This past Sunday night, as I watched Tom Brady drop dimes on a corps of rookie receivers (some undrafted) I couldn’t help but wonder how the Patriots are successful season after season, despite the perpetually changing, in-season circumstances that surround all 32 NFL teams. Each team faces upheaval each and every year. From injuries, to murder, to terminally ill coaches, no team is immune from the NFL’s fickle character.
As Kembrell Tompkins crashed onto the end zone turf for yet another TD reception, I wondered how is it that some teams always seem to weather the inevitable drama of an NFL season, and others flounder. Then it hit me like…well…like a Smack Cam pie to the face. Leadership.
Leadership comes in all forms, from vocal inspiration to grind it out, hardworking leadership-by-example. No matter the form, we all know good leadership when we see it. It’s obvious who the leaders are around the league. Guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are obvious examples. Last year, the Ravens piled onto the back of Ray Lewis and rode his inspiration all the way to Disney World.
As judging by each year’s eventual Super Bowl champion, clear cut leadership is an essential ingredient in creating a winning team. Our unique hybrid fan base has witnessed the leadership phenomenon that has led to championships in other sports. You LA guys have the Lakers. It’s obvious that the Lakers are Kobe Bryant’s team. Under Kobe, the Lakers have been one of the more successful franchises for 17+ years. Us St. Louis guys have the Cardinals. Over the past 11 seasons Pujols was our clear cut leader. This year Molina, Wainwright, and Matt Carpenter have emerged as the obvious leaders of the NL’s winningest franchise.
But what about the Rams? Who are the leaders of our frustrating franchise? This is not an easy answer, and to me is one of, if not the key reason why this franchise is struggling mightily to win ballgames despite being loaded with talent.
Let’s take a top down approach. Despite how you feel about Jeff Fisher he is well-known to be a players’ coach. In my opinion his opposite would be the control freak Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay. It sounds like his iron fist is quickly sinking the Buc's ship. Under a coach like Fisher, players are given wide latitude. For veterans, this means being able to take more days off because they "need less practice". For younger guys this means having a little more room to breathe as they learn the game. While having more latitude seems to be a major plus for a player’s job satisfaction, it also means being more responsible for your success and the success of your team.
From the outside looking in, it appears that not one Ram, in this player friendly environment has stepped up to lead this team which may be the major reason for their inexplicable performance. Thinking about the Rams from this perspective, I keep thinking about two words…Smack Cam. Looking back on the preseason from 4 games into the regular season, the Smack Cam strikes me as a symptom that the young veterans on an even younger team had not stepped up to provide the leadership this team needs to transform its abundant talent into wins, or at least somewhat competitive losses.
It may sound silly, and I understand if you decide to stop reading…..If you’re still with me, imagine for a moment someone shoving a pie in the face of Tom Brady on national TV. Imagine someone shoving a pie in the face of Steven Jackson last year. It’s almost impossible for me to envision.
Yet during the pre-season, this was a hallmark of this fun-loving bunch that had the latitude to create their own destiny. While it was all fun and games, we all thought that this team was also preparing to make a legitimate run at the playoffs. Instead, two of our highest paid veterans were creating an atmosphere for a bunch of 1st and 2nd year guys where smashing pies in each other’s face was the norm. For comparisons sake, I’m a huge baseball fan and have seen respected players get a plate full of shaving cream to the grill, but this usually follows a no-hitter or walk-off HR. It usually does not precede a season where expectations are high for an emerging team.
I will admit that this would not be an issue if the Rams were 3 -1 or even 1-3, but playing competitive football. Instead we’re lucky to be 1-3 and two of the veterans on this team, Chris Long and Finn, that should be helping to create the winning atmosphere of champions, are having inexplicably horrible seasons. And I can’t help but think that Smack Cam was a symptom of an eventual problem. Looking back Smack Cam seems to symbolize a lack of preparation and lack of dedication to creating a winning franchise that was expected to compete in the most feared conference in the league.
This was not an issue last year with Steven Jackson tightly gripping the Ram's reigns. This team undoubtedly took a blow when he left. Beyond his gritty play, it’s obvious that we sorely miss his leadership. I didn’t see it coming and honestly thought we’d be just fine without him. The same can probably be said for Q. Mikell. This team is young, yes, and has loads of talent, yes. But without someone stepping up and providing guidance, the talent is aimlessly unfocused, which seems to have led to the results we’re experiencing through the first quarter of the season. Until someone steps to the helm, we will keep seeing more of the same. Jeff Fisher is a players’ coach, so like it or not, it may be incumbent upon the players to step up and take control of this team’s destiny.