Outside the Perimeter: After Talent, What?

Winning teams require a key component beyond what appears on the depth chart. Mark Leonard looks at what the Cavaliers appear to have, and other Cleveland teams seem to lack...

The Cavs have it most evidently. The Tribe seems perhaps not to, and that has been an unfortunate  recent reputation. The Browns surely had it in what became a 10-6 campaign. But will the Cleveland Browns have it when they need it in 2009? It certainly did not appear to be in abundance during last season's 4-12 shocking disaster.

Of course, no one can know for certain at this point. At any rate, the concept questioned is leadership.

Not the front-office variety. The kind personified this week by Indians' GM Mark Shapiro on behalf of the organization he represents. His was another exemplary, stand-up display of accountability and forthrightness. "There is a direction. There is a vision. And I am the guy to assure you we're on top of it, having discussions, analyzing, collaborating, brainstorming and sharing a ferocious commitment to exploring all of whatever is possible so as to attain our expressed goal of  a championship season," he might just as well have said.

That is outstanding leadership but not the type to be discussed here today.  What is to be contemplated is the on-field, in-huddle, locker-room type on football teams. That kind of leadership. The sort all champions possess and must have. It's been annually seen among Steelers, Giants, Colts, Patriots and Eagles throughout recent seasons. 

Leadership is not always easy to talk about. Sometimes its existence is not easily apparent to outsiders, those of us categorized as "fans" or observers. We're not inside enough to know much about such an intangible, and we most assuredly can't be at all sure who it is within a given group of grown men who merit the mantel of leadership.

So, it is sometimes nonsense to proclaim, from the common perspective, that an outfit of athletes does or does not possess adequate or ample leadership.

After all, how might we recognize the existence of  effective leadership within a team?  One might imagine detecting displays of self-correction, whereby within the context of a given drive, for example, the defense rises-up and thwarts an oppositional charge. Seeing it done with regularity might equate to evidence.

A team with effective leadership polices itself. Resultantly, mistakes become less frequent.

A well-lead outfit also exhibits confidence in a variety of forms, does it not? It shows poise, has an assuredness that allows for big plays. People can gamble and rely upon instinctual temptations knowing they can rely on a mate having their backs. Such teams demonstrate an un-self-conscious attitude that communicates an expectation of competence at a minimum and excellence in an extreme.

Actually, so much of what one sees from the Cavaliers evidences leadership. That full buy-in. That unified purpose. Spontaneity. Togetherness. Happiness. Energy. And, of course, winning.

On a football team, faces hidden beneath helmets and heavy padding, it can resemble those aforementioned things. But it's many times moreso an appearance of almost militaristic timing and coordination. A precision. Efficiency. A smooth, familiar rhythm. Systematic, deliberate, consistent, that concerted effort which minimizes error and self-destruction.

Such a team—as was so often the case during the ‘07 Browns' surprise—promptly picks one another up, apparent in the manner with which it so persistently converted first downs even after negative-yardage occurrences. Incisive could be the execution that magical campaign.

Bear in mind, that edition suffered a terrible Opening Day drubbing to the detested rival Steelers in what became the abrupt end of the Charlie Frye era.

Right after that game, Frye was dealt to Seattle, but more importantly the leadership asserted itself. We were led to believe guys like center Hank Fraley, who'd come here from a winning Eagles' program, stepped-up and sparked meaningful communication that helped awaken and meld the roster.

Joe Jurevicius, who'd been to Super Bowls with three different teams, was another credited. Willie McGinest, from the perennial playoff Patriots, was probably involved, alongside  former Raven Jamal Lewis and holdovers Andra Davis, Ryan Tucker and Eric Steinbach.

Though we cannot begin to know for sure, we also don't need to know. What mattered was we fans began to see strong suggestions the leadership had successfully rallied spirits,  establishing order, direction, focus, unity and commitment.

