgers and continue to be perennial contenders. The relationship between them and Favre—every bit as synonymous with the Packers as Lewis is with the Ravens, but for longer—was severely damaged. Only now are tensions starting to thaw:
This all presumes the heir apparent is good enough to fill the franchise player's shoes.
With Manning, the Colts were a perennial playoff contender. In his 13 healthy seasons, Manning led the Colts to double-digit wins 11 times. When a neck injury kept him out of the 14th season, it became crushingly obvious how much of the Colts' success he was responsible for.
The Colts went from 10-6 with Peyton to 2-14 without him. The reputation of the father-son front-office team of Bill and Chris Polian went from that of brilliant men whose genius served as the model for all other executives, to one of bumbling fools fired for a decade of bad drafting.
Obviously, NFL executives who built a perennial contender that went to two Super Bowls and won one are not fools—but Manning's injury suggested that a significant portion of their genius was being lucky enough to hold the No. 1 overall pick the year Manning left college.
With owner Jim Irsay cleaning house, a new front office team and coaching staff had to find a new direction, a new identity, a new franchise player.
Then, they got lucky. Again picking No. 1 overall, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was the best prospect to come out in years—and likely, for years to come. The Colts took him, built their offense around him, and went on an incredible, improbable 11-5 run.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who manned the helm while head coach Chuck Pagano fought and beat leukemia, was named NFL Coach of the Year and was quickly snapped up to lead the Arizona Cardinals.
Going forward, Pagano and new general manager Ryan Grigson's challenge won't be to replace Peyton, just to get enough talent around Luck to keep their new double-digit win streak alive.
Move in a Different Direction
The Ravens already have a promising young inside linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe, though they'll have to re-sign him. Whether the Ravens re-sign Ellerbe, or draft a middle linebacker like Manti Te'o with their first-round pick, they still can't replace Ray Lewis.
Lewis is one of a kind. Lewis was a unique leader who, at the peak of his powers, was practically a one-man defense. If a rookie got up in front of the Ravens next season to deliver an emotional eleven-minute speech, they might be the one left in tears.
What the Ravens need to do—with a stroke of Joe Flacco's pen on an enormous new contract—is go in a different direction.
While the Ravens aren't in for a defensive overhaul, the team's identity will no longer be that of a terrorizing, suffocating defense, but an offense that balances Joe Flacco's downfield passing attack with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce's relentless running.
The Ravens can't find another Ray Lewis, but they've found the first Joe Flacco.
Build a Team Around a Structure
The best way to move on from a franchise player is to have an organization with solid leadership at the top and a clear structure of authority.
For the Ravens, that's general manager and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome, who's steered the Ravens to two titles with two different head coaches and two different rosters (whose only link is Lewis).
For the Packers, it's general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy, who rebuilt the Packers around Rodgers on the fly and had the nerve to stand up to Favre for the good of the team.
Ultimately, the best way to move on from a franchise player is to make sure no player—no matter how great—is ever bigger than the team, or more important than winning.