Before Northwestern started to come back on Saturday against Cal, with the Wildcats down 31-7, the announcers for the game ran out of things to talk about. This is understandable, given how one-sided the blowout was. And so, in an effort to talk about something, they started to talk about something familiar to any sports fan.
Discussion about who are NU's true leaders. About time to mute the TV.— Alex Putterman (@AlexPutt02) August 30, 2014
On the surface, this might seem like a reasonable leap of logic: Good teams supposedly have good leaders, so if Northwestern is losing, leadership must be one of the problems, right?
But what's striking is that right after the leadership talk, Northwestern came storming back. Trevor Siemian executed a trick play to perfection, the defense stepped up big and the offense started improving before ultimately losing the game. So what was the verdict on the leadership? Was it bad because of the loss? Was it good, given the resiliency to come back? Was it bad, then good, then bad?
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the leadership of Northwestern's players — or lack thereof — had very little to do with the outcome of Saturday's games. And though it's probably sports writer heresy to say it, applying the leadership tag to any evaluation of the Wildcats this season would be a misuse of the word.
Before you jump down my throat, let me say that leadership is an important trait. You don't want to see your quarterback moping around on the sideline, and if he's able to have a short memory on the field while encouraging others, that's probably going to be good for your team. But that's a small part of the game — much smaller than any head coach will have you believe — and in sports these days, there's an incredible overuse of the word in any type of evaluation.
When the union attempt came out, people were quick to blame last season's struggles on a lack of leadership, claiming that Kain Colter must not have had that leadership trait to bring the team together, now that he was so obviously tearing it apart. Of course, this overlooks the much more obvious explanations for the struggles of 2013, which were the Wildcats' injuries, historic bad luck and failure to put together an efficient offense.
This year, the narrative was prewritten. If the Wildcats win, it will be because they had the leaders to do so. If they lose, it will be because they didn't have the leaders to overcome the distractions. These are the narratives that we're taught to write as journalists — we're told that it's okay to just give someone a sticker. But when you pick a pre-written evaluation rather than use actual analysis to determine what alternatives could have more directly caused what happened on the field, don't you think that evaluation might be a little bit flawed?
The problem is, actual analysis is hard. It's harder to go through mountains of data to determine that close games are actually random than it is to opine that teams have (or don't have) a "winning gene." It's harder to examine how players fit in a scheme than it is to apply the leadership tag. But when journalists write that "[Insert player] is embracing leadership role]" what are they really telling you? How is that a useful article? These easier explanations are typically less accurate explanations — at least, there's no way of telling whether they're even applicable — yet we continue to use these words as a crutch to write a story.
So let's do better. You saw one article about leadership on this site this offseason, and you won't see one again. When we see Northwestern struggle on the field, let's do our best as writers and as fans to provide substantive analysis of why that might be happening, rather than apply some intangible to the situation that probably isn't even applicable. We might want to think the reason for a loss is that simple, but the truth is, it's generally just a lazy excuse to skip around actual analysis.