Leadership lost

As Julian Peterson swerved through the San Francisco locker room on crutches this week, it became painfully obvious what is missing from this team at its core. It's leadership, the kind that can be provided only by established veterans and special players such as Peterson. The 49ers are down to very few of each, and it shows.

And Peterson, though he hasn't been around the team on a regular basis since his season-ending Achilles tendon tear in October, says the void is glaring.

"It's a rough situation to see it all develop like this," said Peterson, a trace of disgust in his voice. He has every right to feel that way. The heart and soul of the 49ers when healthy, Peterson personally was one player whose talent and inspiration lifted the entire team both when things were going good and when they were going bad.

The Niners don't have a player like that as they wander toward the end of this lost season. Not one.

Oh, sure, they still have a few proud veterans around, and those guys do what they can. But they are the few. The veteran leaders of this team all were shipped away during the offseason.

"We need some veterans," Peterson said. "Right now, you have a lot of young players that became veterans, like myself. But you don't have too many people like Bryant Young. And I think that's a problem. We don't have a lot of veterans."

It's a BIG problem, and we're not just talking about performance on the field. We're talking about everything that goes on outside the white lines.

With its dreams of building a new contender with young players, 49ers management underestimated the impact of losing the wisdom, maturity, sophistication and influence that was brought to the team by the 10 veteran starters who departed in the offseason.

The 49ers are paying for that mistake now as a talent-challenged and injury-riddled team has hit on hard times.

"The more veterans you have, the more they're going to show the younger guys what's really going on," Peterson said. "They show the real ideal of the NFL and how to become a professional."

The inference there from the 49ers' best player is obvious. The Niners have several young players who need to know what's "really going on."

"Everything is not going to go your way," Peterson continued. "You're going to have your wins and your losses. But you have to go play with all your heart and try to win the game and leave it all on the field. It's all or nothing. You're not out there playing around. Some people take it for granted and just say, ‘I'm getting paid regardless every week and it's a nice paycheck.' Some people come to work and take it as a pride thing: ‘I'm coming to work to be the best and to try to be better and to help the franchise win a Super Bowl.'"

Peterson implied there are too many of the former and not enough of the latter among the young players who make up the majority of the roster.

But with Peterson and center Jeremy Newberry on the sidelines, the 49ers don't have the kind of in-their-prime veterans to take charge and kick ass. That's not the style of older veterans such as Young and offensive tackle Scott Gragg, who are more the leader-by-example types.

They're not Jeff Garcia types. Or Derrick Deese types. Or Garrison Hearst types. Or even Terrell Owens types.

"I think the bad perception throughout the league is that when you turn 30, they believe that you're over the hill and done," Peterson said. "But those are the guys that help the younger guys who have potential to get better. They can help them develop. They can show them how to handle being a professional and how to come to work every day."

Coach Dennis Erickson – who is having some leadership issues of his own, with the team playing so poorly – tried to downplay Peterson's argument. But he couldn't deny the basis for the All-Pro linebacker's feelings.

"Yeah, there aren't a lot of veterans," Erickson said. "I wouldn't say that there aren't a lot of leaders, but there aren't a lot of veterans. But some will develop in the next five weeks, there's no question in my mind. For us to compete and do the things that we need to and win some games here down the stretch, people are going to have to step up in the locker room. I'm going to have to step up, we're all going to have to step up. You'll see some leaders step up that maybe haven't been just because of how many years they've played in the league or how many years they've been with this team, or whatever. But now is a true time to see who is going to step up."

Now's the true time? Coach, last month was the time. Two months ago was the time.

If the Niners believe time will tell who are leaders on this team this season … Well, hello, time is quickly running out.

"Obviously, there's leadership on this team," quarterback Tim Rattay said matter-of-factly. Rattay hasn't avoided the leadership role that all quarterbacks must assume, but he also is more of the quiet, lead-by-example, just-let-me-play-the-game types that isn't going to get teammates riled up with his fire and verve.

"Ultimately," Rattay continued, "each person's got to look at themselves to get motivated, to get ready themselves. I think we have good leadership on this team."

Uh, Tim, you might want to look again.

Julian Peterson is a leader. And though he has been forced to watch from afar as this disaster of a season plays out, he still is close enough to tell it like it is.

"This is rough," Peterson said. "San Fran has won only two games twice. Right now, if this doesn't get resolved, it's probably going to be the worst team in (49ers) history. You don't want to be the worst team in history. You don't want to end up like that."

Hopefully, some of his teammates are listening. Since Peterson can't do anything on the field to prevent that infamy, they will have to.

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