Immediately, the otherwise young squad exploded against the downstate visitors from Cincinnati. Within a few short weeks, momentum was building. The offense was rolling. Points were being scored and games were won, even on the road. Amazingly, not another home game would be lost that season.

The team had given the home crowds something to be proud of again, to look forward to with optimism. Some happiness was even reported to have broken out, if only temporarily. Nationally-televised prime-time contests featuring Cleveland's Browns were scheduled by important folks living in other towns. Clevelanders felt remarkably good about themselves.

But I digress.

The point is, the winning was preceded by the assertion of successful player leadership.

Too much of that veteran leadership was not in place nor as effective in 2008. In fact, too much of it was subtracted before the real games could even commence. Jurevicius, Tucker and key defensive performers Daven Holly and Antwan Peek were unavailable for all but one regular-season contest between themselves, directly impairing four separate positional units.

Robaire Smith was likewise lost for the year in Game Two, rupturing a D-line on which new DE Corey Williams was already performing injured. OG Steinbach was doing the same on the other side of the ball, also handicapped by a damaged shoulder. Moreover, the critical passing combinations of QB Derek Anderson and WRs Braylon Edwards and Donte Stallworth missed extended time in and around the opener. Not only was synchronicity compromised, but so too was the effectiveness of core leadership.

Was it any wonder, then, that the record suffered?

That team-play could not be salvaged was most disappointing, but moreso understandable given the challenges put upon leadership. With so many quality components sidelined without return, what few vets remained were overwhelmed. Disintegration began to manifest, eventually reflected in the fan base itself. Pre-season expectations had been allowed to get so high—and to remain elevated without adjustment nor acknowledgement of how unlikely they'd become. In such an environment, the players suffer fan disenchantment, promoting decay.

Eventually, the extended metaphor that was the season deteriorated to such a degree that the team was impotent after November 17th's third quarter.

Predictably, many changes ensued. New GM. New Head Coach. New assistants, schemes, draftees, free agents, schedule and interior decorating. What remains unanswered is whether this season's collection of players will have and display the proper leadership necessary to restore and advance the program that seemed to be building as recently as nine months ago.

It is said, to be vital enough to qualify as leader, a player must be credible by virtue of his being healthy, contributing and counted-upon. While health can neither be predicted nor controlled—as last summer demonstrated—the balance of the job description can be influenced by what is done during the talent-assemblage stage of a new operation.

Because both GM George Kokinis and Head Coach Eric Mangini are known to be detail guys, it can be anticipated discretion was exercised when evaluating recruits in free agency. In fact, Mangini brought a wealth of former Jets along with him from New York. Perhaps he'll succeed in importing leadership, though it is thought to be disadvantageous to be new to a club. How soon can the newcomers assimilate and achieve voice and prominence within the roster? Can the imports mix comfortably with the returnees? From what has been gathered, will Browns' leadership surface?

The fate of the 2009 campaign may ride upon the answers. Especially with the starting QB assignment yet to be determined. It will test leadership considerably to keep distraction from the locker room while that competition plays itself out. Then the team must quickly rally behind whomever that signal-caller should be. That is a lot to fall upon the shoulders of a shrunken vet core and an influx of newbies.

This having all been written, it should not be unreasonable to expect for Cleveland fans to practice some restraint and patience with the new regime and newly-formulated lineup and locker room. Until leadership manifests, unifies and asserts its influence, there will be growing pains. Additional turnover may even prove necessary.

It can only be hoped appropriate leadership will eventually materialize, ideally in time to construct a winning campaign. But it should not be assumed it can or will. Followers of the Browns have seen it both ways in their last two NFL seasons—a winning team enabled by successful leadership and a losing one crippled by a shortage of such leadership. Now that the assemblage-stage of the off-season has virtually ended, it is time for that leadership to begin materializing and establishing itself, so as to crystallize and identify the essential character of this season's edition—winners who win or losers who lose.

It takes more than names and prospects to win at the NFL level. It takes a team. And leaders help create that team. Will the Browns have those leaders in 2009?

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