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Touchdown! Talent management lessons from the NFL's Week 1

Three people management pearls of wisdom from the NFL's first week.

September 12, 2012

Sports are great for people management wisdom. In fact, three vital lessons popped out from the first week of the National Football League's new season.

1. Recruiting matters. The biggest off-season move was the wooing of quarterback Peyton Manning by multiple teams. Manning won a Super Bowl championship with the Indianapolis Colts and has four most-valuable player awards in his trophy case. Observers questioned whether a series of neck surgeries and his 36 years of age—old in pro football terms—would erode his performance. But the Denver Broncos took the risk and paid big bucks—a five-year contract worth close to $100 million—to bring him on.

The hire immediately paid dividends. Manning looked like his old self against the Pittsburg Steelers on Sunday. He got into a rhythm, driving the Broncos to a 31-19 victory. ""He's Peyton," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said simply. It is that simple. In crucial roles like the quarterback in football, you need great talent.

2. Engagement matters. The New York Jets were something of a laughingstock leading up to the first game. They had pursued an unconventional strategy of blending a traditional quarterback, Mark Sanchez, with Tim Tebow—Denver's former quarterback who may be more dangerous as a runner than a passer. The New York Post ridiculed the Jets' quarterbacks and Coach Rex Ryan as circus clowns—an insult that must have stung given that the team struggled to score in preseason games.

Ryan, though, turned the slight into a source of energy for his team. He rallied the Jets before their opening game against the Buffalo Bills, using the "circus" label as motivation. The result? The Jets soared over the Bills (my hometown team, darn it all), 48 to 28. Inspiration counts—on the field and off.

3. Training matters. Especially for critical roles. The oddest game of week 1 in the NFL was between the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. Of much greater importance than the quarterbacks, running backs, defensive linemen or linebackers—roles generally associated with big plays—was the Raiders' loss of their lone "long snapper." This is the player who zips the ball between his legs back about 15 yards to the team's punter.

Oakland's long snapper Jon Condo left the game with a head injury—rare among long snappers. The impact was huge. Without another player who could skillfully make the long snap, Oakland suffered three botched punts that basically sealed the game for the Chargers. NFL squads tend to have one long snapper on their roster. You can bet teams are thinking about training more than one player to perform long snaps. Backing up key positions by training others in the organization is a wise move.

Recruiting, engagement, training. What a set of people-management lessons from our friends in football. This gives me an excuse to catch games every Sunday this season!

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.