49ers Look for Leadership
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 17, 2006

MIKE NOLAN’S plan for rebuilding the 49ers through the draft is a good one, but he also needs solid veterans to be leaders for the young players.

One big reason for the 49ers success in the glory years were the players who became leaders at key positions: Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, Steve Young. All these players were dedicated to their craft, and they worked as hard in practice as they did in games. Young players coming to the team saw their dedication and followed their example. Even Terrell Owens was a hard worker who caused no problems in his early years with the team – because he was following Rice’s example. It was only after Rice left the team that T.O. started what is increasingly a tired act.

It was as much for his leadership as his playing ability that Nolan signed veteran guard Larry Allen as a free agent. Allen should provide a good model for younger players – if he can still play at a reasonably high level. Younger players only follow the lead of a veteran if he can still play effectively. If he can’t, young players figure he’s yesterday’s news.

Although the players I mentioned earlier were all stars – Montana, Lott and Young area already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rice will be there as soon as he’s eligible and Craig should be, too – it isn’t a given that a good player will also be a leader. I don’t think anybody on the team ever regarded Julian Peterson as a leader, for instance.

So, who are the veteran leaders on the team? Linebacker Derek Smith is an obvious one, and that’s why it was so important that the 49ers re-sign Smith, as they did. Even though he’s been playing on bad teams, Smith’s work ethic has remained strong. He always gives the team his best effort, and his teammates admire him for that.

If Jeff Ulbrich comes back successfully from the injury that sidelined him most of last season, he could be another leader in the linebacking corps.

Another player coming off an injury, safety Tony Parrish, is a leader in the defensive secondary. This group has struggled, partly because of injuries, partly because of bad individual play, but it’s shaking out to be a good group. Shawntae Spencer made great strides last year and is capable of being a shutdown corner – and perhaps a leader in the near future. Mike Adams is one of my favorites, a scrappy player who has made a career for himself after being signed as an undrafted free agent. I don’t think Adams will ever be a leader because he’s not a good enough player, but his attitude is an important one in molding the team.

Offensively, the Niners really need Allen because there’s a dearth of leadership candidates. The natural leader should be the quarterback. Montana grew into a leadership role very quickly in his career, but I don’t see that happening for Alex Smith, who is in a fight just to prove he can play in the NFL.

One offensive player I think could grow into the role is wide receiver Arnaz Battle. Writers loved Brandon Lloyd because of his colorful personality, but players disliked him. Battle is just the opposite: He’s quiet but well-respected by his teammates. He had a good academic record at Notre Dame and, though he came to college as a quarterback, didn’t complain when he was shifted to wide receiver. He’s done everything he’s been asked to do with the Niners. If he can stay healthy, he could have an excellent year – and become a leader.

THE NEXT KEY will be to look for players in the draft who are known as having good characters.

There’s no guarantee on this, but there are some guidelines. One is to look for players from top programs because they will usually have had good examples to follow earlier in their careers and they’re under intense scrutiny. If they have problems, they’ll show up quickly. Hello there, Maurice Clarett. If they survive that kind of scrutiny, they’re probably going to be solid citizens.

So, it’s encouraging that the two players who seem most likely to be drafted by the 49ers – linebacker A. J. Hawk and safety Michael Huff – are from top programs, Ohio State and Texas, respectively.

Bill Walsh placed a high value on character with his drafts, and he also hired Sociology professor Harry Edwards to counsel players, particularly the black ones, to help them with their adjustment to the NFL, socially as well as athletically. In that as with so many things, Walsh was well ahead of the curve.

Occasionally, Walsh would go for a player who was a risk. Charles Haley was one. Haley was a very productive player for the 49ers, as long as Walsh was there, but George Seifert didn’t have the same rapport with Haley. In one memorable episode, Haley went into a rage in the locker room after an exhibition game against the Raiders. Lott, by then playing for the Raiders, came over to the Niners’ locker room and calmed him down. That episode made it obvious the 49ers would have to trade Haley. With the Dallas Cowboys, he often made the 49ers regret the trade, but they really had no choice.

It would not be a good idea for Nolan to draft any players who have already shown that they have personality problems, because he doesn’t have the flexibility that Walsh had. Nolan is clearly a “my way or the highway” type of coach, so he needs to get players who respond to that type of coaching.

THE LAST THREE seasons have been rocky ones for the 49ers, as they’ve tied the Raiders for the worst NFL record over that period. But the way the NFL is structured today, it’s impossible for the best teams to stockpile the best players, as the 49ers did in the ‘80s. That also makes it possible for bad teams to improve quickly – if they make the right choices.

Nolan was obviously looking for players last year who would respond to his approach; directly or indirectly, he got rid of those who wouldn’t. Now, he and Scot McCloughan need to make good decisions in the draft this year and next. And, most of all, Nolan needs to develop leaders for the immediate future.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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