Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders acquired some of the NFL’s most controversial players this offseason.
The addition of Antonio Brown, Vontaze Burfict, and Richie Incognito excited many Raiders fans, who hoped for a rekindling of the aggressive, outlaw culture of 1980s Raider Nation. Visions of Ken Stabler, Jack Tatum, and Lyle Alzedo danced in the heads of a raucous fan base.
Football fans east of Oakland were less optimistic. It appeared that Gruden was putting a premium on physical talent and undervaluing team culture.
Gruden’s most famous pickup was the wildly talented but culture-crushing, self-idolatrizing, reality-TV star, Antonio Brown. Brown arrived at training camp in a hot air balloon, could not play because he blistered his feet in a cryotherapy session gone wrong, and called out team ownership before being dismissed from the team.
The Raiders also acquired Vontaze Burfitct, who has become famous for his recklessness. Although his talent has long been undeniable, character and behavior issues have proven just as obvious.
At Arizona State, he was a 1st team All-American as a sophomore, but his play fell off as discipline issues crept up. A failed drug test at the NFL Combine was the icing on the cake. Burfict fell out of the 2012 draft completely. The Cincinnati Bengals picked him up as a free agent, and he played well until it mattered most. He was kicked out of a 2016 playoff game for a vicious illegal hit to the head of none other than… Antonio Brown (who was a Pittsburgh Steeler at the time). After the loss, when questioned about the hit, he pointed the blame at his teammates.
After a late-September game against the Colts, Burfict set an NFL record – two illegal hits over the course of that game earned him the longest suspension in NFL history for an on-season offense.
And now, Richie Incognito.
It is clear that Richie is suffering from mental illness, which is not mentioned in jest and should not be taken lightly. A number of his off-field incidents point to that, and he has at times received treatment. Noting his legitimate concerns does not change the fact that he has been a challenge to team culture many times over.
In the most public story of bullying in professional athletics, Incognito drove teammate Jonathan Martin away from the Miami Dolphins with a combination of racial and sexual harassment.
Gruden signed him anyway.
Incognito was the last man standing of the “outlaw” offseason signings. On the first NFL weekend of October, we saw his true colors (Silver and Black?). While playing the Chicago Bears, Incognito was flagged for unnecessary roughness after forcefully pushing an opposing player’s face into the dirt – after the play, of course. That penalty knocked the Raiders out of field goal range.
It is the final public signal that Gruden’s experiment is failing.
If we measure success in wins and losses, it appears that all is not lost – the Raiders actually won the games against the Colts and the Bears. But in terms of sustainable team culture, the Gruden experiment is a mess.
Antonio Brown was kicked off the team before the regular season opener. The Raiders may have liked his play, but the NFL suspended Vontaze Burfict for the remainder of the season after only 3.5 games. Richie Incognito’s conspicuous, internationally televised assault cost the Raiders points, and many football fans’ respect.
However, that has been hard for some sports fans to recognize:
It’s a forgivable response. After all, each game has a winner and a loser. But it is possible to win poorly.
No one would demand Gruden to create a team based on high character and thoughtful ethics. But if he elects not to use football as a learning platform, then he has committed himself to the measure of success in the NFL: trips to the Super Bowl.
More often than not, it is the teams with Championship-caliber cultures who prevail. The 1967 “Ice Bowl” between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys was decided by the group that played together, played for each other, as a team.
Charles Tillman, who went to Super Bowls with the Chicago Bears and the Carolina Panthers, identified that every NFL team has talent, but the distinguishing factor on those Super Bowl teams was their team culture – they genuinely liked each other.
Super Bowl MVPs stand on the podium and applaud their teammates, thanking them for selfless play, for playing as a team. No one in the history of sports has stood on the podium and thanked a teammate for sending an opposing player off the field on a stretcher, or for pushing their faces in the mud.
Jon Gruden has a good football mind. He is smart enough to see that outlaw experiment is over. And if Raider Nation has any shot at a championship, he’ll need to focus of character and culture. That much is obvious.