Room for improvement
Leadership and accountability are two evolving areas in the Patriots’ locker room
After New England’s abrupt dismissal from the 2009 postseason at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, the search for answers began as to what went wrong.
One word started to pop up: leadership.
It is nebulous, and it comes in many different forms. It is difficult to pinpoint the lack of leadership as the main reason for the Patriots’ ills, especially since there were other areas in which New England was lacking last year.
But in the winter and spring, some of the Patriots’ veterans were using the L-word with regard to their team.
Tom Brady said he “sucked’’ as a leader last season and would be better this year. Kevin Faulk acknowledged that some players needed to fill a void created when longtime standard-bearers such as Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison left the team. No sooner had the ink dried on Vince Wilfork’s contract extension did he declare himself willing to call out teammates he didn’t feel were pulling their weight.
Now, however, it seems a different tune is being sung around Gillette Stadium when it comes to leadership. That familiar phrase — “it’s in the past’’ — is trotted out. The company line has circulated through the locker room.
Certainly, there is benefit in turning the page and focusing on the challenges this Patriots team will face. There are many new faces, players who had no part in last year’s 10-7 (including postseason) record. The 2010 Patriots must find their own identity, a point made clear when Bill Belichick removed photographs of the franchise’s glory years from the football offices.
But regardless of which players step up, on and off the field, there is one man who leads the Patriots: Belichick.
“I think the leadership starts from the top and me personally, I can’t think of a better leader than Bill Belichick, so our leadership is definitely here,’’ defensive line coach Pepper Johnson said during training camp.
Belichick makes all of the decisions concerning his team, from which players are signed and released to how practices are run, and everything in between.
His hold over the franchise is such that even owner Robert Kraft joked in July that he didn’t want to get in trouble with the coach when asked for his opinion on his favorite players in training camp.
The Belichick Way has brought great success in New England, so it is tough to argue with it. But the players Belichick, now in his 11th season as Patriots coach, once counted on to deliver his message are largely gone.
Willie McGinest was the locker room sheriff. Bruschi’s fiery personality showed in everything he did. Troy Brown was the definition of a team player. Each of those veterans embraced their leadership roles and handled them in their own way.
New England needs players like that now, but leadership cannot be thrust upon someone.
“I didn’t really see that we had a problem with our leadership or anything like that,’’ Johnson said. “Leadership, you’re born with it. I don’t think you can just tell a guy, ‘Step to the forefront and take this team over.’ Some guys are born with that, it comes natural.
“So if we didn’t have it, we’re not going to have it this year either because it’s the same people that’s running the team.’’
Yet leadership — and its cousin, accountability — will need to be part of the fiber of this team with so many young players slotted to be major contributors, duking it out with a brash Jets team and an improving Miami squad to retain its AFC East crown.
“I just think everybody needs to be held accountable for their actions,’’ Wilfork said before the Patriots’ preseason finale against the Giants. “You have so many definitions of a leader: a vocal leader, a silent leader; someone who just [does what’s needed]. So everybody has their own thing on what a leader is.
“I think last year was last year and that’s something that we will try to do this year. Just start all over. Wipe out everything. Don’t even dwell over last year and be positive with everything this year.’’
There is one overriding mantra on the Patriots: do your job. It can lead to individual and team success, and set an example for teammates.
“Everybody has a job to do. My job is to do certain things,’’ Wilfork said. “My job isn’t to stop an in-cut. I can’t drop in coverage. But what I can do, I can rush the passer. I can put pressure on the QB, make the QB make some decisions. So everybody has to hold each other accountable. And that’s just by doing your job. If you play within the scheme and do your job, everything will work itself out.’’
Accepting blame goes a long way with teammates, and the willingness among Patriots to do that may have been in short supply in 2009.
This year, that has not been a problem, according to Wilfork, and New England’s joint practices with New Orleans and Atlanta may have helped foster an “all for one’’ feeling.
“That’s why I liked it; it brought the team together. We were on the practice field, still practicing. But you know what? We were practicing as a team,’’ Wilfork said. “Not as ‘O’ against ‘D’. Two-minute is not against our offense, our two-minute is against the Saints.’’
Wilfork insists the Patriots don’t have to search for leaders, and he isn’t sure vocal influence is a necessity. He seems more than willing to lead the way on defense, and Brady, both by the nature of his position and his determination to be the best, will take the reins for the offense.
Faulk and Jerod Mayo lead by example, diligently going about their work, with their production proof that their labor pays off. Neither is the type to rally the troops with strong language. Brandon Meriweather provides frequent encouragement, jumping on teammates’ backs or clapping in celebration for a well-executed play.
New England’s draft class this year includes several players who served as captains in college, a sign that they may have the right attitude to lead this team once they’ve earned their stripes.
So maybe the Patriots are in good hands, perhaps even better than they were last year.
Wilfork certainly thinks so.
“To me, everybody in this locker room are leaders. From the rookies all the way up to the vets,’’ he said. “I think everybody is capable of being a leader and we expect them to be a leader. And it comes with the territory. If I’m going to hold you accountable, you hold me accountable. I don’t care if it’s your first year or your 12th year. We are playing on the same playing field. We are playing for the same team. We practice together. This is what we do, we are family.
“And I expect for you to be here with me. I expect for you to do this. I expect for you to do your job. Same way you expect for me to do it. That’s a leader. Coming out and doing what’s good at all times no matter what the circumstances may be. That’s a positive for us this year.
“Everybody here, they’re happy, having fun.’’