Team leaders are not appointed.
They are neither created nor built.
They are discovered.
True leadership ability lies within, and becoming a team leader is not about "acquiring" the skills over time; it is about honing the innate qualities already there.
And right now – whether we want to admit it – there is no leader for the Broncos.
‘Leader’ is one thing; ‘team leader’ another
Donning the unofficial title of "team leader" means being the heart and soul of a team, and it comes via steadiness in the face of adversity, respect from peers and authority alike for both work ethic and performance, plus a self-confidence that can ride the very thin line between self-assuredness and conceit.
And even though many players can be leaders on a team, a rare few can be the one guy who takes the reins, shoulders the team. And most of the time, it needs to be the quarterback.
Wilson wasn’t just the leader on defense for the Broncos in the early 2000s, he was the emotional glue that held the team together in the post-Super Bowl, non-Elway years. Much like our current team, the Broncos didn’t have a strong presence at quarterback who could command the team.
Bailey too was a stable force during a decade of unfulfilled potential on this team and was the go-to leader whenever the quarterback could not be that guy (i.e., Kyle Orton, Jay Cutler).
Rarely are teams as lucky as the Broncos were the past three years to have a strong leader on either side of the ball. In DeMarcus Ware, the team has had a quiet and constant steadiness appreciated by all but revered in particular by one. Ware brought a work ethic, maturity and talent to this team and specifically to a position with a rising star who needed his mentorship. Now Von Miller is well on his way to following Ware’s footsteps and becoming the leader he was born to be.
Quarterbacks are the natural ‘team’ leaders
But even in that most recent era, there was no debate who the unquestioned leader was in the Broncos locker room - the quarterback. And even when Peyton Manning was struggling in his play, his leadership was ever-present.
Because it will always be the quarterback who teammates intuitively look to for guidance, accountability, example and inspiration.
Broncos quarterbacks have often fit the bill – Frank Tripucka, Craig Morton, John Elway, Jake Plummer, even Tim Tebow, and of course Manning – so we’ve rarely had a leadership vacuum in our locker room.
Many an NFL team has been forced to hang its leadership banner behind another position when the quarterback has lacked the necessary DNA, but those teams (such as Calvin Johnson’s Lions or J.J. Watt’s Texans) have also lacked a je ne sais quoi that pushes them beyond "great" to "elite."
How well the QB can engineer a successful drive motivates the offense to keep pushing harder, playing stronger. How well the offense fares will also dictate how aggressive a defense can be or how conservative it has to play. An aggressive defense is motivated to make big plays. And a big play on defense ignites the offense to take care of its business again.
Momentum in a game – and within a team – is very much a domino effect. And the ability to keep it going back and forth is both crucial and difficult.
And it starts at the top.
Broncos have been fortunate
It’s not often this team does not have a quarterback to look to for leadership, and while we’ve grown accustomed to it, we should recognize what great fortune that is - especially when two of them are among the Greatest Of All Time.
For 16 years, we had an unquestioned team leader in Elway. Then he came back to right this ship from the front office and recognized right away that not only did the team need a talented quarterback, it needed a Sheriff. So for four years we got to claim one of the NFL’s best when it comes to guiding a team.
Manning was given a defense powerful enough to win games almost by itself. And even though last season felt like the defense was doing all the heavy-lifting, fans forget that it was Manning’s leadership – work ethic, football IQ, positive attitude and calmness under pressure – that allowed our defense to buy in to their added responsibility game after game.
And last season’s offense – while not pulling equal weight in a game – still did its part by sustaining long drives that more often ended in points (even if only three), or went far enough downfield to give the defense both decent field position and some time to rest.
Buoyed behind Manning’s leadership that transcended stats on the field, the defense relished the opportunity to be the game-changers, looking at it almost like they owed Manning that much.
A team’s natural inclination is to follow its quarterback. And when that guy rallies, the team rallies (ex: Philip Rivers). And when that guy falls apart, the team falls apart (ex: Cam Newton).
Some leaders are vocal, some lead by example.
But the guy – the one the team is going to war for – is some form of both.
He doesn’t have to be a cheerleader, but he has to bring both hard work and passion to his play in some visible way to inspire the same from his teammates.
Unfortunately for this team, the Broncos don’t have a quarterback right now who can do that. Say whatever you want to about Siemian’s "calm, cool, collected" demeanor being good for this team, and I won’t disagree. That’s great for keeping guys steady when the pressure is on.
It still doesn’t make him the team leader.
So what is this Broncos team to do?
Is the season a lost cause because docllv says that guy isn’t on this team? Of course not.
Is there a player who can step up to fill that role if the QB cannot?
But who will that be? Who can that be?
I wish I knew. I wish the Broncos knew. So I’ve been pondering the questions for several days of whether we have a leader, why we don’t and who it can be. I found such questions both interesting to consider and difficult to answer, so I asked my colleagues for their input. While there was no consensus, the varied answers proved my point – there is no clear leader on this team.
But we have some suggestions:
In our divisional round loss to the Colts in 2014, the only player who seemed to care enough to give 100 percent was C.J. Anderson. That is the kind of example and leadership our offense needs right now. His (called-back) touchdown catch and run last week was a thing of beauty. I think C.J. has the chutzpah to lead this team on the field and off of it. He just needs to step up and be the leader our offense sorely needs. – Joe Mahoney
It's virtually impossible to pick the one player who needs to be our offensive leader. But someone who makes the short list is Emmanuel Sanders. He's loyal. He signed with the Broncos because he wanted to be loyal to a city that was loyal to him. He feels the Broncos have what it takes to build a dynasty. Carrots with more money attached were dangled elsewhere. He could've easily snatched up those carrots, or left to be part of a pass-heavy offense, but Denver is clearly where he wants to be. That kind of appreciation for the team, the city, the fans as well as his contagious positivity will help that locker room immensely. And he also took some accountability for the mistakes on the offense against San Diego. That attitude is good for righting this ship. – Yvonne Hew
From the day he signed with the Broncos, Russell Okung has been heralded as a "leader" by his coaches and teammates. I got the first evidence of this in training camp when he worked with Mathu Gibson on a sled before practice started. That showed me it’s not about him, it’s about the team.
