Who Will Lead? … Sunday Cup O’Chiefs

From St. Joseph, Missouri

When the names Vrabel and Waters were taken of the Chiefs roster it was something more than just two fewer bodies on the training camp roster.

The departures of OLB Mike Vrabel to retirement and LG Brian Waters to the waiver wire removed an entire level of leadership from the Chiefs locker room, sideline and the playing field. Forget the role those two had with the players union, where they were members of the NFL Players Association executive committee. That was just one avenue of their leadership quotient with the Chiefs.

And, it doesn’t even begin to cover what those two men brought to the locker room each and every day. It wasn’t because of their status in the NFL Draft when they came into the league – Vrabel was a third-round choice by Pittsburgh and Waters wasn’t even drafted coming out of North Texas State.

It’s what they did in the league that made their name. Vrabel had 226 games of NFL experience over 14 seasons and post-seasons, with three Super Bowl rings and one trip to the Pro Bowl. Waters had 166 games and 5 Pro Bowls over 11 seasons. That’s 392 games in the league, split on defense and offense.

In two years with the Chiefs, Vrabel had a huge influence on young defensive players like Derrick Johnson, Andy Studebaker and even last year’s rookie star Eric Berry.

“I learned everything from him,” said third-year ILB Jovan Belcher. “You learn how to work hard. You learn that communication is the key when you are on the field. He was a great source of information and inspiration.”

Waters became the go-to-guy for the offense, and especially young offensive linemen. Waters got the torch of leadership from Will Shields, who got it from Tim Grunhard and Dave Szott, who got it from the late Mike Webster and his two seasons with the Chiefs after his Hall of Fame career with the Steelers.

“I learned from him how to stay even, on an even keel and not have highs and lows,” said second-year G Jon Asamoah. “That’s the main thing you have to do.”

That experience, savvy and knowledge is no longer around. It’s a void that must be filled.

“I’m confident in this core group of guys that we’ve got,” said head coach Todd Haley. “We can hope for certain guys that we’d like to see them take steps in certain areas. We have a lot of potential guys that are capable of taking charge a little more than maybe they have in the past and now it’s just got happen. If we want to continue to take steps as a team, this will be a big stepping stone for us.”

Haley and his coaching staff do not get to choose the Chiefs leaders. They can certainly put players in positions and situations where their teammates look to them for leadership. That’s what happened when Vrabel was brought in as part of the trade with New England for QB Matt Cassel.

“It’s something that really has to evolve,” Haley said. “We definitely coach it and coach the need for leadership to the entire team at all times. I think good teams, those guys step up at the appropriate time. That’s what I’ll be looking for as the head coach.”

A true leader is not appointed. He is chosen. A leader’s peers decide who they are going to follow. There can be many different reasons that a player becomes the go-to-guy in the locker room, but the road to team leader ordinarily comes through several routes:

Example – These leaders are not loud and often not heard from at all. They set an example for their teammates by the consistency of their work ethic. These type off leaders are always there, whether it’s the locker room, weight room or on the field of play.

Performance in the clutch – It’s impossible for a player to be a team leader if he doesn’t play. NFL players respect and follow those that show their abilities on the field. They will always get behind a player who has a history of winning. Vrabel never wore his Super Bowl rings around the Chiefs, but he didn’t have too; his teammates knew he had ownership.

Knowledge – Everybody in the NFL is a good athlete. Games are usually decided not by athletic ability, but for other reasons like preparation. Teammates will always follow a guy who can tell them where to line up on the field, or pulls the cover off an opponent’s scheme and can translate tendencies.

Personality – Some followers will get behind one of their peers simply because of the way a player carries himself. It can be how he expresses himself in the locker room, or with the coaches and management, even with the media. Every team needs one of those players because they will express what the locker room is afraid to say or do.

So who will replace Vrabel and Waters? No one will “replace” them.

“You can’t just become a Mike Vrabel,” said ILB Derrick Johnson. “You don’t wake up one morning and you are Brian Waters.”

The question is who will step into the leadership void created by their departure?

“I think it’s important for all of us to step forward,” said G Ryan Lilja. “We all have to take responsibility.”

A youngster like Belcher agrees.

“They were great leaders,” Belcher said of Vrabel and Waters. “They taught us how to be a team and how to lead a team. But we still have a lot of leaders on this team. We just have to keep working. We aren’t where we want to be yet, and the only way we get there is to do the work. Everyone has to step it up a notch.”

While the head coach can’t pick the leaders, he can prime the pump and put the locker room in a situation where they are considering the possibilities. That’s what Haley did on the second night of training camp, when he reviewed the accomplishments of the 2010 Chiefs.

“That review which was a highlight tape of sorts, it ended with our sour ending last year, but there were some pictures of players on there that aren’t here any longer, and I showed that for a purpose,” Haley said. “Who in this room is going to step up? I don’t know who you are, but be aware of that, be aware of the situation, that we need guys continuing to take steps if we want to be a great team.

“We’re not there yet, we did a lot of good things, but we did not accomplish what our ultimate goal is through this year and the next.”

4 Responses to “Who Will Lead? … Sunday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • July 31, 2011  - Tenand6 says:

    I hope to see Matt Cassel emerge as a leader in training camp. Last year it was clear that Todd Haley was the Alpha Dog during the practices and there wasn’t a close second, at least from what I could discern. Other coaches were vocal as were the players mentioned in Bob’s article. But I don’t remember seeing or hearing Matt Cassel. Hopefully, his confidence level is at a point where he asserts himself on the field. I would think that a great team would have to have a QB who was “the guy.” Not necessarily a super star, but who players respect and believe in.

    This is a great think piece.

  • July 31, 2011  - el cid says:

    I think the new Chiefs do not think about a team leader like we think of a team leader. No one in the organization will tell us, so it is speculation. We think a team leader needs to be vocal, quoteable, seen by all and be about to inspire his fellow players at just the right moment. No sure that is what the Chiefs envision. (not the correct words but….) support the company line, say nothing the media can tag on to,wear the C on his uniform but not be heard with an opinion. Basically be a lap dog of the organization and call the coin toss to start games. But probably wrong, just no one with the Chiefs will correct me, they ain’t talking.

  • July 31, 2011  - TimR says:

    I wouldn’t worry tto much about it. It will evolve. I think the most likely candidate(s) could be: Eric Berry, Matt Cassel, perhaps Hudson eventually. I’m sure there are others & maybe ones that are not yet on the team…

  • July 31, 2011  - Rob says:

    wiegmann is a viable option. A good vet who has been part of monster olines before. He can be an example leader easy.

    Vrabel and his football acumen is just hard to reproduce. I’ve seen this in other athletically limited lbs. Greg Manusky and Matt Maslowski come to mind. Jon Mcgraw fits but he is already a special teams leader. Barrett Rudd from TB. dreaming.

    I’d like to see Derrick Johnson be a leader. Hali is a perfect example/outstanding clutch guy.

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