Mayo hopes to follow Seau's lead

FOXBOROUGH. Mass. -- In the aftermath of the New England Patriots' crushing defeat to the Indianapolis Colts last season -- when it was all fourth-and-2, all the time -- the call was sounded for leaders to emerge and vocally push back.

That's when Jerod Mayo stepped to the fore.

The Patriots' defense had been under siege for days and one of the strongest voices was franchise icon Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN football analyst, who said he would have viewed coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 as a lack of confidence in the defense. Mayo countered by saying that he has the ultimate respect for Bruschi, but that since he wasn't in the locker room, he didn't know the feeling that the defense had. The unit was still confident, Mayo said at the time.

Watching Mayo that day in the Patriots' locker room, one wondered, "Is he really comfortable at this stage of his career taking the reins as a vocal leader?"

Looking back, even though he knew he had the support of coaches and many teammates, it sounds as if Mayo had his own doubts at the time.

"It was difficult at first, but I feel like I can be a much better leader this year than I was last year as far as on the vocal end," Mayo said Tuesday on the second day of the Patriots' 2010 offseason program. "I will still lead with my actions, but I think being a bit more vocal will really help this team.

"I think I can definitely step my game up as far as being a vocal leader on this team. Last year, I still was a second-year player. I tried to still lead by my example. But this year, I think losing guys like Junior and Tedy [two years ago], it is a void as far as having that vocal guy on this team in general. I think this is a year where guys can step up and say what they have to say. It's a young team as a whole and the young guys will listen."

Leadership has been one of the buzzwords of the Patriots' offseason, and Mayo represents an interesting case study.

Ask most football players and they'll say leadership can't be forced. Top leaders of a team usually emerge because it is within them, not because they are assigned the role. There is also a process of earning respect from teammates that takes time.

For the 24-year-old Mayo, maybe last year was too much, too soon. Perhaps now is the right time for him to emerge as a more vocal presence, following in the footsteps of veteran linebacker Junior Seau.

"It is a thin line between phony rah-rah speeches and genuine speeches that guys like Junior can do easily," Mayo said. "I have to find that line and hopefully get that point across.

"Being around here now for three years, you try to gain as much respect as you can from the other players. I learned a lot from Junior last year and the year before. He's left me some things to do this year."

The 40-year-old Seau gave rousing pregame speeches to the Patriots, drawing from all parts of his illustrious career. Mayo was impressed with how he was able to get his point across in different ways by telling various stories from his NFL journey.

Yet while Seau's contributions were positive, they were also somewhat dulled by his limited on-field contributions. The impact of a big speech is lessened when the speaker watches the game from the sideline as an inactive player or little-used backup.

Mayo, the 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year, shouldn't have that problem.

He is one of the few three-down defenders on the Patriots, which means he seldom leaves the field, staying in the middle of the action as the team's primary defensive signal-caller. He has led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons, so production isn't an issue, although he'd like to create more big plays.

As for leadership, it probably was no coincidence that Mayo was the first player to speak to reporters at the team's offseason program this year. He made his way onto the newly surfaced Gillette Stadium field Tuesday afternoon, shook a lot of hands, and struck an optimistic tone about camaraderie, hard work and leadership.

"We lost a lot of games in the fourth quarter," Mayo said. "That's one thing we have to change, and it starts now."

It seems like that might not be the only change taking place inside the locker room walls at the offseason program.

When it comes to leadership, Mayo appears to be as willing and comfortable as ever to assume those important duties.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.