Broncos' ship needs locker room captains

Leadership is a quirky, often transient, item in the NFL. Those who build teams consistently say they want it, those who coach teams consistently say they can’t win without it.

Leadership is almost always talent driven, however, as well as health related at times. Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith, a Ring of Fame member for the team, may have put it best when he said “nobody listens to you if you can’t play and you can’t lead in the training room either -- you have to be on the field.’’

And it’s all true.

In the last week the Broncos officially put themselves in a transition period in that department as they move through the opening days of free agency and into the draft. Because in the last seven days three of the most respected, perspective-filled, rational voices in the locker room have moved on.

Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection and an annual pick by his teammates as a captain, was released. Wesley Woodyard, the only player in franchise history not named Floyd Little to be a team captain in each of his first six years with the team, is an unrestricted free agent the Broncos watched hit the open market Tuesday.

And Chris Kuper, a roll-up-his-sleeves player who was simply universally respected in the locker room, has retired after two years of trying to battle back from a gruesome ankle injury he suffered in the final regular-season game of the 2011 season. In that 2011 season, Bailey, Kuper and Woodyard were among the Broncos’ five team captains named for the year.

The other two were Kyle Orton, who would lose his starting job aboard the Tebow Express later that season and Brian Dawkins, who retired after the ’11 season. So, just two seasons after those five players walked to mid-field to take the coin flip on many weeks, none will be in the locker room for the Broncos in 2014. That, too, is the nature of things in professional football.

Broncos’ football boss John Elway has consistently said “getting the locker room right’’ is the biggest item on the to-do list for any playoff hopeful. What that really means is the most talented players also have to be the most responsible in how they approach things on the field.

Woodyard and Bailey were team captains this past season, so that leaves tackle Ryan Clady (Wes Welker took his spot when Clady went to injured reserve last season), safety David Bruton and quarterback Peyton Manning remaining among the players initially chosen by their teammates as team captains in 2013.

Manning leads by his other-worldly work ethic, his production and his status as a future Hall of Fame quarterback. But in the locker room the younger Broncos players, some 15 or 16 years his junior or so, see him more as a coach-authority figure. That presents a different dynamic at times.

The Broncos will need players like linebacker Danny Trevathan, running back Montee Ball, and receivers Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas to step to the forefront this time around. Ego, internal bickering and the relentless quest for credit for what’s been done derail as many teams as injuries along the way.

It matters what happens in the locker room when none of the supervisors are around. And as the Broncos write the checks and make the picks in the coming weeks and months, it will matter how well they did finding the players who put the C on their jerseys as well.