Every circus needs a ringleader, and every NFL team (yes, even the bad ones) needs a captain.
And not just the kind of captain you see calling heads or tails before every game just for show, either—a real-life, hands-on, bona-fide leader, the kind that can influence any game in which he’s involved and leave a lasting impression on any franchise for which he’s employed.
Sometimes it’s a coach, most times it’s a quarterback, but no matter who it is, history has shown us time and again that the more distinctive the leader, the more successful the team usually is.
Here’s a look at the sharpest skippers in the league today and the legacies they’ve carved so far.
Rivers may not be the most levelheaded kid on the playground, but what he lacks in maturity he makes up for with stellar on-field play.
Rivers has been one of the most consistent offensive producers in the league throughout his entire career, and with 12 fourth-quarter comebacks, 15 game-winning drives and 58 career wins in only five seasons as a starter, the quarterback has proven he’s a highly valuable asset to any team that’ll have him.
The Chargers recognize that, his teammates recognize it and whether or not any of them actually like the guy, he’s definitely the head honcho in San Diego for now and the foreseeable future.
Johnson is that rare kind of leader who comes across as such a good guy you just can’t help but look up to him.
How could you root against this guy?
As if his astounding on-field performances weren’t enough (he has the 10th-most career receiving yards of any active player but is three years younger than anyone ahead of him), he never complains (extremely rare for his position), he fights through injuries and his often-praised charity for underprivileged children, the Andre Johnson Foundation, was founded during his rookie season.
Everyone on the Texans just loves this guy, and with good reason: For much of their existence, No. 80 has been the only consistent bright spot the team has had.
Troy Polamalu is the defensive difference-maker we all pretended Bob Sanders was a few years back and, because he actually plays a game of football every now and then too, he’s even better than we imagined.
On paper, he’s a decent player (his seven interceptions last season were the second-most in the league), but in practice, he’s a phenomenal one.
Polamalu roams a football field like a half-man, half-panther, mutant hybrid. He’s a threat to any offensive player on the field at any given time, and with the obvious, natural playmaking ability he brings to the table every week, he changes the dynamic of any game in which he’s involved.
Since ’09, the Steelers are 16-5 with him in the lineup and 6-7 without him. Take him away and last season’s No. 2 overall defense is but a shadow of its former self, and if you take him away for long enough, Pittsburgh’s last three Super Bowl appearances (’05, ’08 and ’10) may not have ever been (Polamalu missed only two games during all three of those seasons combined).
Plus he’s likeable, eloquent and consistently positive. He plays the piano. He maintains a flower garden. During the lockout, he went back to USC and finished his college degree.
What’s not to like?
Brian Urlacher just seems like the kind of guy you don’t want to let down under any circumstances.
You don’t even have to meet this guy to know you’d be intimidated just standing in the same room as him, and if you can envision a scenario where you’d ever say “no” to this man, your name had better be Brock Lesnar or you might want to have your head examined.
But is pure, unspoken terror alone enough to make someone a leader?
Of course it isn’t, and that’s why Urlacher also plays the way he looks: mean, calculated and with unquestioned loyalty.
He’s been the heart of a Chicago Bears defense that is consistently among the league’s toughest for years now, and you can expect him to remain in the role for as long he decides to keep playing.
Rex Ryan is a loud-mouthed, in-your-face, walking megaphone who says what he thinks, thinks what he says and often speaks before thinking.
He’s a magnet for controversy. A fountain of emotion. And while he may display a little too much faith in his team from time to time, his players often validate his confidence by outperforming seemingly superior opponents.
Who wouldn’t want to play for a guy like that?
Ryan is more than just talk.
He is the most motivational coach in the game today and even though he might not consider himself a great leader, as long as his players keep overachieving, the Jets will surely continue to claim otherwise.
When Ray Lewis talks, you listen.
The guy has been demolishing offensive skill players for over a decade.
