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Eisenberg: Ravens Who Don't Even Know They're Leaders

Posted Oct 2, 2012

Cameras love highlighting Lewis and Reed, but these quiet leaders are making a big impact.


Of the many qualities that have made the Ravens into consistent winners, with four straight playoff appearances, their abundance of first-rate leadership surely ranks high.

Of course, leadership is a difficult asset to measure; there is no quantifying statistic to gawk at, no run or pass to marvel at, no palpable trend to note. But you know it when you see it, and if you can’t see it helping the Ravens, you aren’t looking.

A fierce presence and unparalleled motivator, Ray Lewis might be the most effective pure leader of his generation. Ed Reed’s influence isn’t as obvious  and neither is Anquan Boldin’s, but they work the nooks and crannies of the locker room like maestros, offering support and advice, setting a tone of commanding professionalism.

At 23 years old, in just his second year with the team, Torrey Smith surely doesn’t consider himself on par with them. But the receiver from Maryland is also a leader in his own, quiet way.

The same is true for Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who is so unassuming he celebrated signing his big contract last year by going out and getting some fast food. But he’s also one of the Ravens’ quiet leaders, whose unrecognized impact is vital to the team’s success.

Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh called on Yanda, 28, to address the team at the end of a withering training camp practice in August, when the days of summertime heat were running together and threatening to wreak havoc with bodies and minds. The players stood quietly for five minutes on a far field, away from the media, as Yanda spoke. But no one could see him in the middle of the circle. The media assumed Lewis was talking.

“What was that all about?” someone asked Harbaugh.

“Marshal had something to say,” the coach replied, surprising many.

An Iowa farmboy who usually lets his actions do the talking, Yanda advised his teammates not to succumb to the conditions but to “embrace the grind,” as he had done on his rise from obscurity.

No doubt, the message meant more to the players coming from a teammate rather than a coach. Within days, players were sporting t-shirts with Yanda’s phrase, “embrace the grind” on the front.

Of such moments, and through such leadership, does a team’s culture arise and settle. To say Yanda didn’t play a major role is to deny the obvious, especially since he adheres to his t-shirted principle every day, practicing and playing with a rugged intensity.

The same is true with Smith, who could almost pass for a high schooler as he walks the halls of the practice facility with his bright smile and back pack.

He just endured what surely has been the most awful week of his life, in which his younger brother died in a motorcycle accident and then was laid to rest. Smith dressed for two games as all that played out, and he performed brilliantly, grabbing touchdown passes in each game as he sent out all kinds of messages about being a teammate and a pro and exhibiting grace under pressure.

His teammates and coaches shook their heads in wonder and showered him with praise, but it was something else they said while complimenting him that really stood out, something they have said before: That his success is no accident because he is just about the hardest-working player on the team.

Young receivers are supposed to be me-first divas, but Smith has gone the other way, studying film until his eyes are bleary, running routes and catching balls in practice until his muscles ache. His hard work is paying instant dividends as he finds himself ranked among the league leaders in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

The Ravens’ young players idolize their more famous elders, but when Smith shows them the level of duty it takes to become a success, he might be the most effective leader of all, the one setting the bar for others.

The cameras love Lewis. The announcers extoll Reed’s genius. But a winning team always has more going for it than what’s on the marquee, and quiet leaders who don’t even know they’re leaders are a terrific thing to have.

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