The bar is now so low that loud, selective virtue is preferable. It earns you more attention across the landscape than by simply being virtuous. It’s more beneficial to preach about how you give everyone second chances when you know it only applies to the most talented players on your team.
It’s a bulletproof strategy to say you look for character first, then sign whoever the hell you want and shift the definition of character to fit whatever players are going to help you win. Kurt Vonnegut once said that we become the person we pretend to be, which means we should be careful about the image we’re cultivating for ourselves—although, he lived in a time where people faced consequences for their actions.
Jon Gruden is going to barrel his way through this Antonio Brown situation—in case you missed the news, the Raiders released the mercurial star receiver on Saturday morning, two days before the season opener, to salvage the massive hunk of guaranteed money they included in his new contract. Should he wish, Gruden will still be coaching the Raiders five years from now, making the same kind of irrational decisions that have a ripple effect on the entire roster and organization. He’ll sit in his organizational throne, still radiating the kind of cache that makes the people around him feel they’re in the presence of Paul Brown reincarnate.
It may end up being just a footnote in Gruden’s highly anticipated second act of coaching, because that’s typically the way we treat people who exhibit egregious, eyebrow-raising behavior on a daily basis; we move on, because we get so worked up about the next thing, which makes whatever happened in the past not seem that bad. Imagine how tame this will feel next spring when he deals an in-prime Derek Carr for Eli Manning in his final days as an NFL quarterback.
But here’s something you shouldn’t let slide, especially if you’re a player who will get drafted in Oakland/Las Vegas one day or a coach who finds their way onto Gruden’s staff or a free agent that takes a visit to the facility: Up until the very moment that Brown expressly planted his battle flag in the ground (on Instagram) and stated his intention to force his release, Gruden was going to play him in the Raiders’ season-opener against the Broncos on Monday Night Football.
He was going to play him after Brown allegedly called Mike Mayock a “cracker” to his face during practice, punted a football and dared the general manager to fine him. He was going to play him was after Brown Instagrammed private team documents and raged against a club that exhaustively kowtowed to every one of his strange demands this offseason. He was going to play Brown after the receiver issued what would ultimately be a false apology to swindle his way back onto the roster and collect his guaranteed money. He was going to play him after Brown—or someone in his camp—tape-recorded a coach’s phone call and utilized it in some sort of bizarre commercial for the Antonio Brown Brand. A source close to Gruden told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Friday night that the coach thought it was “awesome.”
How desperate does Gruden seem to legitimize this roster-torching and make us forget about the ghost of Khalil Mack? At what point does he realize that continuing to dig this hole when he’s already buried is just wasted energy? At what point do the people around him stop enabling it?
One day, a player is going to sit in a meeting with Gruden and listen to him talk about consequences. How it’s time to be someone’s nightmare and take away their dreams even though no one is judging the coach with nearly the same scrutiny. They’ll watch him try and conjure the Autumn Wind and knock on wood when the coach tells them to. But they should understand that ultimately, none of it matters. If you’re good enough to legitimize this doomed marriage, you’re going to get on the field.
Just win, baby.
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