4 Leadership Lessons from This NFL Season

The 2014 NFL season has been a memorable one, full of incredible highlights, exhilarating finishes and touching moments, but also off-the-field controversy. Considering the incredible task of rallying players to put their bodies on the line in a weekly trench war, the season is always packed with examples of great leadership. But as a results-driven business, the game also leaves little guesswork when leadership goes wrong.

With the playoffs right around the corner, we’re highlighting some of the best takeaways from the 2014 season.

1. Put people first, always. 

As summer training camp wound to its close, the Cincinnati Bengals did not have a spot on their active roster for defensive lineman Devon Still, a third-year player from Penn State. But instead of severing ties with him altogether, as is often the practice when players haven’t earned their keep after two seasons, the team re-signed Still to its practice squad so that he could keep his NFL health insurance, which pays for 100 percent of the cancer treatment for his 4-year-old daughter, Leah. When injuries took their toll as the season went on, the Bengals found a spot for Devon Still on game day, and Leah Still was honored by an adoring Cincinnati crowd during a game on Nov. 6 against the Cleveland Browns. Over the course of the season, the Bengals donated more than $1.3 million in proceeds of the sales from Devon Still’s jersey to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Leah’s name.

2. Stay the course.

After a perfectly middling performance in Jason Garrett’s first three seasons as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys—his record in those games was 24 wins and 24 losses—the coach entered 2014 in the last year of his contract and on the hot seat. But through all the ups and down, he preached a level-headed approach to his team, putting both wins and losses behind them, never getting too high or too low, and constantly staying true to “the process” of “stacking good days together.” Finally the team made a breakthrough. After dropping their first game of 2014, the Cowboys rattled off six straight victories, the longest winning streak of Garrett’s tenure, to charge to the top of their division.

3. Forget “the way it’s always been.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has taken great pressure for his handling of the domestic violence case involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, and deservedly so. Even before video of Rice punching his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator was released, it was clear to the public that Rice hadbecome physical at some point during the ride. And yet after meeting with the couple, Goodell initially handed down only a two-game suspension—surprisingly, similarly brief suspensions had been the precedent set in prior domestic violence cases. In Goodell’s eyes, the league punishment fit the crime. After seeing the shocking footage of the incident and its aftermath, the public wasn’t satisfied with Rice’s short suspension. Goodell reversed his decision, suspending Rice indefinitely (until that suspension was lifted by an arbitrator in late November). The league quickly installed new, harsher penalties for such cases.

4. Reward performance, not pedigree.

When the Cleveland Browns drafted former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in May, it was assumed he would become the team’s starting quarterback in short order, and that any training camp competition with veteran Brian Hoyer would be only window dressing. And yet Hoyer outperformed Manziel during practices and preseason games, and despite the fact that the rookie’s jersey was a No. 1 seller in the lead-up to the season, coach Mike Pettine chose to give the reins to Hoyer. The decision was rewarded immediately, as the Browns enjoyed their best record at the midway point since 2007.

Football isn’t the only sport that can teach us something about leadership. Check out 4 lessons from the Kansas City Royals’ locker room.


Josh Ellis is the former editor in chief for SUCCESS magazine. Before joining SUCCESS in 2012, he was an accomplished digital and print sportswriter, working for the Dallas Cowboys Star magazine, the team’s gameday program, and DallasCowboys.com. Originally from Longview, Texas, he began writing for his hometown newspaper at 16.

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