Surely, it can happen on younger teams that lack winning experience, particularly if there's a new head coach in town who is trying to change the direction of the program. But on the New England Patriots? Come on.
But that's exactly what linebacker Jerod Mayo has done this season, and it's merely been a natural progression for the 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year. His teammates already followed his example during his first season, and Mayo's intense drive to improve as a player last offseason helped him earn one of the team's captaincies. Young or old, NFL newbie or Foxborough veteran, Mayo's teammates have long admired his work ethic, and they truly respect his leadership ability.
"[It's] very easy [to follow Mayo]," Patriots running back Fred Taylor said. "He's very competitive, even when it comes to video games. I've taken a liking to trying to beat him, but he doesn't back down from anything. He's definitely going to be one of the greater ones to play the position."
Taylor doesn't often get the better of Mayo in the video games "Madden" or "Call of Duty," but it hasn't hindered their friendship. Taylor, who spent 11 years with the Jacksonville Jaguars before signing with the Patriots this season, long ago earned the reputation as one of the great leaders, mentors and human beings in today's game — so he knows what it takes for a player to emerge from the pack as a go-to guy in the locker room.
Mayo's life epitomizes that of a successful football player. He shows up early, stays late, watches plenty of film, practices hard and works out the right way in the weight room. He is also extremely successful on the field, having led the Patriots in tackles for two consecutive years, a mark that was particularly impressive in 2009 because he missed three games with a knee injury.
The 23-year-old — he's the eighth-youngest player on the 53-man roster — has excelled with his off-field work ethic, which caused his teammates to want to follow him. But Mayo also has responsibilities that force them to march in his direction.
As the middle linebacker, Mayo wears the headset in his helmet that allows the coaching staff to vocally send him the defensive plays, which Mayo then relays to the rest of the defense. He also makes pre-snap checks if he sees a change in the offense, and that combination of tasks compels Mayo to communicate intelligently and in an organized fashion.
"He's the defensive signal-caller and one of our best players and one of our most prepared players and one of our most productive players," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "All that leadership and that role on the team of being in the middle of the defense on every play, run or pass, calling the signals, he's emerged into the real leader on the defensive side of the ball."
With Mayo's success, opposing offenses are also adjusting to Mayo. Certainly, he is having another solid year as far as tackles are concerned, but Belichick noted that opposing players are running away from Mayo's gap. So even when Mayo isn't getting credited for tackles in the statistical column, he's still forcing the offensive player — say, a running back — to change his desired direction, and that is allowing other defensive players to rack up tackles.
Basically, Mayo is the whole package. He plays in all situations — standard formations, sub-formations, goal-line situations, man coverages and zone coverages — and that's fairly rare for Belichick's defensive players, which shows how much respect the head coach has for the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
"His leadership is outstanding, and [so is] his ability to be the guy that's the bonding glue for the whole defense," Belichick said. "When a team elects a guy in his second year as captain, that tells you what they think about him, and I see that, too."
Even though Mayo has as much NFL playoff experience as the majority of the fans who will attend Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium, he is still playing an integral role in this week's preparations. Mayo's teammates say he is one of the smartest guys in the film room, and that turns him into a relied-upon outlet for the younger players after meetings, especially if they don't want to ask the coaches a thousand questions.
"The first thing you notice is just his leadership ability," said defensive back and special-teamer Kyle Arrington, who is in his second year in the league and his first season with the Patriots. "He's a model teammate. He's one of those Kevin Faulk guys. He's just a joy to be around. He brings it on the field, and then off the field he's funny. He's cool, a guy you can talk to, so he's just a great player and person."
The middle linebacker doesn't just have an effect on the youngsters, though. Players who have been with the organization for the majority of the Belichick era gush over Mayo's strength as a leader. Even if the longest-tenured veterans are leaders themselves, they'll still take Mayo's example to heart.
"He loves playing the game," said defensive lineman Ty Warren, who has been with New England since 2003. "When you've got all those intangibles, the leadership is just gravy because people follow people by what they do, not what they say. It's just easy to follow a guy with the energy he has, the love he has for the game, the passion that he goes out there and tries to play with."
And then there's Taylor, who has already had a significantly positive effect in his own way in the Patriots locker room. For a guy like Taylor to glow over Mayo's personality, well, that should just say it all.
"When it's all said and done, I'll probably be one of his No. 1 fans," Taylor said. "He's a hell of a person, first, and of course you can see what he does on the field. He puts in the work. It's no secret why he's as good as he is. Everything that he's gotten to this point, he deserves it because he puts it in."