Dallas Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher has never been known for making headlines off the field, but he caused a bit of a stir last Friday when he couldn't answer a simple question. A local radio personality asked Hatcher to name the leaders on this Cowboys roster.
"Dude. I gotta be honest with you: That's a good question. That's a good question," Hatcher told 103.3 KESN's "Ben and Skin Show. "I really don't know. It's just another thing we really need ... like the Ravens, we don't have that. We've got the talent. We've got everything we need. I think we get like a Ray Lewis-type. Everybody buys into him. When Ray Lewis speaks, everybody listens to him. A guy like that. We really don't got that. I think we definitely need somebody like that."
Hatcher's pregnant pause followed by an admission that he couldn't identify a true team leader has given Cowboys critics new ammunition. It was an interesting response in light of how much attention quarterback Tony Romo received for organizing team workouts during the recent lockout. Romo was pretty demanding during that process, which is why the Cowboys had as many as 45 players in attendance. Of course, the Super Bowl-champion Giants had about six or seven players show up, so we may have overrated those workouts.
Hatcher could've thrown out DeMarcus Ware or Jason Witten's names and this mini-controversy could've been avoided. But it's hard to fault a player for being honest, even if it bothers some of his teammates and perhaps his coaches. Hatcher openly yearned for a personality such as Lewis in the locker room. Unfortunately, you don't find a lot of those guys on the open market.
Keith Brooking provided excellent leadership for that 2009 playoff team, but he's now a declining player on the verge of retirement. Linebacker Bradie James is a stand-up guy who rarely ducks the media, but he's been phased out of Rob Ryan's defense. Sean Lee has the makings of a leader, but it's hard to take over the locker room when you've only started for one season. And given the talent level on the Cowboys, there's no guarantee that Lewis himself could lead this team back to the playoffs.
With the New York Giants and New England Patriots, there's no question leadership starts and ends with their head coaches. They set the tone for their organizations and players seem to hang on their every word. The Giants have vocal players such as Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs, but there's no doubt that Tom Coughlin's running the show. He knows the pulse of the locker room at all times and he's not afraid to challenge his star players. Winning that first Super Bowl gave Coughlin a lot more credibility, and even the chirpiest of players (Antrel Rolle, Jacobs) now swear by Coughlin's approach.
You wonder if something like that's possible for Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who has to serve at the pleasure of ownergeneral manager Jerry Jones. Can Garrett truly be a leader when Jones is actually the face of the organization?
He certainly got off to a good start when he became interim coach in the second half of 2010. But he lost credibility with the way he handled the aftermath of the Cardinals loss this past season. After making an obvious game-management mistake in the final minute of regulation, Garrett stubbornly defended his thought process. His ham-handed defense made him look bad to fans and media, but more importantly it sent the wrong message to his players. It was later reported that he apologized to them later in the week, but the damage was done at that point.
Ware is one of the most feared pass-rushers in the game and he prepares harder than anyone. But none other than Warren Sapp once said that Ware couldn't lead "ants to a picnic." Ware's a great example for younger players in terms of his work ethic and performance, but he's certainly not a vocal leader.
"The thing is on our team, there's not a guy who is just a straight up, solitary leader," Ware told The Dallas Morning News over the weekend. "I think it comes as a whole. You got to look at it as we have Romo, we have Witten, you have me, Bradie James, Sean Lee. Everybody has their role, and they take on that leadership role when it's needed.
"Every team doesn't need just a one-time guy who is like the leader of that team. If everybody is checking everybody, that's all you need. There comes a time to step up when it's time to step up and get the job done."
It's a reasonable theory, but it doesn't appear to be working for the Cowboys. It seems like leaders should "step up" at all times. You can't put Witten, Ware and Romo on leadership shifts and have them punch the clock. The Cowboys would benefit from having a powerful head coach who holds everyone accountable. That happened with Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells, but it's hard to imagine Garrett rising to that level. Jones would never have considered talking to Johnson or Parcells during a regular-season game. Garrett isn't afforded that type of respect.
On Wednesday, I asked two Cowboys officials to name the "best leader" on the roster. They both answered Witten without any hesitation. There's a belief that Witten's the top leader, in part because he's played through some incredibly painful injuries and has continued to produce at a high level.
But even if we agreed that Witten and Romo are credible leaders, are you certain anyone's willing to follow them? Hatcher gave us a pretty revealing answer last week.
Now, let's see if Garrett can do anything to change the culture at Valley Ranch.