Breaking Down the Little Things That Separate Good Players from Great Players

BJ Kissel@bkissel7Contributor IJune 14, 2013

Breaking Down the Little Things That Separate Good Players from Great Players

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    It's always amazing how you can take two different players with identical physical traits and abilities and watch one blossom into an NFL star, while the other fades and never lives up to that same potential. 

    There are literally dozens of variables that affect whether or not a player lives up to their physical potential. It's those variables that many times will separate the good players from the great players. It's things like work ethic, passion, mental acuity, leadership and instincts. They can separate two players with similar athletic ability. 

    Obviously having elite athleticism can get you far on the football field, but at some point there needs to be more than just physical ability. When you combine a player with elite physical ability and these other characteristics, that's when you find a special player. 

    The next 10 slides will each discuss one variable that's found among these "great" players, and break down a particular player that's known for that specific trait. 

Work Ethic: Jerry Rice

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    Anytime you talk about Jerry Rice's impact on the game of football there's going to be a mention in there somewhere about his work ethic. His name has become synonymous with preparation and dedication.

    Rice describes his famous "hill workout" in the video above. 

    Work ethic is probably the top characteristic that separates many good players from many great players. That's not a put-down on the other NFL players either. Many have obviously done enough to put themselves in a position to play football at its highest level, but that doesn't mean there still aren't players that continually go above and beyond what their peers are doing. 

    It's those players that go above and beyond who also possess elite athletic ability and football skills, they're the ones who make themselves bigger than the game. They're the ones who are remembered and revered in the same way we see Jerry Rice now.

    Thank you! Be in town soon! Can't wait! RT @JerryRice: @Ajjenkins8 congrats on being a niner! Holla at me will take you to the hill. Lol

    — AJ Jenkins (@17AJJenkins) April 27, 2012

    When the San Francisco 49ers drafted Ohio State wide receiver AJ Jenkins in the first round of the 2011 draft, it wasn't long before the Hall of Famer was trying to get Jenkins to that famous hill.

    Maybe Jenkins should take him up on that offer now. 

Talent: Adrian Peterson

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    As much as we all talk about the intangibles, things like leadership, work ethic, passion for the game and things like that, truth is, none of it matters if the player doesn't have talent.

    We can promote all of these things and say they matter and it's not that they don't, but if the player doesn't have the talent to reach a ceiling through development that will help you win football games, none of it matters. At least not in terms of separating good players from the great players. 

    Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature from a physical standpoint, but he also possesses enough natural talent that would rival any other running back in history. He's big, strong, quick, fast and physical. He's the perfect running back with a talent that's been undeniable even going back to his days at the University of Oklahoma. 

Attention to Detail: Aaron Rodgers

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    There are a lot of good quarterbacks in the NFL right now and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best of the bunch.

    Like most professional athletes, the difference between good and great is in the details. Aaron Rodgers worries about those details. Former Packer and current Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings shared his thoughts on the Packers quarterback, via

    "His attention to detail and his discipline to be perfect or so close to perfect I think that's really going to separate himself ... his study habits are ... they speak volume for themselves."

    There's the old saying of 'don't practice something until you get it right, practice it until you can't get it wrong." Aaron Rodgers seems to live by this motto with the way he goes about his craft.

    Rodgers has the physical abilities and mental makeup to play the quarterback position, obviously, but how has he separated himself from these other fantastic quarterbacks in the NFL? It's not just for one reason or one specific characteristic, but his attention to detail and study habits have served him well so far in his career and that's been noticed by his teammates.

    But don't ask him to share his study habits, as Rodgers said via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    "I don't want to give out my routine because it's personal and it works for me"

     A player's ability to fully dedicate to his personal development by taking the time to hash out the little things, the details, often are what separate the good players from the great players. 

Physical Ability: Calvin Johnson

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    Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL.

    He's a physically dominating player at an athletic 6'5", 236 pounds. He uses that frame well and picked up just under 2,000 yards receiving last season for the Detroit Lions. He's a special player for a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons is simply his physically imposing size and athletic ability. 

    In order to be a great NFL player there's a certain amount of physical ability that's required. This isn't any kind of a shocking revelation, but a player can have all nine of these other characteristics and still not be a great NFL player. There's a certain level of physical ability that's required. 

    There are a good number of NFL players that will always be considered "good" but not "great" because of some limitations that are out of their control. If an offensive tackle has all of these other characteristics but stands at 6'1, 275 pounds, then there's going to be an issue. 

    Players can transform their bodies to a certain extent, but you can't just add physical ability that isn't there. If it was that easy, then we wouldn't have players that separate themselves like we do with Calvin Johnson. 

Rising to the Occasion: Joe Flacco

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    When you're named the Super Bowl MVP then you get to be listed among the "great" players in the NFL right now. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco made himself an icon with his performance in Super Bowl XLVII

    Flacco finished the biggest game of his life going 22-33 for 287 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That entire playoff run saw Flacco throw 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. That's the very definition of clutch. 

    He played fantastic football when it mattered the most. That's something that great players do and it's one more thing that separates the good players from the great players. 

Instincts: Patrick Willis

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    You can't be a great NFL player without having great football instincts.

