Shortly before noon today, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees will gather his teammates in the end zone and lead them in an emotionally primal pre-game chant. Then, he’ll guide them onto the field to play the Chiefs.
The ritual was inspired by a USO trip that Brees made to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba before the 2009 season, when he trained with Marines who chanted as they jogged in formation.
Brees went on to lead the Saints to a Super Bowl that season, and as the unquestioned face of the franchise, he’ll be screaming from the top of his lungs today in an effort to rally his 0-2 team against the Chiefs in the Superdome.
The Chiefs, also 0-2, are in need of leadership in what may prove to be their most critical week of the season. The club has sought leadership by going to great lengths to draft team captains in the past few years — especially in 2010, when five of the seven picks were college captains — while also acquiring veterans with leadership backgrounds.
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But if the Chiefs have a take-charge, in-your-face leader, it hasn’t been apparent this season.
The players elected six captains before the start of the season — quarterback Matt Cassel, guard Ryan Lilja, linebacker Derrick Johnson, safety Eric Berry, punter Dustin Colquitt and special-teams standout Terrance Copper. While they may feel responsibility to motivate their teammates, something hasn’t clicked, and the Chiefs have cited a lack of communication as a factor in their poor start.
Johnson and Lilja, while dedicated professionals, are not fiery individuals; Berry has just 19 games of NFL experience; Colquitt and Copper are on the field for no more than 20 plays a game; and Cassel’s play, except for a gutsy performance less than two weeks after undergoing an appendectomy in 2010, won’t remind anyone of a salty field general.
“I’m upbeat,” Cassel said. “You can ask anybody in this locker room how I am throughout the course of the week. I’m upbeat, and throughout the course of the game, you’ll see me walking up and down the sideline talking to the guys.
“When you come off to the sideline and things don’t always go right, you have to punt or whatever the case might be, you’re not going to be the rah-rah guy and trying to cheer them on. They know what’s going on — we’re all professionals here — so really, for me, it’s about getting focused for the next series, telling these guys we’ve got to go one play at a time and move on.”
It could be argued that the Chiefs suffered a leadership drain with the departures this year of longtime center Casey Wiegmann, a quiet type on the field but an outstanding communicator on the line of scrimmage; safety Jon McGraw and running back Thomas Jones; and the retirement of linebacker Mike Vrabel and release of guard Brian Waters in 2011.
Of the players brought in this season, tackle Eric Winston, a larger-than-life presence for six years with the Houston Texans, has been a dominant personality in the Chiefs’ locker room, but he’s still a newcomer.
“At the end of the day, your leadership can get you going in the right direction, but it comes down to playing football,” Winston said. “It comes down to executing on game day. No matter what you do, whether you have the greatest leadership in the world, it still comes down to playing the game of football and executing on Sunday.”
Jeff Janssen, president of the North Carolina-based Janssen Sports Leadership Center, travels the country lecturing major college football programs on building leadership. He says there are specific traits possessed by a leader, whether it’s a Pop Warner team or an NFL franchise.
He says leadership comes in two packages: Athletes can lead by example or verbally. Those who lead by example must be committed to the team, have confidence in themselves, show composure and be of high character.
“A leader has to have confidence in his ability, the team’s ability and his leadership ability,” Janssen said. “When things aren’t going well, they have to have that poise and presence to keep the team focused on what they need to do. And … they’ve got to make decisions that people respect.”
Berry, though he’s just 23, tries to lead by example.
“When you look at the film and see me running to every play and doing what I’m supposed to, then I can hold everybody accountable,” Berry said. “But if I’m slacking off, whether I’m captain or not, I don’t have any leeway to say anything to anybody if I’m not (hustling).”
Good leaders don’t have to be the team’s most popular players.
“The one quality a leader has got to have is his dedication to the purpose of the team is more important than whether his teammates like him or don’t like him,” former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “It’s not always an easy position to be in. Guys who are leaders have an ability to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is right.’ They confront people who are involved, and at the risk of being chastised, those guys are extremely valuable.”
Catcher in baseball. Point guard in basketball. Goalkeeper in soccer. Quarterback in football.
Certain positions in sports lend themselves to leadership roles.
“If you have a great leader at that position,” Janssen said of the quarterback position, “especially if the guys respect him and he gets the job done, it’s going to be much more helpful that person will be the leader. “Similar on defense, if you have a middle linebacker who is a key person, that helps, but leaders can come any position. Certain positions you hope you have some more leadership because they’re so critical to the team.”
A person doesn’t have to scream or yell to be a great leader.
“There are some guys who rant and rave and are lousy leaders,” said Schottenheimer, who at San Diego coached both Brees and Philip Rivers, who always seems to be jawing with opponents and officials.
“Rivers, in his own way, is a very good leader,” Schottenheimer said.
Schottenheimer recalled another leader who barely said a word or broke a sweat. His name was Joe Montana.
“Joe was not very outgoing,” Schottenheimer said, “but the players had great respect for what he did, and his achievements, and what he was capable of doing. He had a complete understanding of everything everybody was asked to do.
“The bottom line is you have to be who you are. You can’t fool people. You are who you are, and you have a better chance of capturing your audience if the others realize this guy is real and is committed to what he is doing.”
Are there born leaders, or is leadership an acquired skill? Janssen said those born with certain personality characteristics have an easier time becoming leaders and improving their leadership skills.
“When you have someone with a tremendous amount of drive and competiveness, and they’re willing to speak up …” is a start, Janssen said. “Whether they’re effective is another question. But there’s a little bit of nature and nurture combined in leadership.”
Leadership goes beyond the playing field and locker room. Team leaders take players in their position groups out for dinner on certain nights. They study film together and even attend Bible study together in an effort to develop camaraderie.
“You can do all the get-together stuff, and we’ve done some of that and that’s all well and good,” Winston said, “but nothing changes. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to believe in the work you’re doing and you’ve got to believe in how you’re doing it.
“It’s easy at times like this to panic or to say to do something different or let’s try this or let’s do that, but I think as leaders you’ve got to put your nose down and get back to the grind.”
And come game day, it’s up to the leaders to make sure their teammates to perform their maximum potential.
“I always take it as a tremendous responsibility,” Brees said. “I try not to fall into the trap of feeling like I have to do more than what is necessary or put added pressure on myself. Playing quarterback, especially in this offense, you’re responsible for a lot.
“I’ve always embraced that role. I will continue to, but I think the danger is when you try to do too much. We just need to all do our job and be ourselves.”