Incognito Situation Highlights Importance of Locker-Room Leadership

The ongoing Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin saga continues to dominate headlines, with the news that Martin will release a video statement being the latest noteworthy development. It's a fascinating story, one that has sparked nation-wide discussion about locker-room dynamics, race, and the question of whether or not a 300 pound man can be bullied.

However, one aspect of the story that has been overlooked is the importance of leadership in an NFL locker room. There's plenty of individual blame to be passed around, from Incognito to Coach Joe Philbin and even some to Martin, but the entire situation could have been avoided with stronger leadership within the Miami locker room.

As many have observed in the wake of the Incognito story, an NFL locker room is a unique potpourri of 50 some men from a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs. There is no guarantee that all these conflicting personalities, gathered together most of the year for the sole purpose of winning football games, will mesh and get along. With so much testosterone and competitive edge in the atmosphere, it's easy to see how problems could quickly arise.

However, the most important thing in a strong locker room is always the big-picture goals of winning games and championships. It's up to the team's leaders to keep the group focused of getting better every day, be it on the practice field, in the weight room, or on game days. Driven by their own competitive spirit, most players can tolerate whatever cultural differences they have with each other as long as they know that everyone around them is working their butts off to make the team better.

Joe Philbin absolutely deserves to be fired for his blatant lack of control in Miami, but the fact that coaches reportedly asked Incognito to "bring Martin into the fold" and "toughen him up" raised eyebrows for the wrong reasons. Right or wrong, the practice of coaches using a veteran player to reach young players is far from an uncommon practice.

The issue was the fact that Incognito was the player Philbin was entrusting with those leadership responsibilities. The same Incognito that somehow managed to get kicked off of both Nebraska and Oregon's football teams in a two month span (who knew that was even possible?). The same Incognito who was voted the NFL's dirtiest player by his peers back in 2009. The same Incognito with a lengthy history of fights, altercations and costly personal foul penalties. The same Incognito whose idea of representing the organization at a charity event allegedly consisted of sexually harassing a female volunteer with a golf club.

The fact that Incognito, despite his well-deserved reputation for finding trouble, was one of the Dolphins locker room leaders speaks volumes to the state of that locker room. The fact that there wasn't one veteran presence to intervene when Incognito figuratively pooped in the mouth of basic human decency is damning.

It's a reminder of just how valuable locker room leaders like Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Matthew Slater. The fact that I didn't even have room to mention Tom Brady, Devin McCourty or Rob Ninkovich in that sentence illustrates just how fortunate the Patriots have been in that area. It also reflects how the Patriots coaching staff has clearly done a good job of identifying and targeting potential leaders. All of the previously mentioned players except Ninkovich were drafted by the Patriots, and all of those but Slater were first round picks.

The result has been a locker room culture that has clearly played dividends on the field. With most of the Patriots best players established leaders, young players have little choice but to buy in and start working towards making the team better. The front office hasn't always been perfect with their personnel decisions (Aaron Hernandez was the worst case scenario of a character gamble gone wrong), but the locker room culture of accountability and "next man up" has clearly contributed to the Patriots efforts in overcoming all kinds of adversity this season.

It's evident in undrafted rookies like Chris Jones and Joe Vellano stepping in and playing as well as anyone could expect considering the circumstances. It's evident in Vince Wilfork staying around the locker room, working in the classroom with the team's younger linemen. It's evident in how Stevan Ridley and Logan Ryan, both benched likely for over-the-top celebrations, kept focused and performed when they got their next opportunity rather than fighting.

The Patriots are currently 7-2 and heavy favorites to win their 11th AFC East championship in Bill Belichick's 14 seasons as Head Coach. The Dolphins loss to the previously winless Bucs dropped them to 4-5 and was fueled by two late sacks and a pressure-induced interception from an offensive line that is conspicuously missing two starters. Mired in controversy, the Dolphins are still seeking their first playoff win since 2000.

Some might classify the Incognito story as an "off the field" issue. A closer look reveals just how much locker room leadership can manifest itself in a team's performance on the field.