FOXBOROUGH -- When last seen taking the field at Gillette Stadium, as they will do tonight for their preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots were getting blown out and embarrassed by the Baltimore Ravens in a game they never led.
Fitting, because leadership was missing all season long, a point Tom Brady made both after the playoff loss to the Ravens and again in the spring.
"There are a lot of reasons that we didn't do well over the course of the year... a lot of the reasons why we've been successful, mental toughness, leadership, discipline and commitment," said Brady, immediately following the playoff defeat.
All compelling and condemning testimony from TB12, but it's the L-word that was most troubling. Lack of leadership, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, was a problem and it needs to be fixed this season. Coach Bill Belichick recognized as much: It was not a coincidence that of the 12 players the Patriots drafted back in April, five had been team captains in college.
Look, Brady is an unquestioned leader, but no quarterback no matter how exalted or respected can a lead a defense. That's like Josh Beckett telling Adrian Beltre how to hit and play third base.
Brady never had to worry about the leadership on the other side of the ball before last season because it always came from Tedy Bruschi or Mike Vrabel or Rodney Harrison or Richard Seymour. Those players left the Patriots -- some of their own volition, others no so much -- and left a leadership void along the Patriots Way as large as one of those I-93 North sinkholes.
In retrospect, it was patently unfair for the Patriots to expect young players like linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was named a defensive captain last season, and safety Brandon Meriweather to emerge as instant leaders, to just add responsibility and stir. Suddenly, those who were instructed to speak only when spoken too were asked to speak for the team. It was too much to ask.
Mayo was only a year removed from being a rookie, which in the Patriots' locker room is the equivalent of being a Dickensian orphan. He tried to embrace his new role, but it seemed rushed and unnatural. Meriweather has only a year more experience than Mayo, and the searing memory of being berated for speaking-out-of-school comments he made as a rookie.
The soft-spoken safety is clearly more comfortable as one of the boys than as a front man, a point he made clear when he was asked a week ago about taking ownership of the secondary and leadership. When pressed on the paucity of Patriots' leadership last year Meriweather responded to the question while creating another one -- exactly who are the leaders on this team?
"What’s the definition of a leader?" asked Meriweather, who was then given the notion that it was someone who takes charge. "I don’t know. I think James Sanders is a leader and he don’t say nothing. So, just because you take charge, that makes you a leader? Or that just makes you somebody who talk a lot? You know. You let me know.
"Me personally, I think a leader is somebody who goes out, don’t really say much, but does everything he supposed to, but steps up when he's supposed to, you know, take charge by his action, not by what he says. So, by my definition of a leader I think everyone on our team is a leader."
That's specious Patriot-speak. Not everyone can be a leader. You knew who the ring-leaders (literally) were on the Patriots Super Bowl-title teams. If you need any reminding go back and watch the NFL Films episode entitled "Team of the Decade: The Story of the 2000-2009 New England Patriots" that was on ESPN recently.
The televised encomium encapsulated the Patriots' success, and it featured a whole lot of big plays being made by Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Vrabel, Bruschi and Harrison. The reality is leaders aren't found. They're forged, borne of big plays, well-timed words and professional comportment.
That's why on the offensive side of the ball a player as laconic as running back Kevin Faulk is a leader. His reputation and résumé speak volumes, even if he rarely does. It's not a coincidence that it was Faulk who upbraided his teammates on the bench during the loss to the Ravens.
There is hope on the leadership front. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, empowered by the five-year, $40 million deal the team gave him in the off-season, made it clear in March he planned to take on more of a leadership role. Wilfork is outgoing, honest and a Pro Bowl talent. Also, with a Super Bowl ring to his name from his rookie season of 2004, he's a link between the glorious past and the uncertain future. He remains the best candidate to fill the leadership vacuum.
However, the nature of the nose tackle position is anonymity and behind-the-scenes work. Wilfork is the best player on the defense, but his position might preclude him from emerging as the same type of leader as Bruschi or Harrison.
Perhaps, another candidate has emerged in camp. It seems silly to suggest that a rookie could emerge as a leader for the Patriots, but with so many young players on the defense, maybe they need to follow one of their own.
Rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes just has a swagger to him. He doesn't look or act like a rookie. Spikes, who has drawn praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, was the Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators defense in college. Spikes has already caught the eye of owner Robert Kraft, who made it a point to stop and talk to Spikes after practice yesterday.
Of course if a rookie is one of your most likely leaders, what does that say about the leadership in place in the first place? But before you can follow a leader, you have to find one.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.