The Steelers' "Leadership Crisis" and What It Means for the 2012 Season

Neal asked if any of us would like to take a stab at a post proposing a Steelers player who might emerge as a leader next season, since so much leadership was lost in the cuts made in February and March. I was planning to write a post about a dark-horse candidate, but decided in the end to look at the question of leadership more broadly.

Possibly the most famous "leader" currently on an NFL roster is Ray Lewis. Seeing him working the team up is standard TV fare for games between the Steelers and the Ravens, and presumably the Ravens and anyone else. When I took my Welsh son-in-law to Baltimore for the first game of last season, I was forced to watch this on the Jumbotron several times during the game. My son-in-law, who has played semi-professional hockey, was greatly impressed.

"That guy is fantastic!" he said with enormous enthusiasm. "That’s what the Steelers need. What’s wrong with them, anyhow?"

Fortunately for my son-in-law, I love him. Therefore I didn’t actually punch him out. Besides, a fight between a couple of Steeler fans would have looked bad, and I definitely would have lost. And truth to tell, we were all wondering what was wrong with the Steelers that day.

But was "leadership" like Ray Lewis’s what was missing? Is the measure of leadership how loud you yell and how much fuss you make?

I watched the latter part of the Baltimore-Jacksonville game last October, because I happened to go to NFL.com for a different purpose partway through the game, noticed the score, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw Ray Lewis doing his thing, and it didn’t appear to make much difference then.

The Jets locker room last season was said to have imploded. One of the men they elected as a captain, the late (un)lamented Steeler Santonio Holmes, supposedly quit on the team, and things went from bad to worse. Would the Jets have had major problems if they had won enough games to make the play-offs? That’s really hard to say. But very possibly not.

The real test of leadership is not when things are going well but when they are going poorly. Tempers flare, everyone is on edge, and things get said which are hard to overlook or retract. That is when it is easy to see whether the leaders are truly leaders or just the winners of a popularity contest.

Mike Tomlin considers his own style of leadership to derive from the Tony Dungy "servant leadership" tradition. What is that, exactly?

Here are some quotes from Dungy himself:

Positive, life-changing leadership is an acquired trait, learned from interaction with others who know how to lead and lead well.

Truly serving others requires putting ourselves and our desires aside while looking for ways and opportunities to do what is best of others.

Leaders that exemplify these traits might have most any "style" of leadership, from loud and mouthy like Ray Lewis to quiet and strong like James Farrior. The issue isn't the delivery method but the message.

The last time I’ve heard of any problems in the Steelers’ locker room was during the 2009 season. Hines Ward made a remark to the press which appeared to question Ben’s toughness. This got blown up into a mini-crisis, at least among the press and the blogosphere.

This is not to say there weren’t actually some problems in the locker room. The above "incident," if one should even validate it with that term, was between the two captains on the offense. So who was left to go between the two of them and make it right? Jeff Reed, Special Teams captain? Unfortunately, he was otherwise engaged, most likely with a towel dispenser. James Farrior may have intervened, but, more likely, Ben and Hines were sensible enough to deal with it and get back to work.

It was interesting to see what happened at the beginning of 2010. Ben’s off-season peccadillos created a big problem for the team, and many pundits predicted the Steelers would lose most or all of their first four games and be a non-factor in 2010. As we all know, the drama played out rather differently.

Yet it could so easily have gone south. I believe the reason it didn’t is because of both the leaders and the leaders-in-waiting in the locker room, if I can commandeer a Tomlinism.

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger never appeared to have a particularly warm relationship. But Hines put any personal feelings behind him for the good of the team and walked onto the field next to Ben at the first public practice of training camp. To me, that’s leadership in a nutshell. A leader is willing to put aside his or her own personal feelings, agenda, and even comfort for the greater good.

So who like this is left on the team? Kevin Colbert was asked the same question when he addressed the media at the NFL Annual Meeting, and here’s what he said, courtesy of Steelers.com:

Is this team at a crossroads?

The biggest thing we lost from the terminations we had was leadership. That wasn’t disregarded when we made these decisions, but we had to make them. Leadership is an intangible that you cannot predict. I don’t know who will emerge as our leaders. It will be interesting to see whose team this becomes, because James Farrior was the team leader, not just the defensive leader. He was the guy. We will see who steps up. To me it's wide open. It's something you can never predict because you don't know who is going to show up when it is required.

Do you have some guys who are already leaders?

I don’t know. We will find out. I can't sit here today and say this is our leader. We are looking for that right now. That's where the team is.

I’m not convinced Colbert was speaking with total candor. I imagine the staff has a pretty good idea who in the locker room has nascent leadership capabilities. But the staff doesn’t elect team captains, the players do, and I expect Colbert didn’t wish to even give the appearance of interfering with the natural process.

