Avinash: Watching Aaron Rodgers and Desmond Bishop win a Super Bowl yesterday (it gets sweeter everytime I say that) reminded me of how important it is to have dominant personalities in the locker room. I've thought for awhile that one of the big reasons Cal football has languished the past few seasons is the inability to find players who can rally the team with their play, their confidence, or their vocal leadership. No matter how talented some of our players may be, no matter how many stars are attached to their names, nothing matters more in competitive sports than having the mental fortitude to battle through tough situations. And there's no doubt Rodgers and Bishop are two of the toughest-minded and hardest-working players to ever suit up in the Jeff Tedford era.
You hear all the anecdotes of how unflappable Rodgers is (particularly how confident he was before the 2004 USC game), how his attitude permeates the teams he plays on, and you realize how much that could have played a part in how well we played as a team. Who else could hold a team together that lost 16 players to injured reserve and yet another three starters in Super Bowl (the Packers number one wide receiver, their number one cornerback, and one of their starting safeties) and win six straight elimination games to become an NFL champion? While I'm not calling the quarterbacks that followed Rodgers mentally weak, they were never quite able to match Rodgers's unquenchable desire for knowledge and self-improvement.
Bishop isn't in quite the same role in Green Bay that he was in Cal, but after years of frustration sitting on the bench in Green Bay, he got his chance and shined. Just like Rodgers, he had a galvanizing attitude on his team in 2006, particularly on defense, when our team bended, bended, bended, but didn't break on defense game after game.
Having guys like that on your team helps forge the DNA for greatness in a football team. I'm not sure Cal has had enough of those guys the past few seasons, and hopefully the recruiting staff is taking that into account when they evaluate the resiliency of our talented but unproven classes.
How do people feel about this; does leadership play a role in our woes as a football team? Do you see an improvement in locker room leadership this season? Who do you think will be the leaders for our team next year?
One of my favorite posts from the original California Golden Blogs was HydroTech's discussion about the lack of leadership from the players explaining the 2007 collapse. Since then, although we had a lot of players with swagger on that team (like Zack Follett, DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins), they were a bit silent that season as the team started to fall apart and seemed to retreat into themselves instead of getting everyone to rally around each other (a la Desmond Bishop). Justin Forsett was too quiet, Thomas DeCoud was more of a "Actions Speak Louder than Words" guy, Mack was the Field General, and Nate Longshore was never the type of guy who could rally the troops.
You can see that sort of issue with our previous few teams. On too many occasions, when things get tough, no one is standing up to raise the emotional barometer of our team.
In 2008, Follett stepped up as our main defensive vocal leader, and everyone played lights out. Perhaps the best defense of the Tedford era, as a lot of Cal defenders seemed to imitate Follett's swagger. However, there was no such figure on the offense as the quarterback situation deteriorated. Jahvid Best was spectacular, but he's no vocal leader, he's an action man. Alex Mack and Will Ta'ufo'ou were probably the closest anyone got to on-field leadership.
In 2009, when Kevin Riley was clearly the starter, it seemed the offense started getting more swagger and showed resilience in close game (winning four matchups decided by); I give Riley a lot of credit, he handled adversity very well when a lot of fans wanted him pulled, and he rallied his team in many situations, including the Big Game (with Best and Vereen again being the Silent Leaders). However, despite Tepper taking over as the vocal leader of the offense, he could not match it with his play on the field, and the O-line ended up killing our offense.
In 2010, Riley seemed to be assured and finally being the true leader of the team. When he went down, it seemed our offense willpower went with it. No one was confident, no one could step up and lead the way. Vereen, like Best and like Forsett, is a guy who seems to let his play speak for himself. Jones, while talented, lacks that in-your-face mentality. Keenan Allen might have to be a leader, simply because he'll be the most talented player on the field next year. Finally, it seemed no one respected Brock Mansion this season, and he sure couldn't inspire anyone else. The O-line leadership from Guarnero was meh, both in terms of execution and vocal leadership, so they didn't really look too inspired against too many good teams either.
Defensively, both seasons, the dropoff from Follett to Mikey Mo in terms of vocal leadership is probably telling. There were a lot of solid players (Squid and Alualu in 2009, Jordan and Conte in 2010), but these are leaders by example rather than by words; Jordan's more of a fun-loving guy then a leader too, so that might've compounded the problem. It seemed that when our defense started falling behind and the offense couldn't score points, Mohamed couldn't rally them to respond accordingly, especially when the deficit grew beyond two touchdowns (the roll-it-up syndrome Cal football has been plagued by the last two years).
HydroTech: I do remember a few news articles from a year or two ago which talked about the team's (supposed) lack of leadership. The writer talked to Tedford to discuss the issue and Tedford said that he didn't really think that there was a lack of leadership on the team. Instead, Tedford explained that a lot of the kids do think of themselves as leaders, but they aren't really vocal guys when it comes to expressing that leadership. They are more of a "lead by example" kind of person.
The article then went on to discuss whether Tedford tries to push those silent leaders into being more vocal, and Tedford says he doesn't. Tedford explained that he doesn't want to push his kids to be something that they're not, and not comfortable doing. Thus, if the kid feels comfortable being vocal and loud, then so be it. Otherwise, no biggie, let the kid do his thing and hopefully his actions will lead the others.
I talked about those types of leaders in that 2007 Leadership article I wrote. I called them "silent leaders." Here's what I said about them: "these guys are the ones that don’t talk and if they do, rarely. They lead by actions but they don’t quite have that aura, or confidence and energy inspiring personality or emotion that gets teammates going."
I still hold the same opinion about those types of players. Having those guys is better than having none, but the inspiration and swagger provided by those "silent leaders" is small and incomparable to the inspiration and swagger provided by more vocal leaders. I called those more vocal leaders the "Fiery Emotional Cocky Leader," and the "Fiery Emotional Vocally Inspiring Leaders." These two types of leaders aren't afraid to talk, and be that guy rallying the troops -- whether it be by talking trash to the other team (Fiery Emotional Cocky Leader) or by rallying their own team (Fiery Emotional Vocally Inspiring Leaders).
So while Tedford may think that there isn't a lack of leaders on the team, I think it may be fair to say that there perhaps aren't enough vocally inspiring teammates like the two types I mentioned above. Teams need these kinds of leaders when they are facing adversity or defeat. Those guys have an effect on their teammates. They can inspire teammates to play better, to get back into the game, and get fired up.