We’ve all heard the famous saying “too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” which means that if a group of people consists of mostly leaders and not enough followers that production problems arise. In the case of the 2011 Buccaneers defense there is a lack of leadership.
“The Bucs look like a bunch of Indians running around without a chief.”
Those were the words of legendary leader Hardy Nickerson upon examining the team that let him go and chose to not re-sign him after the 1999 Buccaneers’ NFC Championship Game. Nickerson’s assessment of his former team’s defense was right on the money.
The 2000 Tampa Bay defense sorely missed Nickerson’s presence and leadership on the field and off the field. Nickerson was replaced with Jamie Duncan, who was a good player in his own right, but was not, however, the nasty, foaming-at-the-mouth player that Nickerson was. In fact, Duncan was the opposite and was quite silent and laid back on and off the field.
In Nickerson’s absence, the Bucs still made the playoffs, but got knocked out in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles. The drop off in production and the letdown after the high expectations of the reigning 1999 NFC Central Division Champs can be attributed to the team’s choice of letting Nickerson go. It was like cutting out the heart of a dreaded monster. Not only did Nickerson serve as the leader for the defense, but for the entire team, including the offense. A defensive-led team, the Bucs rose and fell by the pulse of Nickerson, its dominant leader who set the tone for the entire team on and off the field.
Where is the Buccaneers’ fearless leader? Where is its heart? Its pulse? Having a fiery head coach like Raheem Morris is a great plus, but unfortunately coaches can’t step on the field and coaches can’t knock out the opposing team’s players or rally the troops in the middle of the battlefield.
While I applaud Tampa Bay’s front office for following the blueprint of growing a team full of young players and allowing them to gel without cutting a lot of players and adding high-priced veteran free agents from different teams, I have to ask “where is the Bucs leader?”
On offense, traditionally that leader almost always is the team’s quarterback, and young Josh Freeman’s imposing stature and impressive play makes an easy leader of him. But on defense, there is traditionally no one position that speaks for itself and acclaims itself the leader.
No, on defense leaders have to step up, shout out, and demand leadership by their play, by their attitude, and by their words on and off the field. Is anybody shouting, stepping up, and demanding leadership? Young second-year defensive lineman Gerald McCoy is often seen in the media assuming the leadership position and speaking words of responsibility and accountability for the Bucs defense. But McCoy hasn’t done anything on the field to demand that leadership. And at such a young age, McCoy shouldn’t be criticized for not reaching stellar production nor grown a true voice of leadership.
McCoy’s self-ownership of the leadership role is more a byproduct of his high draft status being Tampa Bay’s first-round pick and the NFL’s third overall pick in 2010. So I ask again, where is the Bucs defensive leader?
In the glory days, which were the Buccaneers defense’s years of league-wide dominance, the defense was led by nasty, foaming-at-the-mouth players at every level. Warren Sapp was the mouth that roared on the defensive line. Nickerson was the one spewing venom for the linebackers. And John Lynch was the heat-seeking missile in the secondary.
What about Derrick Brooks? Well, when I was with the Bucs, Brooks was relatively quiet compared to Nickerson and Sapp. It wasn’t in his nature to be a fire-and-brimstone kind of leader with his voice. But his gladiator play and the way he stalked the field spoke more than enough. He was the consummate pro on and off the field and led by sheer presence. His hits were loud and his big plays were loud. I love Brooks to death, but it wasn’t his personality to be loud with his voice.
The revival of Tampa Bay’s defense all started with the free agent signing of a Nickerson in 1993. Both Sapp and Lynch watched and learned from Nickerson how the game is supposed to be played. I too learned how to become a snarling, teeth gnashing, attack dog from the great Nickerson. I became somewhat of a leader in my own right, not backing down to anybody on opposing teams or even players on our own team. The highly-publicized feud between Sapp and I actually was birthed from the rise of both of us into leadership-type roles in the Nickerson mold.
Most fans do not realize that I was the one player who would constantly speak up and get in Sapp’s face when he did wrong or said wrong, when he didn’t live up to expectations, and when he excelled. Sapp was the one player that would get on me, prod me, and get in my face for the same reasons I did. We both pushed each other and we both fed off each other.
We grew up together and became warriors in our own right, and at times, and warriors clash as Sapp and I did in our infamous in-season locker room fistfight in the year 2000. As I said, there can only be one chief so Sapp’s emergence as an NFL superstar and my emergence as the team’s franchise player created two would-be chiefs, which became an eventual problem that turned from competitive fire into something ugly boiling over.
