Until the Ravens advance deep into the postseason, questions about leadership will always surround this team.
Twice since he retired at the end of the 2012 season, former Raven and Pro Football Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis has criticized the team for a lack of leadership. Maybe Lewis was putting himself on a pedestal, which he has been prone to do, but the Ravens have had only two winning seasons since his departure and been to the playoffs only once.
To a lot of fans, perception is reality.
“I think we have great leadership on this team, and they have been doing a great job,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They have been outstanding and have led by example. Verbally, they have communicated well and you can see it in the attitude of this team. I see a lot of young guys with a great attitude and it’s been very positive.”
The blue-collar work ethic is part of the Ravens’ culture, and Harbaugh has emphasized it since becoming head coach in 2008. He likes to build on the “team” theme and that no player is bigger than the team.
It’s a solid concept, but I also like a little color and pageantry. The players don’t have to be as arrogant as Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, as selfish as New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or as crazy as Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but a little showmanship makes the game fun.
A star player’s charisma can motivate other players.
When the Ravens won the championship in the 2000 season, tight end Shannon Sharpe was the offense’s mouthpiece, but that team was led by the group of misfits on the defensive line. Tackle Tony Siragusa was loud and obnoxious, and fellow tackle Sam Adams had multiple personalities, depending on the time of day.
Defensive end Michael McCrary was a grown-up kid who often brought toys to training camp, and Rob Burnett, the other end, was as tough and as ornery as anyone in the NFL.
In the 2012 season, Lewis was fading on the field as a player, but the Ravens were still his team. He also had teammates with dominant personalities, such as safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
These Ravens have no such flavor. They are ho-hum, and Harbaugh prefers it that way. Now, can they win a Super Bowl? Can they even go deep into the playoffs?
So far, the answers have been no.
“Some guys scream a lot and others like me are quiet but lead by example,” Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “Other players feel comfortable talking to someone like me. They come and feel calm. I am comfortable talking to a lot of players or pulling some players aside. It really depends on your personality.
“We got Siz [Suggs]. He can do that. He can get guys pumped up. At every position on this team, we have a leader, and that’s good for this team.”
The Ravens are in the same position with leadership as they are in having alpha-male players. They have quality, but not enough dominant players who have proved they can take over both mentally and physically in crunch time.
That might change some this year because the Ravens are a team ready to grow up.
“Some guys are leaders right out of the gate, like Ray Lewis,” Harbaugh said. “But as you get more playing time, you see more of the leadership start to emerge. Leaders are guys who do it. If you don’t perform, no one is going to listen. Leaders are guys that care. They listen to others and build relationships.”
Mosley calls it the evolution of a player. When the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2014, his mentor for two seasons was veteran Daryl Smith.
Now Mosley is the mentor of the linebackers room.
“Leadership happens naturally, especially with the more you play or after the time you become a starter,” Mosley said. “And of course, how you play. As you get older, life changes. The position changes and the roles change. Now, I’m the second- or third-oldest guy in the room. That’s the way the game evolves. That’s the way you evolve as a man. Now, I am in Daryl Smith’s shoes.”
According to Mosley, there is a lot more to being a leader than just being the “rah-rah” type. When he feels tired, he has to play through it because he knows his teammates are counting on him. To do that, he knows he has to spend more time in the weight room than others and watch his diet and amount of rest.
“Guys in the limelight can be great leaders, but so can ordinary players in the locker room who can pull guys aside and talk to them,” Mosley said.
Mosley pointed out that Suggs, guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, quarterback Joe Flacco, safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Albert McClellan are leaders.
Some of the younger players, such as running back Alex Collins and offensive guard Alex Lewis, could emerge, as well as new veteran receivers Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead IV and John Brown.
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For veteran newcomers, it might take a full season because they have to prove themselves to their new teammates, according to former Ravens wideout Steve Smith Sr.
Flacco, often accused of being too introverted on the sideline, was more demonstrative after the first preseason game, looking over pictures and talking strategy with coaches and teammates.
“Joe is in a good place,” Harbaugh said. “He is healthy; he likes the guys around him. He sees opportunity for success. The last two years, he has been dealing with his own issues, the knee and the back. It’s hard to get out front and drive the ship when you’ve been dealing with injuries.
“He probably doesn’t have those anxieties. He isn’t concerned about other things. He is probably enjoying himself, enjoying the guys.”
The Ravens are going to need Flacco to step up. The same could be said for all the team leaders because the Ravens don’t have a lot of star or flamboyant players. In crunch time, especially late in the season, somebody is going to have to carry this team.
It’s been a while since the Ravens have been in the playoffs. In the past two seasons, they’ve been only a play or two away. Regardless, they didn’t get it done. Was it from a lack of leadership?
It’s doesn’t matter. The perception is still there.