    San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis is a great example of a player that combines elite physical ability with a high football IQ, as displayed by his instincts. 

    Playing linebacker in the NFL is more than being a physically dominating football man-child in the middle of the action, although it is those things. But it doesn't do you any good to have those physical abilities if they don't translate to making plays. If you're a half-step slow in your reaction to a run-play then it doesn't really matter if you're the fastest linebacker in NFL history, it's not translating to making plays on the field. 

    Special players like Willis come along when you get the combination of top physical/athletic ability, but can also quickly make the right reads, anticipate plays and consistently be in a position to make plays. Many players can get away with lesser athletic ability if they possess a high football IQ. 

    Willis has been to six consecutive Pro Bowls since coming into the NFL in 2007 and has been named to the All-Pro team each year he's been in the league as well. His physical abilities helped him get to the NFL but his instincts have made him a future Hall of Famer. 

Passion: Ray Lewis

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    You'd have a hard time naming five more-passionate players over the last decade than former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray LewisHe's what it's all about for this specific characteristic.

    You've got to have a passion for the game, your teammates, your craft and your ability if you're going to be considered a "great" NFL player. 

    Ray Lewis showed throughout his illustrious 17-year career with the Ravens that his passion for the game was unmatched by any other player. Sure, sometimes it seemed over the top and a bit much, at least that's how it felt leading up to the Ravens' most recent Super Bowl victory. But Lewis retiring was one of the big story lines of the time and the focus was going to be on him. 

    Without a strong passion for the game these other characteristics would fall short. Could a player have great work ethic for a game he's not passionate about? Maybe. Would that same player show the leadership and attention to detail for a game he's not passionate about? Probably not. 

    Passion for the game separates many prospects when they first come into the league. Finding out if someone is a "football player" or a "guy who plays football?" is vitally important for a team leading up to the NFL draft. 

    Ray Lewis was a never a question in this area. 

Mental Acuity: Peyton Manning

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    If you love football, then there's nothing better than watching Peyton Manning go through his pre-snap routine under center.

    Manning displays elite mental acuity in being able to quickly process information before the snap, relay that to his teammates and have that translate out on the football field. Many players at different positions have to display high mental acuity in order to play their positions well—it's a necessary requirement for a lot of skill positions. But it's more easily noticed from the guy consistently with the ball in his hands. 

    Manning has been considered an elite quarterback for more than a decade and has amassed almost 60,000 yards passing so far in his 15-year career. His ability to process information and always get the ball to the right guy at the right time has always been his stigma. That's what he's known for. 

    The 12-time Pro Bowler and six time All-Pro showed last season with the Denver Broncos that he's got a few elite seasons left in him. While he might not possess the physical ability to do some of the things he's done throughout his career, he's sharp as ever and continues to put guys that play around him in positions to succeed.

    The ability to quickly process information is another characteristic that separates the good players from the great players. 

Leadership: Eli Manning

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    Eli Manning set a NFL record back in 2011 for having the most game-winning drives (8) of any quarterback in a season in NFL history. 

    Anyone who's been near a television in the past few years knows of his beating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, twice, both times as the underdog. Leading up to both games, Manning was largely overshadowed by media-hype surrounding Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

    Manning managed to change this perception after his second head-to-head win on the biggest stage in football. 

    Manning already has two career-defining throws in Super Bowl games. His pass to David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII will always go down as one of the top plays in Super Bowl history, and his pass to Mario Manningham down the sideline in Super Bowl XLVI will always be remembered as well. 

    Manning isn't the most media-savvy guy in the world or the most interesting interview to listen, but neither of those things are considered important factors for a player to be successful where it actually matters: on the field.

    Leadership on the football field is simply leading a group of men towards a common goal. Manning has done that and achieved those goals on two separate occasions.

    Leadership isn't a requirement for a great player, but if a teams' best players aren't their leaders, that's a team that probably won't have a lot of success. 

Effort: Packers Outside Linebacker Clay Matthews

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    The last characteristic that separates the good players from the great players is "effort." Great players don't get to where they are without putting in the time and effort to earn it.

    Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews is relentless in getting after the passer. He has shown throughout his career to put out maximum effort on each and every play. He'll chase down quarterbacks from behind and throw his body around in the name of whatever's best for the defense. 

    The chip on Matthews' shoulder is still very alive and well and you can see that in the way that he plays the game. Matthews didn't receive any football scholarships out of high school. He then walked on to the USC program and didn't even start until mid-way through his senior year. He had primarily been a special teams player and spot-duty linebacker at USC before he got his opportunity to start. Via

    "I think now it's become so commonplace from where I've come from that that's how I play the game—with a chip on my shoulder.....I think if I had it easier in regard to going to college and being handed certain things then I might not be where I am today or have the same type of drive or intensity that fuels me each and every day."

    Matthews still uses his past experiences to fuel his drive towards becoming a better player and leader. It's served him well as he's landed on four consecutive Pro Bowl teams for the Packers since coming into the league in 2009.

    This special characteristic of "effort" is hard to quantify or differentiate among players because all players that get to the NFL level had to of put out some kind of an effort just in order to get there. But some players surpass others that might have had more physical ability than they did, and one of the reasons they might have passed these players is because of their effort.