Around the NFL, there’s a large segment of coaches who spend their free time in the offseason coming up with motivational slogans, phrases and other bric-a-brac to spray over the walls of the team facility and paste on the back of t-shirts and holler in the absence of substantive discussion because that is what nearly every other person in their positions has done since the beginning of time.
The problem is that when this, and other hazily associated ideas of forced togetherness, create the bedrock of what people in the business refer to as “culture.” Somewhere along the line, “culture” became how we described the way good teams operate, thus, every team aspires to create a “culture” or change a “culture” or fix the “culture” by pasting new bric-a-brac over the old, signing some new players, dusting their hands and moving on. Apparently, the low bar for having a “culture” now is possessing a facility that isn’t figuratively burning to the ground.
Jon Gruden arrived in Oakland first determined to create a “winning” “culture,” which meant he needed time (10 years) and the latitude to tear the roster down and build it back up again (trading Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper). After one 4-12 season, it was deemed this “culture” was not only suitable enough to foster and support all of the young draft and free-agency capital acquired in the wake of the roster purge but also to import the likes of Antonio Brown and Richie Incognito—both are controversial players for vastly different reasons who have been known, at the least, to create ripples in the locker room or, at the most egregious, the kind of atmosphere that triggers suspensions and full-scale investigations.
On Thursday, Brown—who had already missed most of the preseason due to a cryotherapy chamber mishap and in protest over his helmet, and who subsequently Instagrammed the fines levied to him by general manager Mike Mayock—reportedly told the executive that he’d punch him in the face, before punting a football and daring him to impose more fines.
Here’s the thing about “culture”: Once you feel you’ve created it, you get this idea that players enter on a conveyer belt and exit the other side, completely smoothed and uniformed, as if the coach’s aura and sayings were some kind of wood planer. In reality, the teams who actually possess a good culture have done so much work on understanding their players’ wants and needs at an individual level. They know who they’re acquiring and how they might fit in. They know their own coaches, and whether or not those coaches are the kind of people who can maximize, say, a mercurial wide receiver who has said already that he doesn’t need football anymore.
Brown raged his way off of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster this offseason, pinballed in and out of our social media feeds with a series of strange antics, died his facial hair blond and landed at the team facility in a hot air balloon for the start of training camp. Yet, there the Raiders’ decision-makers were at Brown’s press conference, talking about the wide receiver as if the Raiders had acquired another coach on the field. “As good a practice player” in football, as if this would be no problem at all.
“His enthusiasm to play is contagious,” Gruden said back in March. “When we signed Antonio Brown, you’d be shocked at how many other players wanted to come along with him.”
To be clear, we’re not criticizing Brown. Most of his bits were funny and harmless, reinforcing the juxtaposition of a low-drafted, obscure college wideout against the guy who became one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. But it’s worth wondering how much thought went into Brown’s fit in this “culture” and what might go wrong—or what kind of foundational ideas this culture was built on in the first place.
The hard part is going to be explaining to their players what the hardest “practice player” in football did at practice this week, and how that’s just not the “Raider Way.”
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