Fans then got all the evidence they need that Okung is the team’s offensive leader when he, T.J. Ward and Sylvester Williams visited Legacy High School in September. It was to show the local high school football team and school that they are "Legacy Strong" after a tragic bus crash. Watch the speech and try to not come away inspired by what Okung told those players.
Okung is one of those quiet leaders, meaning he doesn’t speak to the media that much. In that regard he’s a lot like Tom Nalen. That doesn’t mean Okung is not the leader in the locker room. A leader knows how to rise to the occasion and say what’s needed at the exact moment. It’s not always "rah rah" but sometimes a speech to high school football players after a tragedy to show them that they aren’t alone. That they can get through it together. That’s a leader, and the Broncos got a damn good one in Okung. – Ian St. Clair
Help Wanted: Team Leader
I know a lot of people want to talk about how leadership can come from anywhere. It can. There can be a veteran presence that steps up and takes the reins of the team. It can be an incredible player who embodies the team’s persona, or an inspirational player who pushes his teammates to get maximum effort on every play.
Denver has a number of guys who are leaders. DeMarcus Ware is a leader for the defense. Emmanuel Sanders embodies the persona of the team. The No Fly Zone is a group of brash players that set the tone for the rest of the team. T.J. Ward is especially vocal and willing to put himself out there as the leader of the group. Russell Okung has immediately stepped into a leadership role for the Broncos as a solid veteran presence. Matt Paradis has grown into his role as the center and leader of the offensive line.
You will notice I never mentioned the quarterback. No, this team does not have a player at the QB position who can lay claim to any of those characteristics.
Trevor Siemian was handed this team, and it rallied to his support. Supporting a guy, and seeing him as a leader are completely different. The same can be said for Paxton Lynch. There is nothing inspiring about the quarterbacks. Nothing that makes you want to run through a wall for them. Nice kids, but nothing in the way of leadership.
That is a problem.
Even with all the leaders on this team, the guy who touches the ball on every play must be seen as a leader. Anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling himself/herself. The greatest leaders in NFL history have been quarterbacks. It is rare that a team can win without a great leader at that position. The 2000 Ravens might be the exception, but it is very rare. The QB does not have to be the best player, or even good (PFM), but he does have to inspire. That is what the Broncos lack this season. – Adam Malnatti
Like Wilson in the post-Elway era, I think the team needs a strong motivating personality in the post-Manning era. A guy who shows up every day to work hard, who puts it all out there on the field, and who can be an emotional presence both in practice and on game day.
Miller is just coming into his own as a mentor and leader, and to date he’s mainly focused his energy on "his guys" on defense. But in Ware and Manning, Miller has had two of the best show him the way, and I believe the outside linebacker does have the DNA to be a complete team leader.
Now No. 58 just needs to realize the moment is here for him to rush in and take over just like he has done countless times in a game. - Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann
Even Andrew Mason of denverbroncos.com is at a loss when confronted with the question about who the team leader is right now.
"It’s a good question, because I don’t know if it has an answer yet," Mason said Tuesday on The Afternoon Drive. "There are signs that Matt Paradis is growing as a leader and certainly when you really look at the offense over the first six games you could make an argument he’s the best player on that offense. We know about all the issues up front but certainly haven’t been any issues with Paradis’ work at center. Is he the kind of leader that can jar guys out of the slump, that can shake everything up and get guys to perform? That’s something that remains to be seen. He’s still growing as a player and as a leader."
Much like when John Elway retired and a young, inexperienced quarterback took the reins, the 2016 Broncos have had to deal with Peyton Manning's retirement. The veterans on the team are trying to fill that leadership void, but it really is an exercise in futility. A true leader will not emerge until one of the young quarterbacks on the roster grows to take command of the offense. Until then, it will be on head coach Gary Kubiak to lead the players onward.
Looking back, the Broncos’ offense didn't truly find a commanding leader in the huddle until Jake Plummer came aboard. That was a long wait, so hopefully Elway the general manager has a plan in place to ensure that the void left by Manning is filled more quickly than it was when he retired in 1999.
Will the leader be Trevor Siemian or will it ultimately become Paxton Lynch? That's the $64,000 question, and I am doubtful it gets answered this year. – Tim Lynch
Leading in 2016
But can any of these be the guy – the personality to rally the entire team to make a successful run at defending the championship?
So far, no.
It’s going to take veteran skill players like Sanders, Anderson and Demaryius Thomas pushing themselves past their own limits and being self-critical while doing the same to their second- and third-string counterparts.
It’s going to take Matt Paradis recognizing that as one of the only constants on this offense, he’s got the credibility to speak up and let guys know how to handle their business.
It’s going to take Von Miller doing his thing and motivating not just "his guys" on defense anymore but also his teammates across the line too.
And ultimately, it’s going to have to be Kubiak - and Elway - stepping up with bold decision-making and probably a few more "Come to Jesus" meetings for this team.
With enough veterans pulling the cart, I have faith the Broncos will find their lead horse to take command.
It just might not be this year.