ALAMEDA – The second-year regime of general manager Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen can only put the Raiders in position to succeed up to a certain point. McKenzie can load the roster with promising players and Allen can teach them how to make the most of their talent, but any franchise needs leaders to step up on the field, in practice and on Sundays.
“We’re looking to identify who are those leaders going to be,” Allen said after the Raiders started their third OTA session Monday. “Those are things that have got to come out of these OTAs, minicamp, when we get into training camp. On the good football teams the players take over, the locker room takes over.”
More often than not, a team’s starting quarterback fills that leadership role. Carson Palmer embraced that responsibility, but is now plying his trade with the Arizona Cardinals. Allen is preparing to start the season with Matt Flynn as his starting quarterback, but doesn’t expect him to bark orders at teammates right away.
Allen acknowledged that Flynn has “some of those leadership skills,” but quickly moved on to single out running back Marcel Reece as a player he’s asked to be more vocal.
“That was one of our challenges to [Reece] this year,” Allen said. “We’ve got to identify guys on both sides of the ball that really can take that leadership role on, and it really comes down a lot to, I don’t know if I wan to use the term peer pressure, but I mean that’s really what it is. It’s accountability to each other in the locker room, that you don’t want to let the guy next to you down.”
Running back Darren McFadden echoed Allen’s sentiments that Reece is more than qualified for the job.
“I love working with Marcel,” McFadden said. “We’re like best friends on and off the field. We’re just going out there trying to lead our offense and get everybody on the same page.”
The Raiders were not often on the same page during a 4-12 season in 2012. With so many new names on the roster this year, it’s even more imperative for the team to eliminate mental mistakes, something a team leader is usually responsible for enforcing.
Even though Flynn didn’t get an obvious vote of confidence from Allen, he believes he can develop into his own type of Raiders leader over time.
“When you look at guys who are leaders of the team and who are quarterbacks around the league, everybody has a different leadership style,” Flynn said. “Some guys are vocal, some guys are laid back, but there’s just a different style. If you’re going to become a leader, you need to find that niche, how you fit in to the system, fit in to the guys in the locker room, and just kind of go accordingly.”
Like Allen before him, Flynn tempered expectations about being able to lead the team in OTAs without ever stepping foot on the field together for a regular season game.
“That’s something that’s not going to come overnight,” Flynn said. “It starts coming when you get live bullets out there and you start getting into the dog days.”
Even if Reece embraces Allen’s challenge to step up as a leader and Flynn finds his voice as a field general, that’s only half the equation. The Raiders also need leadership on defense, something that was sorely lacking when Rolando McClain was still considered an every down middle linebacker.
Allen wouldn’t comment on the lack of leadership last year or acknowledge McClain as being part of the problem,
“I’m on to this year; I’m not really concerned with where we were last year,” Allen said. “That’s behind us. I’m worried about what we’re going to do this year and how we’re going to respond this year.”
McClain’s replacement, Nick Roach, is a player Allen has high hopes for.
“Nick’s highly intelligent and he’s athletic,” Allen said. “He’s done a nice job of being the quarterback of our defense. He’s kind of taken on that role and really has a passion about leading that team.”
While Roach is being groomed to run the defense from the middle of the field, the Raiders can also lean on veterans Charles Woodson and Andre Carter to help their younger players improve.
“I just think when you have experience like myself and Charles, the younger guys do listen and they want to have that same experience we have,” Carter said. “For vets like ourselves, we want guys to play 6,7,8 years. The average career for an NFL player is three years. For me to play this long, and Charles also, is a testament that the strong will survive. So when we talk to the younger guys, we let them know, ‘Hey, you can have this dream for as long as you want it but it’s up to you to do the right thing.’”
Carter, a 13-year veteran out of Cal who has played for the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and New England Patriots before joining the Raiders last season, understands the importance of a middle linebacker, or ‘Mike,’ directing traffic.
“The Mike position is probably one of the key elements to having a good defense,” Carter said. “He gets the communication to everyone, the defensive linemen, the cornerbacks, the safeties. If you don’t have that you’re not going to be successful. The Mike linebacker is definitely the engine of the defense so for [Roach] to be vocal is very vital because we need that on as well as off the field.”
As Allen pointed out Monday, the Raiders still have 51 days until they start training camp. The need for an established leader is not dire yet. But as evidenced by McClain’s tenure in Oakland, expecting a player to assume that role based solely on their position on the field is not a recipe for success.