FOXBORO -- In 2009, when Jerod Mayo was in his second season, I approached him in the locker room.
After covering the Patriots as a beat writer for 10 seasons, I left for NBCSports.com in 2006. I wasn’t around the Patriots nearly as much. By 2009, the locker room camaraderie that characterized the team from 2000 to 2005 had vanished.
Individually, players weren’t bad, but the team personality in the locker room was toxic.
Cliquish positional factions emerged. Locker room lawyers such as Adalius Thomas and Randy Moss moved to the fore. The retirement of Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, the trading of Mike Vrabel, Tom Brady’s absence with a blown ACL in 2008 opened a void for a new vibe. It was mildly hostile.
“This place is different,” I said to Mayo. “What happened?”
Mayo wanted to know how it was different. I gave my version. He didn’t get defensive. And he didn’t say he’d change his teammates’ tenor. He just said he’d be available to talk every Thursday.
We finished talking. Mayo then walked over to Randy Moss. Moss by that time didn’t even try to veil his distaste and weariness with just about everything. But as Mayo pulled up a chair and sat down next to Moss, Moss brightened. He squared his chair up to Mayo’s like he’d been waiting for Mayo to show. And the two talked like they were sitting on a front porch, not in the middle of a locker room.
Moss wouldn’t piss on a media member he were on fire. Mayo – a second-year captain - had just let it be known he’d be a lead spokesman with the media if that was necessary. In a locker room loaded with young players looking to players like Moss and AD for approval, Mayo was different. Self-assured.
On Thursday, Bill Belichick articulated the role Mayo’s filled for this team since then.
“He means a lot to our team,” said Belichick. “He’s really the guy that the team probably revolves around more than any other player. Not that there aren’t other players that are instrumental in that but I think he touches pretty much everybody, not just the defensive players but all the guys. Not just the older guys but the younger guys. Even when he was captain in his second year, he had a relationship with the older guys. Even though he’s a more veteran player, he had a relationship with the younger guys like Jamie Collins in addition to other players not at his position. He’s got great work ethic, great presence on the football field and great personality. In a very good way he’s professional but has a very good rapport with the players and the coaches. He’s as well-respected as any players in the locker room and one of the best overall team leaders, players, kind of a glue/chemistry guy that I’ve been around.”
Since 2009, we’ve become friendly while doing weekly interviews for Quick Slants. Mayo’s accessible. He’s fun. And he doesn’t say a damn thing when the camera is on or off that runs counter to his primary job – linebacker and captain for the New England Patriots. It’s maddening.
For instance, the guy signs an extension a couple years ago, I thought I might get a quick heads-up as the news was imminent. It’s good to have stuff first. But nothing. Why? Because he doesn’t work for me, he works for them and the team doesn’t love that news flying around (unless they leak it).
And even though it doesn’t help me professionally, you can’t help but respect the way he does his business.
Mayo’s been the Defensive Rookie of the Year (2008). He led the NFL in tackles and was All-Pro (2010) and is a two-time Pro Bowler.
All that said, he’s taken some verbal bullets from people expecting more from him on the field. More playmaking. Fewer drag-down tackles 5 yards downfield. Not getting beaten on slants. I’ve fired a few of those bullets.
But while those are the most important aspects of a linebacker’s job, everything in football is causal. Why hasn’t he made more plays? Why is he reactive as a linebacker sometimes and not attacking?
Because, in some instances, there were other responsibilities he was holding down. Last season, after Mayo tore a pec and wound up on IR, a light was shone on some of them. The defense came untethered. Donta Hightower couldn’t set the defense and communicate the way Mayo had. Brandon Spikes was running around like his hair was on fire some plays. Mayo was – and is – the brains of the on-field operation.
That’s why having him back full-go is so important to the team as a whole.
“When you play a position in the middle of the defense, you have to be the main communicator, the person that everything runs through. That’s inherent in the position of linebacker, middle linebacker similar to the quarterback on offense,” Belichick explained. “It’s very important. It’s part of the job. You gotta be able to do that, whether it’s quarterback, center...[Dan] Koppen, [Ryan Wendell], Vince [Wilfork], Bruschi, Jerod, Rodney [Harrison] or Devin McCourty. Those guys are critical for you on the communication from the inside-out.”
If you don’t have someone to hold everything together, it starts to fall apart. With Mayo back, the glue has returned.