After years of watching pre and post game specials, reading various articles, and listening to countless interviews, I've come to a conclusion regarding team leaders in sports: the more sports cliche's attached to a guy, the better leader he likely is in the locker room.
You take into consideration guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward for the Steelers, Tom Brady and Tedy Bruschi for the Patriots, and even young Matt Ryan for the Falcons, and you realize that the same old clichés you hear every year about leaders in the locker room are likely applicable to these aforementioned players.
Bell Belichick, on more than one occasion, has probably said about Brady and Bruschi that they’re like “coaches on the field.”
When describing Roethlisberger and Ward, their teammates have probably described them as “the heart and soul of the team.”
And at some point last year, I’m sure someone on the Falcons mentioned that Ryan was “among the first at practice and one of the last to leave.”
But whatever cliché is used to describe a team leader, the evident truth in the NFL is this: team leaders might be the most important players in the locker room and their presence might be the best indicators of a team’s success.
Take a look at the 2007-2008 Dallas Cowboys. Here was a team that owned some of the most notable names in the league and featured elite talent at several key positions. However, despite having guys like Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys failed to reach the playoffs and were terribly inconsistent despite being a team of their considerable skill and promise.
In fact, last season’s Cowboys aren’t just an example of a team that is void of leadership, but one that is plagued by whatever it is that could be considered the polar extreme of it (e.g., selfishness, immaturity, Terrell Owens).
On the other end of the spectrum, we have a team like the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers who have always seemed to have key players on their teams who have taken on leadership roles, and as a result, have been able to maintain an extended period of winning and success.
A quick glance at the rest of the league will reveal much of the same. The teams that are predicted to do well in 2009 have great leadership while the other teams who don’t own such an optimistic outlook are likely lacking in it.
Which brings me to the Oakland Raiders.
This upcoming season, the Raiders have a chance to make a splash and take a step back into national relevance. Talent is abound, and with the way last season ended, the Raiders hope to carry that momentum on into the 2009-2010 season.
And while there are plenty of obstacles the Raiders have to overcome, the best thing head coach Tom Cable and his staff can hope for is that a few leaders emerge on this young team.
On defense, the situation isn’t desperate as the Raiders already feature a couple guys who have credibility in the league and the respect of their teammates in the locker room.
First, the most obvious candidate for team leader, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Asomugha, now entering his seventh year in the league, has established himself as the Raiders’ marquee player and is arguably the league’s top corner. As an established veteran on the team, Asomugha is one of the few guys that all players, regardless of what side of the ball they play on, can look to for guidance on and off the field.
Not only is Asomugha an elite player on the field, he is also one of the league’s better men off of it, as evidenced by his various philanthropic endeavors. In a sports media climate where players like Michael Vick, Chris Henry, and Dante Stallworth are highlighted for their legal troubles, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is surely relieved to have guys like Asomugha who represent the league with class and character.
Another player the Raiders hope will assume a larger role on the team is fifth year linebacker Kirk Morrison. Morrison, who again led the team in tackles for the fourth straight year, has established himself as one of the team’s most consistent players and has become one of the league’s better linebackers.
Perhaps it’s because the Raiders haven’t had much success that Morrison’s name hasn’t yet become a household one across the league, but that’s exactly the type of leader Morrison is. Some players lead by being vocal in the locker room, but Morrison is one of those guys who lead by example (yet another sports cliché).
While Asomugha and Morrison might simply be the de facto leaders on defense, they’re also the most qualified and exactly what a young Raiders team needs. There’s nothing wrong with being vocal or emotionally charged, but Cable and staff have set out to establish a tough, business like approach in practices, and Asomugha and Morrison are prime examples of what the coaches want out of their players: guys who show up, don’t complain, and get the job done.
On the other side of the ball, the situation isn’t as clear as the offense has been inconsistent in recent years, and there’s no one guy that has clearly established himself among the group.
Of course, the one guy on offense, or rather, on a team as a whole, that is looked upon to lead is the quarterback. For this reason, it is the quarterback position that is generally regarded as one of the toughest positions to play in all of sports because it goes beyond skill and performance, but mental fortitude and the ability to lead.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, the quarterback situation isn’t set in stone despite what the staff has said publicly. The team brought in veteran Jeff Garcia this offseason, and there is some uncertainty among the fan base as to what kind of role he will play.
Through the media, Cable and the team have gone on to say Garcia was brought in as a backup to provide competition and veteran tutelage to third year quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
However, due to Russell’s slow development and inconsistent performances during OTA’s, there have been rumblings that Garcia has a legitimate shot at being at the top of the depth chart come the end of training camp. To further complicate matters for Cable, Russell’s off the field antics haven’t been indicative of the kind of leader a coach would like to have in his quarterback (SFGate).
With all that said, Russell is still young and there is yet time to shape up his act. The 2009 training camp might prove to be the most pivotal one for Russell and the Raiders. While there are many questions that have yet to be answered regarding the talent surrounding him, it is imperative that Russell takes the next step in his development and become the leader on offense.
Perhaps more so than fine tuning his accuracy and poise in the pocket (although it certainly is important), Russell must assume a larger, more prominent role on the team because the team cannot afford to fall back on the excuse that he is still young and maturing.
If the Raiders want to have a successful 2009 campaign, they have to hope that Russell embraces all the sports clichés on leadership, and that he lives up to those lofty expectations.
In other words, Russell has to learn to be a “coach on the field." He’s got to be “the first one in practice and the last one out.” And finally, in order for the young Raiders to take a step forward in 2009, JaMarcus Russell must learn and become “the heart and soul of the team.”