After many years of feuding, Sapp and I eventually patched things up during our retirement from the NFL. No matter what our differences and disagreements, he is my brother and I am his. Our fight probably would have never happened if Nickerson were still in our locker room controlling, managing, overseeing and leading. With Nickerson gone, the locker room became overrun with immature behavior, bickering, and clashes.
Former Bucs first-round pick defensive lineman Marcus Jones and future Super Bowl XXXIV MVP Dexter Jackson also eventually clashed with Sapp. Bucs fans and the public at large are most familiar with Sapp splashed on the front page of newspapers and on the cover of sports magazines like Sports Illustrated and Pewter Report as the leader and chief of our defense, and rightfully so.
Sapp was a dominant player the likes of which the NFL won’t see again for years to come. But behind the scenes though, Nickerson was the true leader. Eventually there were a few clashes amongst leader-type players in the Bucs locker room. Sure, relationships were tested and strained, but on the field, we made magic together.
I believe this type of locker room brawling is healthy for a NFL defense. It separates the weak from the strong, and makes the weak stronger. It sets the tone for the type of ruthlessness and rowdiness an NFL defense must have to be great. I believe it builds the type of cold-blooded attitude that an NFL defense must have to become great. So too do I believe that the Bucs should do themselves a favor and follow the Bucs’ blue print to the letter and search for their next Nickerson in the free agent market, although the team believes it has that type of player in rookie Mason Foster.
Traditionally, defenses are led by its middle linebacker, who not only huddles the players up, calls the plays, makes the checks, calls the stunts and adjustments; but who also leads by his defiant personality and nasty, hard-hitting play. The Bucs made a move in the right direction by letting Barrett Ruud go. He never lived up to the type of player a traditional middle linebacker must be.
However, replacing Ruud with a rookie like Foster was not a step in the right direction. The Bucs didn’t acquire a seasoned leader that this defense sorely needs. Instead, the Bucs, while riddled with talent, are a bunch of Indians running around with no chief. Sure, these young players can continue to run around through many years of playing together and I am sure eventually in years to come one or more of these players may emerge as the chief of all these Indians running around. I just don’t see it right now.
The Bucs’ front office is dedicated to keeping these players together for years to come to develop them by virtue of having them grow very familiar with each other as a unit. There is a lot to be said of following this game plan, and many teams have seen great results by doing so. But I am convinced that in this day and age of modern NFL culture, it may take three to four more years before this group sprouts the type of leaders that a dominant NFL defense needs to have.
I lean towards the side of going ahead and finding a veteran free agent middle linebacker that will come in, add the right mix and chemistry, assume the position of being the chief, and leading this young bunch of Indians. Hopefully, the Bucs front office will see this too and make use of the millions dollars of cap space and get a chief. Until then let’s hope these young Indians grow up fast and a leader emerges.
ESPN on-air analyst and former Bucs secondary coach, Herman Edwards announced on Sunday that the Buccaneers were the most disappointing team heading into the regular season. He made his analysis from Tampa Bay’s preseason play due to the lack of offensive prowess. But because of the fact that the Bucs offense have a stand-up leader in QB Josh Freeman I believe they will rise to the top as the season progresses.
On defense, the Bucs have shown some strength and have been impressive in their shutout against the Kansas City Chiefs and their win against the Miami Dolphins. But surely to turn the corner and become a dominant, feared defense year in and year out, the Bucs defense must have a true leader to rally the troops on the battlefield as a long, hard season unfolds. When times get tough, and they will surely get tough, who do the young defensive players look to, learn from and lean on?
Time will tell if any of these young players develop into this leader that the others on defense gain inspiration from. To win now and for years to come, implement a foundation and face for Tampa Bay’s defense by acquiring a proven leader from the free agent market. Time, brings truth to light, I trust it so.Chidi Ahanotu was an NFL defensive end for 12 seasons, including eight with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1993-2000). Ahanotu is the fifth all-time leading sacker in Buccaneers history with 34.5 QB captures. His career-high 10 sacks in 1997 helped the Bucs make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and led to him being Tampa Bay's franchise player in 1998.Aside from being a columnist for PewterReport.com, Ahanotu is the owner
of Cigars of Soho
, which is located at 212 S. Armenia Ave. in Tampa, Fla. To visit the Cigars of Soho Facebook page, click here. Cigars of Soho is open until midnight every night. Cigars of Soho is the only South Tampa cigar lounge open after dinner to enjoy a nice cigar. Wednesday night is poker night at 9:00 p.m., and the lounge has NFL games on high definition TV on Sunday and Monday nights.
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