Jon Gruden loves to talk team culture. But isn’t the core of team culture the call and response for accountability?
When the cameras are on, there may not be a better coach in the NFL at talking about creating a culture than Jon Gruden.
The wood knocking. Becoming the nightmare. Conjuring the Autumn Wind. All of these various performative balletics have made him one of the most entertaining coaches in football and a fine broadcaster to boot. It made him irresistible to owner Mark Davis, to the point where he earned a decade of contractual runway to build his dream team in Las Vegas, of all appropriate places.
But culture is one of those nebulous terms that is difficult to define. How do you know if you have a good culture? Is Las Vegas’s 4–3 record indicative of something that Gruden has created, or can you squeeze out a few victories without ever really establishing the culture that you’ve promised to build all along?
We ask because on Thursday night, Gruden became the first head coach in the NFL to see his club forfeit a draft pick due to an inability to follow COVID-19 procedures. The news, first reported by Yahoo Sports, came on the heels of multiple infractions and previous fines when Gruden failed to wear a mask, when the team allowed an unauthorized person in the locker room and when players appeared at an indoor event without their masks on. Now they’ve been docked another half-million dollars and will have their sixth-round pick taken away because of repeat offenses. Prized offensive tackle Trent Brown was believed to have been spending significant time without his close contact tracking device. The entire offensive line was gathering in close quarters without masks on.
It seems Gruden—who at one point this preseason cared enough to have an assistant coach pretend he had COVID-19 to see how his players would respond (what a show that must been)—doesn’t care for the NFL’s protocols and, perhaps like many others in the country, doesn’t take the virus seriously. Unfortunately, he’s not alone. But there are plenty of other rules and restrictions that coaches privately despise; the rulebook is full of them and grows thicker with each season. Yet coaches still follow those rules religiously—and coach their teams to do the same. If nothing else, it shows both the call and response for accountability, which seems to be the essence of culture building at its very foundation.
An example: When the league began to focus on health and safety reforms and tried to limit dangerous tackles, some coaches complained about the loss of some old piece of the game’s history and rolled their eyes at every helmet-to-helmet collision that was flagged. Other coaches brought in rugby experts and re-taught their teams how to tackle–safely–from scratch.
For now, Gruden appears stuck in the former category, content to keep his head turned from protocol while the rest of the world battles the virus’s deadly second surge and the league tries to barely keep its schedule on track. Is it directly his fault that one of his players removed his contact tracing device? Is it directly his fault that nearly a dozen of them went to an indoor gathering together without protective masks? No and no. But would a true culture allow for these continual slip-ups which, again, regardless of how seriously people are actually taking them, have now started to affect the team’s on-field future more directly?
Gruden’s defenders can say it’s just money. Lord knows the long-term deal that he signed to create this culture will pay him enough. They can say it’s just a sixth-round draft pick, even though in four of the last 10 drafts, the sixth round has contained at least one Pro Bowler (and as many as three in a given year). But what can they say about the entirety of an operation that seems to find this acceptable?
What does it say about the man in charge not wearing a mask, and where that might lead the rest of his players?