It's in the confident barks and finger-pointing of Peyton Manning as he directs his squad at the line of scrimmage. It's in Tom Brady's cool demeanor as he leads his team down the field, and the anger he turns at a referee who's robbed his team of victory.
Leadership jumps off the screen at fans and media alike; it's the unmistakable passion of a star player who commands respect.
What's the antithesis of leadership? Well, that's easy: immature outbursts like Dez Bryant's sideline temper tantrum during a Week 8 loss to the Detroit Lions or blame-shirking like Robert Griffin III's anybody's-fault-but-mine comments after a failed Week 11 fourth-quarter comeback against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Teams that have great leaders win, and teams that have poor leaders in key positions are doomed to fail. It's a story we tell ourselves before, during and after every NFL game.
Is it really that simple, though?
Do players' on-field actions and off-the-cuff comments really open up a window to their soul? Is the line between fiery leadership and bratty outbursts really so black and white?
A Level of Performance
Griffin seems to kick off a news cycle of reaction, analysis and debate every time he speaks. When the second-year starter ended a possible game-winning drive against the Philadelphia Eagles with an ill-advised, ill-timed interception, Griffin seemed to blame his receivers in comments to the media.
Receiver Santana Moss fired back. "At the end of the day," Moss said on The LaVar Arrington Show with Chad Dukes (via CBS Sports), "I was seen with the ball in my hand last—as a quarterback I’m saying—and if it didn’t get done then I’m going to let you know it was me.”
At the next press conference, Griffin responded to Moss's comments by saying he'd try to say "I" or "me" more often, per Chris Russell of ESPN Radio 980. Look at the official transcript of Griffin's original quotes:
We had a certain concept with running and nobody got open so I was backing up, and in the situation where you get a sack there, it ends the game. I was trying to throw the ball to the back of the end zone. It didn’t get to where I wanted it to go. Obviously I was on my heels and it’s something I can definitely learn from, but at the end of the day, for us to claw back the way we did—it sounds cliche and we always talk about character. The guys in that locker room are family and they fought hard. It’s tough to swallow something like that but we have to digest it and move on and there are still games to be played and we need to go play them.
"I was backing up," "I was trying," "It didn't get to where I wanted it," "I was on my heels," "I can definitely learn." That looks like a whole lot of "I" statements to me—and Griffin gave the whole team credit for coming back to within one play.
Why on Earth did local and national media spend two days chewing their collective cud on this non-story? Why did Moss take umbrage at Griffin saying "nobody was getting open" when it was manifestly true? Maybe it's because Griffin's still a relative greenhorn, and Moss is in his 13th season.
Griping about others' play seems more legitimate when your track record is unimpeachable.
For a guy like Manning, a six-time first team All-Pro and 12-time Pro Bowl selection, there's no question he knows what he's talking about when he critiques performance. However, his credentials seem to grant him a free pass from fans and the media on the rare occasions a crack opens up in his polished persona.
Take this picture, tweeted by the official Denver Broncos account after owner/CEO Pat Bowlen received a game ball on the heels of a four-touchdown Manning performance:
Just behind Bowlen and head coach Jon Fox, Manning looks like he's about to rip the ball out of Bowlen's hands. For the few media outlets that even noticed or commented on the picture—and Bleacher Report did—a few "Manningface" jokes were the beginning and end of it.
Where was the 48 hours of hue and cry? Where was the national referendum on Manning's "maturity"? Nowhere, because Peyton Manning's career accomplishments are already so great that he's always just five years away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame; all he has to do is hang 'em up and wait.
Maybe when Griffin's closer to 40 than 30—and has a Super Bowl ring or two—he'll get the same deference.
A Difference of Position
There's a natural authority that comes with the quarterback position. Receiving play calls from the sideline, relaying them to the rest of the team and executing the offense on every snap makes a quarterback an authority, regardless of how good (or not) he is.
When a quarterback—especially an established veteran like Brady—gets angry, it carries weight. As an on-field extension of the head coach and offensive coordinator, the signal-caller should know better than any other player who's supposed to be doing what.
When receivers—especially a so-called diva like Bryant—get upset about anything, people chalk it up to self-centeredness. We don't perceive as having the legitimacy to criticize others those players who line up by themselves on the edges of the field.
Yet, no other position is as dependent on the production of his teammates. A receiver might play 50, 60 or 70 snaps and see only a handful of targets. Even then, there's no guarantee the passes that come his way will be catchable.