He’s a Super Bowl MVP. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been to 12 Pro Bowls and made seven All-Pro teams. Even though murder charges were dismissed after a highly publicized investigation in 2000, the fact he was ever even accused of the most heinous of crimes—coupled with the fact that his day job is to obliterate opposing ball-carriers—makes him arguably the most feared player in NFL history.
Long story short, this guy knows what he’s talking about, and with his impeccable on-field record and haunting presence, Ray Lewis has all but ensured the reliable Baltimore defense begins and ends with him.
Perhaps no player in the league has relished their leadership role more than Drew Brees has in New Orleans, and if he hasn’t convinced you how good at it he is yet, just catch the pregame routine before the Saints’ next outing.
When you also factor in how successful the Saints have been ever since Brees first arrived there, it’s easy to see why this guy has free reign to direct all the military chants he wants as long as he just keeps on doing his thing.
Brees has thrown for at least 4,300 yards and 26 touchdowns all five seasons in the Big Easy. He’s led the league in completion percentage the last two seasons (his ’09 mark of 70.6 percent tied a 27-year-old NFL record); in 2008 he became just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season; and in 2009, after leading the Saints to a franchise-best 13-3 regular-season record, Brees proved he can work his magic in the playoffs too by helping New Orleans win Super Bowl XLIV (the first major sports championship in the city’s history) and earning himself the game’s MVP award in the process.
Brees is a fighter. An inspiration. His teammates understand he’s going to give them the best 60 minutes he can every single week, and because his attitude is so contagious, they usually give him their best too.
If the Colts have taught us anything so far this year, it’s that Peyton Manning just might be even more of an asset to his team than we already thought, and even though chances seem slim that the quarterback suits up at all this season, the leadership he provides for Indianapolis is more evident this year than it’s ever been before, highlighted exponentially merely by his absence.
The Colts seem lost this season without No. 18—that’s already clear only one game in—and so far the only discernible difference between this year’s team and the ones that went 10-6 last season and 14-2 the year before is Manning himself.
That’s the special kind of player Manning is, and that’s the special kind of leadership he provides for his team.
Put Manning in this lineup and the Colts are an immediate championship contender. Keep him off and they’re lucky if they win a single game.
Manning wills an offense to victory. He decides what plays they run, he executes those plays with remarkable efficiency and when his team needs a miracle to even have a chance to win, he turns sacks into touchdowns like water to wine.
Manning is the most respected player on the field in any game he plays, and the confidence others have in him (both his teammates and his opponents) is unmatched.
He’s the epitome of leadership, and if we knew for certain he’d be taking the field again this season, he’d be at the very top of this list.
It’s awfully tough to evaluate either of these guys independent of each other, and because neither appear eager to leave their current positions anytime soon, there’s a good chance they’re always going to be viewed in conjunction.
Lucky for us, however, silly made-up lists like this have no ironclad rules that govern them, so if we don’t feel like separating Brady and Belichick, then by golly we’re just not going to do it.
Bradichick has proven the value of its collective leadership countless times in countless ways over a decade of consistent excellence.
It’s won three Super Bowl titles. It’s broken seemingly unbreakable records. It’s created a system in New England in which any motivated player can thrive so long as he understands his role, and it’s taken some of the most difficult, immature NFL divas and turned them into solid contributors time and time again.
Bradichick is easy to play for, easy to look up to and often rewarding for any player that does.
That being the case, it’s easy to see why so many excellent players have bought into their program and it’s easy to see why they’ll continue to do so for many years to come.
There’s no better leader in the game right now than the red-hot, reigning Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Green Bay’s illustrious quarterback first broke through as an elite NFL play-caller back in 2008 (his first full season as a starter), then had an improbable second breakthrough this past postseason which vaulted him to a level only the very best ever reach.
Mobile, accurate and utterly fearless, Rodgers can pretty much do it all, and after a textbook 300-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Saints in Week 1, he has to be one of the extremely early front-runners for this year’s MVP award.
Rodgers has already proven to his teammates that he has what it takes to guide them to a championship.
It’s probably pretty safe to assume from this point on, then, that as long as he's still playing, they’ll be along for the ride too.