Bears

Is Mitch Trubisky a leader, and does it matter if he is? Hint: No, it doesn’t

I recently asked Brian Urlacher if the Bears tried to make him into a leader when he arrived as a rookie in 2000. I asked the question thinking of Mitch Trubisky, who seems to be spending a lot of time and energy working at being a leader.

“I felt like I led by example,’’ Urlacher said during the lead-up to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I really didn’t have to say much. Luckily in our locker room there, with the coaches we had and the players they drafted, we meshed together so well. . . . When I did [talk], I was listened to. Guys listened. I didn’t feel like I had to be out there yelling and screaming at guys. I did that sometimes. Mostly it was on game day. I just didn’t feel like I needed to do that.’’

It’s clear that Bears coaches really, really want their young quarterback to be a vocal leader. That’s not unusual. If anything, it’s written in the unofficial “How to Be an NFL Quarterback’’ manual. The idea is that the most important player on the field also has to be the leader if the team is going to be successful. Perhaps that’s why Trubisky has been doing so much hugging, cheering and consoling of teammates during training camp. Even in the first preseason game, which he sat out, cameras found him celebrating with third-stringers on the sideline after positive plays. And that’s a good thing, especially if it’s coming from the heart and not from a sense of duty.

But the order seems mixed up here, the cart being put before the horse. One season in, it’s clear that Trubisky has a lot to learn about playing quarterback. That part is the only part that matters. Leadership is nice. Performance is everything. Be good first, lead later.

Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky throws during a preseason game against the Bengals on Thursday. (David Kohl, USA Today)

Now, you can make the argument that quarterbacking and leadership are so enmeshed as to be unrecognizable as separate entities. And there’s some truth in that. But learning to be a good quarterback takes practice and effort. Becoming a real leader is not something you can learn, no matter how loud your rah-rah-ing is. It’s innate.

The Blackhawks made Jonathan Toews their captain when he was 20. They didn’t do it because they wanted him to be a leader. They did it because he clearly was a leader, someone to whom teammates were drawn, someone to whom even older teammates listened. And he was a very, very good hockey player.

Trubisky might be the same kind of natural leader. It’s hard to tell. If you ask any Bears about him, you get rave reviews. And he might indeed be the great quarterback, teammate, humanitarian, astronaut, leader, statesman, ballroom dancer, witch doctor and whatever else his teammates say he is. But all of his fellow Bears are smart enough to know that the franchise is built around him, so we have to take their sugary compliments with a grain of salt. Few teammates said anything bad about Jay Cutler, even when it was clear that a few choice words were in order. Criticizing the quarterback is not good for career advancement.

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You don’t have to be a good football player to be a leader, but it sure helps. That’s what Urlacher was getting at. Teammates saw how hard he played and wanted to emulate him. There’s something contagious about someone who plays with spirit and abandon, the way Urlacher did. Leading by deed and not word actually works.

The NFL template calls for a young quarterback to strive to be a leader. Every team wants a Tom Brady, who, at 41, still regularly pumps up or scolds teammates on the sidelines.

It would be great if Trubisky turned out to be a great leader and a great player, but if you had to choose, you’d take the great player over the great leader in a heartbeat.

I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of leadership in sports. In my experience, the best leaders were born that way. They genuinely care about their teammates. It’s natural to them. Former Bears safety Mike Brown was like that. Former Michigan State point guard Mateen Cleaves was like that. So was former Bull Joakim Noah. So was former Cubs catcher Miguel Montero, despite public perception to the contrary. Players know who’s real and who isn’t. There’s no faking true leadership.

It’s clear that Trubisky thinks it’s important to be a good leader. Teammates aren’t going to follow him just because he’s a quarterback, but they’ll certainly follow him if he’s good. We’re still trying to figure out if he’s a good player. That’s priority No. 1. Perform well, and everything else will fall into place.

Results, then leadership.

In that order.

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