When I looked up who had been the captains for the past decade, something very interesting emerged. There is definitely a parallel between the present "leadership void" and the situation in 2001. To refresh your memory, here is the list, once again courtesy of Steelers.com:

1998

Offense: Dermontti Dawon, C

Defense: Levon Kirkland, LB

Special Teams: Fred McAfee, RB

1999

Offense: Dermontti Dawon, C

Defense: Levon Kirkland, LB; Chris Oldham, S

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB

2000

Offense: Dermontti Dawon, C

Defense: Levon Kirkland, LB

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB

2001

Offense: Jerome Bettis, RB

Defense: Jason Gildon, LB

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB

2002

Offense: Jerome Bettis, RB

Defense: Jason Gildon, LB; Lee Flowers, SS

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB

2003

Offense: Tommy Maddox, QB

Defense: Jason Gildon, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Clark Haggans, LB

2004

Offense: Tommy Maddox, QB; Alan Faneca, G

Defense: James Farrior, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Chidi Iwuoma, CB; Clint Kriewaldt, LB

2005

Offense: Alan Faneca, G; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Chidi Iwuoma, CB; Sean Morey, WR

2006

Offense: Alan Faneca, G; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Clint Kriewaldt, LB; Sean Morey, WR

2007

Offense: Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; James Harrison, LB

Special Teams: Clint Kriewaldt, LB

2008

Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB

Special Teams: Jeff Reed, K

2009

Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; James Harrison, LB

Special Teams: Keyaron Fox, LB; Jeff Reed, K

2010

Offense: Hines Ward, WR; Heath Miller, TE

Defense: James Farrior, LB

Special Teams: Keyaron Fox, LB

2011

Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB

Special Teams: Arnaz Battle, WR

Disregarding Special Teams, since they tend to be a revolving door, one can see it takes some time to be trusted with a leadership role on this team. This locker room expects you to prove yourself. Perhaps the Jets would have been well-served to take the same approach.

If we look at 2001 we see it represents a similar situation to the one the Steelers are presently in. The captains of the offense and defense since at least 1998 had been Dermontti Dawson and Levon Kirkland.

Dermontti Dawson was released by the team at the end of the 2000 season, partly because of injuries and partly because of salary cap difficulties. He chose to retire rather than try to play on another team. Kirkland was waived just prior to the 2001 season, again because of salary cap problems, and played for two more years, one on the Seahawks and one on the Eagles. He led the Seahawks with 100 tackles, and was a "veteran leader" [according to Wikipedia] on the Eagles. They advanced to the NFC Championship Game before losing to Tampa Bay. When the sole captains for both the offense and defense were cut, leaving a huge leadership void, Jerome Bettis and Jason Gildon stepped into their roles.

James Farrior earned his captaincy in 2004, two years after being signed by the Steelers. Hines Ward earned his the next year, seven years after being drafted by the Steelers. Both continued as captains until their release this year.

Although no one can say for sure who is going to fill the leadership roles this time around, it’s interesting to speculate. I have a feeling Ryan Clark may find the defensive mantle falling on his shoulders. He’s articulate, outspoken, and passionate, surely a good combination. He already calls the defense for the secondary, so he’s in a position of leadership in that sense. It would be a natural progression for him to step up.

On offense, it’s definitely Ben’s time to cement the entire offense as ‘his guys.’ He has always had a good relationship with the O-line, and made a concerted effort in the past year or two to reach out more to the defensive players he had previously more or less ignored. He is the oldest player now on the offense except for Jerricho Cotchery, assuming Cotch is re-signed.

But Ben has been pretty slow to demonstrate leadership in a way the other players responded to. Before he was elected a captain Ben was on the team for four full seasons, three seasons as the starter and one as the de facto starter. The captaincy, so long in coming, was taken away when he jeopardized the team by his actions. This says something about how the team views their captains. The title isn’t just something they hand to the obvious candidate.

In the meantime Ben appears to have grown up a great deal, both personally and in leadership terms. Watching him rally his dejected offense before the second half of the 2010 playoff game against the Ravens was really interesting. He refused to let the offense wallow in their earlier ineptitude, and basically willed them to go back on the field and play like they were capable of. Hopefully this means he is moving into truly being the leader of the offense, both as a player and a person.

But whatever happens, just as in 2001, when Dermontti Dawson and Levon Kirkland were cut, others will step up to take their places, both as players and as leaders. The team captain announcements will be more interesting and suspenseful this coming season than they have been for a long time. I'm looking forward to seeing which players will emerge as the new leadership of the Steelers.

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