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Only way to fix Cowboys' 'leadership' issue

2/24/2012
Tony Romo has proven his toughness, but will the Dallas QB ever be considered a great leader? AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Go back a year -- heck, go back three or four months and check out some of the stuff that was being written and asked about New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Not fiery enough, it was said. Bad body language. Doesn't look like the kind of guy who gets people energized and focused in the huddle. Needs to be more of a leader.

Well, something about throwing a football into a football-sized hole 38 yards down the sideline in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl changes the narrative, doesn't it? Giants fans aren't bothered by Eli's dopey-kid-brother demeanor anymore. Now it's all about Even-keeled Eli, who's so great in the clutch because he never gets rattled -- whose teammates would follow him through the gates of hell, so calm and convincing a leader is he.

Guess what? Nothing about Eli Manning changed over the past year except that he won his second Super Bowl. He's the same guy whose leadership style nobody liked when they missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010. The difference is, this year, it all worked.

Which brings me to the Dallas Cowboys, Jason Hatcher and the question of locker-room leadership. Hatcher is a relatively non-controversial Cowboys defensive end who made some waves last week when he was asked on a radio show who the Cowboys' leaders were and he said he didn't know. Said he wished they had a Ray Lewis-type of leader in their locker room -- somebody to make fiery speeches and get the team pumped up.

Hatcher was surely speaking from the heart and not trying to stir up controversy, but the thing grew instant legs because what he said jives with the popular external opinion of what's wrong with the Cowboys -- that they're missing some key ethereal ingredient that makes winners, that they don't have the same kind of stuff beating in the center of their chest that Manning and his Giants do. The Cowboys underachieve, and should be better than they normally are, so we assume it's about heart or guts or leadership or whatever.

It's entirely possible that Hatcher and the public perception are correct. However, I believe that this is (a) a heavy charge to level against individuals who willingly put their bodies through the physical torture of NFL football on a week-to-week basis and (b) overblown, if not irrelevant. This is stuff that has only come up because the Cowboys lost four of their last five games. If they'd won one or two of those games -- if they'd held on against Arizona or beaten the Giants once in two tries -- the Cowboys would have been NFC East champions and talk radio hosts wouldn't be asking people like Hatcher who the leaders in the locker room were. The talk would be about how Tony Romo played through broken ribs and Sean Lee played with a cast on his hand, and how those guys inspired their teammates to do great things because of all of the heart and toughness they were showing.

In the NFL, it takes only a dropped pass here or a blocked kick there to change the entire narrative. What the Giants accomplished in January and February was stunning and tremendous, and there's certainly no guarantee the Cowboys would have made the same run if they'd been the NFC East champ instead of the Giants. But it goes to show that these storylines are all driven by who wins the games. If you win, you have effective leaders. If you don't, well, there must be something wrong.

"There's so many different styles of leadership," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters Thursday in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine. "There are guys who are more vocal guys, guys that lead by example, guys that pat a guy on the back, guys that ring guys by the neck. That's the way it is and the way it's always been. The best teams I've been on had a variety of styles of leadership from the players."

But one thing I'm sure they all have in common is that, regardless of style, they're genuine. You can't pretend to be a fiery-speech guy if you're not. People will see through it, and people don't respond to phonies. Lewis, for all of his bluster, is no phony. He believes the stuff he's screaming at his teammates before and after games, and they respond to it.

But Manning's teammates respond to his much calmer style, and that apparently works, too. Just because no one's in the Giants' locker room yelling and screaming all the time doesn't mean they lack leadership. And you know what? Just because no one's in the Cowboys' locker room yelling and screaming all the time doesn't mean they lack leadership. If Ray Lewis had been in the Cowboys' locker room on the evening of Jan. 1 and given some fiery speech, would only one Giants fullback have been able to hurdle Terence Newman that night instead of two?

The Cowboys' problem in 2011 was a defense that didn't have enough good players to hold up all season. They're embarking on the process now of trying to fix that. If some of the guys they bring in turn out to be Ray Lewis speechmaking types and they win some playoff games next year, you'll hear a lot about those new, fiery leaders. If the guys they bring in are all quiet types and they win some playoff games next year, you'll hear a lot about those new, cool, quiet leaders.

That's the way things work in this league -- results dictate the narrative, and the narrative must be molded to fit the results. The Cowboys don't need "leadership." They need defensive backs. And a pass rush. And some help on the offensive line. And if they get all of that stuff and it works in 2012, we're going to be told by people inside their locker room that they had plenty of leaders all along.