You call this leadership? Arms out & not 1 player or coach listening to him. More like a selfish temper tantrum. pic.twitter.com/lFEGKO5lmf— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) October 27, 2013
Bryant had a reason to be upset. In the fourth quarter against the Lions, Bryant had just taken his sixth target 50 yards for a touchdown—and that was his second touchdown on the day (per Pro Football Reference). Romo threw Bryant's way only one more time the rest of the game; even that play was wiped off the books by a defensive penalty.
As it turns out, though, Bryant wasn't upset, at least not in the way everyone assumed. For the Win's Nate Scott transcribed audio of Bryant's rant; Bryant wasn't melting down, he was pumping up his and quarterback Tony Romo's ability to beat press-man coverage deep.
That evening, Barry Horn of The Dallas Morning News spoke with Michael Irvin, the former Hall of Fame Cowboys receiver. Irvin said his contacts on the team were all fine with Dez's speech and behavior, but that news didn't register with the rest of the football-watching nation.
And the "Dez Bryant Sideline Meltdown" narrative train left the station.
A Race to the Bottom
There's one other factor here that bears discussing: race.
My colleague, fellow Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman, spoke with another former superstar Cowboys receiver about Bryant's episode, and the ensuing national discussion.
"I don't want to say it, but I do wonder if race plays a part in the double standard," Terrell Owens told Freeman. "Why is Brady treated one way, and Dez another?" The answer could be in Brady's rings and Dez's lack thereof, or the different positions the two men play—but it's hard not to notice the differences in their appearance.
Here's where sports fans and media need to take a good hard look in the mirror.
Very few people are openly racist. In fact, many who are racist by any objective definition swear they aren't. Even in folks who'll tell you they deplore racism, generations of inherited biases and hidden prejudices crop up.
On Dec. 4, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote about the movie 12 Years a Slave, and drew a parallel between the movie's main character and President Obama. Chait cited a recent example of a common refrain of Obama's sharpest critics: Obama's cocky, arrogant, and refuses to admit mistakes. Chait pointed out this is objectively not so:
It is bizarre to ascribe haughtiness and a lack of a capacity for embarrassment to a president whose most recent notable public appearance was a profusely and even flamboyantly contrite press conference spent repeatedly confessing to “fumbles” and “mistakes.”
This reminds me of the infamous scouting report Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki authored on Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton:
Very disingenuous—has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law—does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness—is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
This venomous personal attack was not only wildly inappropriate and out of place in a scouting report, it was completely unsupported by evidence—not even ambiguous vibes from anonymous sources. Yet, Nawrocki couldn't restrain himself from savaging Newton's character.
Three years removed from that report, Newton is playing great football, and his Panthers are the hottest team in the league.
Newton's on pace for about 3,500 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, while completing a career-high 61.7 percent of his passes, all per Pro Football Reference. That doesn't even count his rushing production, which is on track for about 600 yards and eight touchdowns.
Better yet, Newton's led three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives so far this season, when he'd only had two of each in his first two seasons combined. If that's not evidence of growth, maturation and consistency, I don't know what is.
Does Newton celebrate when he plays well? Absolutely. Does he sulk when he doesn't, or when his teammates let him down? Yes, that too—just like any other quarterback. For every "Cam Newton sulked on the sideline," I can find you a "Matthew Stafford threw his Gatorade." Why is the former a story, when the latter isn't?
It rubs some people the wrong way when an African-American excels without apologizing for it.
A Matter of Perspective
If there's anything we can learn from this mess, it's that everyone perceives leadership differently.
Leadership can be expressed in fiery motivational speeches, a la former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, or through quiet on-field excellence, like Calvin Johnson. Leadership can pop off the screen, like Manning's unquestioned reign over whatever team he's playing for—or it can be completely hidden from public view, shining through in early-morning weight room sessions or Sunday morning chapel.
The reality is, unless we're on the practice field, in the locker room or on the sideline with these young men, we'll never know what it's really like to work with them. In fact, I guarantee that every certified "great leader" has a teammate who doesn't buy the schtick, and every "diva" has a teammate who'd expel his dying breath defending him. That's how people work.
Next time get fired up about a player getting fired up, take the time to ask yourself if you really understand what motivates that man or his teammates.
Because if you don't, you have no idea if he's crossed that fine line between selfishness and selflessness, cowardice and leadership.