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Monday, January 18, 2010

Leaders Needed

Here's a good article that was in Sunday's Herald...

Willie McGinest: Patriots lacked lead punch

By Karen Guregian / NFL Notes

The 2009 Patriots [team stats] were under the microscope during the past week, and one of the major issues being examined is something that would never have been called into question during the three Super Bowl-winning seasons.

Those teams would never have been accused of having a lack of leadership, as they were last week by quarterback Tom Brady [stats]. One of the greatest strengths of those teams was what they had in the locker room. They were led by team-first, character-rich guys who bought into the system, and passed it along to any and all newcomers.

According to former Patriot Ted Johnson, one of the finest leaders the team had during its championship runs was fellow linebacker Willie McGinest. He took newcomers under his wing, and also wasn’t afraid to get up in someone’s face if they got out of line. Players always had to walk past McGinest’s locker before departing for the day. His was the last one by the door, so if there was something that needed to be addressed, a teammate couldn’t slip out without having to deal with the 6-foot-5, 270-pound enforcer.

“Willie was a massive presence. He just commanded guys’ attention and respect,” Johnson said. “He turned into one of the best leaders I’ve been around - by his actions and by his words.”

So how important is leadership to the success of a team?

McGinest offered his opinion in a telephone interview Thursday. He spoke at length about why the leadership element plays a significant role in a team’s production, how it contributed to the success of three championship teams and how a lack thereof impacted the 2009 Patriots.

“I don’t think there’s enough (emphasis) put on the leadership role, in not only having players being productive, but respecting and cherishing those leaders that you have. I think it’s a great example not just with the Patriots, but with a lot of teams in the NFL,” McGinest said. “There’s a distance between the coaches and the players. And regardless of how a coach’s relationship is with his players, there’s always a small buffer there.

“That’s not a good or bad thing. That’s just how it is. The middle (buffer) are those players, those leaders, those guys who have been there, who understand, who can help funnel what the coach is trying to do. They understand the system, they understand how the coach thinks, and what he’s trying to filter through to the new players coming in.

“When we were there, it was easy because, when (Mike) Vrabel came, Vrabel got it right away, what kind of defense we were, what we expected, how competitive we were. He fit right in, and his personality fit right in along with being a productive guy and a well-liked guy in the locker room. Same thing with Rodney (Harrison). He got it right away. He got it in the meetings. He was a competitor and was a guy just like us. Roman Phifer was another guy who understood it, and got it. I can go down the line.”

Somehow there was a disconnect in that buffer zone with the Pats this season. With Vrabel, Harrison, Tedy Bruschi [stats] and Richard Seymour [stats] gone from the locker room, and more tellingly gone from the defense’s meeting rooms, not everyone appeared to buy into the program. And it showed on the field on more than one occasion.

“When I was there, we all believed in one common goal. Of course we were competitive and wanted to have individual success. But we always put the team’s success ahead of ours,” McGinest said. “We understood if our team did well, we could do well individually. If we won games, everybody would get recognized for how we won those games. ... Guys bought into that. And it worked because everything came to fruition when it happened. It was proven when we started winning, and winning championships. Our format, and the way we did things, you couldn’t come in as an outsider, and say it didn’t work, because we proved it worked time and time again. And we had a lot of success with it.”

This season, veteran Junior Seau was signed again in October to try and restore some of that missing leadership, but McGinest understood why Seau, particularly as a part-time contributor, couldn’t solve the problem alone.

“You can bring Junior back, but Junior wasn’t part of that original foundation,” McGinest said. “Junior is a great leader, and has been a great player in the league for a long time. But it’s not just about talking and saying, ’Hey we need to do this, and we need to do that.’ These kids nowadays need to see you do it. They have to respect you and see you do it. It’s not just about a lot of mouth service or a presence. They want to see you go out and handle your business on the field, as well. That plays a big part in it, too.”

There’s also a belief some of the players brought in over recent seasons don’t have the same kind of character or desire to win that’s necessary to achieve success. Some don’t want to work as hard, and aren’t as committed as the championship teams of the past.

Are those types of character players too hard to find? Is the chemistry from three Super Bowl teams past too hard to replicate? Can the Pats get it back?

“It’s definitely possible. That’s not just a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” McGinest said. “I think the core we had was special. You might not get a group of guys like that again, but you can always assemble another group of guys with the same values. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s not something that’s easy to do. Organizations should understand that. When you have something special, you should do everything you can, as long as you can, as long as it’s productive, to keep it in place.

“When teams and organizations start getting arrogant, and think, ’Oh, it’s all about our system, and it’s all about us,’ and they start getting rid of those players, or those key players in the locker room, they aren’t going to be winning the same. Things aren’t the same. The locker room changes. And the kids that are coming in now are a little different than what we were when we came in. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s fine. But you need those leaders in the locker room to guide them to where they need to go.”

According to McGinest, during his time there weren’t any episodes with players being late for meetings or challenging coach Bill Belichick because there was accountability in the room.

“I think when I left (in 2006), that was the start of Adalius (Thomas) and some of those guys coming in. I don’t think we would have had that issue,” McGinest said, referring to Thomas lashing out at Belichick over being sent home with three others players after being late for a meeting on a snowy, December morning. “He’s a grown man, he’s entitled to his opinion and whatnot. But those rules have been in place since I’ve been there.

“Bill prepares in every single aspect from practice schedules to weather reports. They know there’s going to be a snowstorm two days before it comes, or a day before it comes. He’ll let you know in a team meeting if there’s going to be a snowstorm because he doesn’t want any excuses for you being late.

“You have to be prepared in that type of system. When you don’t do that, things happen. And there’s no leniency on anybody regardless of who you are, because everybody is in the same situation, everybody has the same warning, everybody is looked at the same. That’s part of holding each other accountable.”

McGinest, who was with the Browns from 2006-08, did not play this season. He’s done some commentary for the NFL Network. The two-time Pro Bowl linebacker, who turned 39 in December, said he hasn’t yet turned in his retirement papers and is open to the possibility of playing next season.

“I took the time this year to heal and train and get stronger and get better. You never know,” he said. “I definitely want to do some commentating. I’m going to weigh my options and see what happens.”
What are the chances he’ll play next season?
“It depends if it’s the right situation,” he said. “I still have a passion for the game. I still train like I was playing. We’ll see what the possibilities are. I feel really good.”

He doesn’t think there will be an invitation to return to Foxboro, but there could be interest in Kansas City where Romeo Crennel, his ex-coach in Cleveland and his former defensive coordinator with the Pats, now is in charge of the defense.

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