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The Cult of the Coach Is Losing Its Power. Good Riddance.

The mystique of the all-knowing, all-powerful football coach is fading away. That’s a good thing for the sport.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the early part of the last decade, NFL teams started to notice that the way players learned about football was changing. There is a certain type of coach who hated this because they hate anything outside of football plays that they have to think about for more than 30 seconds, but these changes forced the league to reckon with the fact that the old way of coaching was pretty much over. Teams conducted studies, which found that younger players were more likely to ask coaches “why” and that players could learn effectively even when doing things coaches mostly hated, like listening to music. Mostly, coaches found that they needed to adapt. The Rams studied this. The 49ers did, too, and started shortening and breaking up their meetings because they know antsy younger players can’t concentrate for very long without their devices. Those were just two of the teams that told me about this stuff on the record, but I can assure you nearly every team—including the absolute best coaches in the sport—began adapting to these changes.

The coaching profession, one veteran coach confided to me, was changing, even if coaches didn’t like it—and many of them did not. The hierarchical, cult-of-the-coach approach was never going to be the same after so many different factors became more prevalent in the game—technological advances, a reliance on studies or data, and the rise of general managers who were younger, more aggressive, and involved in big decisions. Social media changed the way the sport is covered. All-22 film, which wasn’t available outside NFL facilities until 2012, legitimized outside criticism. Subtle changes in technology meant that NFL teams could easily access video of a Big 12 game and implement those plays a week later. Coaching was different and the people who did it had to be, too.

In the ensuing years, that has been proved to be true. NFL head coach is still a wildly important position—by far the most valuable head coach in sports. A good coach, like a good quarterback, can solve hundreds of football problems in other areas during a season. It’s just a different position than it used to be. Aqib Talib, appearing on Slow News Day this week, made fun of the amount of rules some coaches he played for came up with and told me that Bill Belichick had almost none. Belichick tried to police only football and only asked players to be on time, don’t leak to the media, and know your stuff. Excessive rulemaking is for lesser coaches.

Let’s back up for a second. The myth of the coach has always been fairly misguided. Most stories about football coaches usually remove any empathy and nuance until they are all John Wayne. A few years after they leave the game, their legacies take the form of motivational quotes—real or imagined—and some clips from NFL Films and that’s about it. Their imperfections are washed away by time and memes. Twenty years after a coach is done, they are either bumbling incompetents like Rich Kotite or geniuses like Bill Walsh. Never mind the fact that Walsh, in one of his books, details how close he was to quitting after a tough loss early in his head coaching career, or the doubt he faced constantly.

No, there is none of that when discussing former coaches. Just winners and losers. Steelers legend Chuck Noll, one of the paragons of American coaching toughness, believed that toughness was oftentimes simply a product of technique—what was considered soft in the NFL, more often than not, was simply not knowing what you’re doing out there. David Maraniss’s biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, is more or less devoted to punching holes in the Lombardi mythmaking industry. The Packers’ legendary coach did not coin the phrase “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”—he said it a few times long after it had become popular, and he didn’t even believe it. Maraniss wrote that the famous quote from a player about how Lombardi treated his players—all like dogs—wasn’t even close to the truth.

“Lombardi was an adept psychologist who treated each of his players differently,” Maraniss wrote. “He rode some mercilessly but stayed away from others, depending on how they responded. He did not mind oddballs—his teams were full of them—as long as they shared his will to excel. … He made things simple for his players, by taking nothing for granted, repeating the same lessons to them over and over, every day, every year.”

The point here is that much of football history misunderstands who coaches are. The myths born from this particular mistake are everywhere in the sport, making it easy for coaches to fall into caricatures of themselves that some of them have little desire to shed. In wrestling parlance, they can live the gimmick. The things coaches preach are deeply important in the sport—you need toughness, you need execution, you need discipline, but you don’t need shtick.

The same Maraniss book, incidentally, portrays Lombardi as encouraging of his gay players. His brother Harold was gay and Maraniss says that Lombardi quietly rooted for gay players to make the team in training camp. When Lombardi drafted a gay player in the ’70s, he gave the instruction, “If I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.”

We are talking about the cult of personality around some coaches this week because a few of them are in trouble. Now, the Jon Gruden scandal will change very little about the coaching profession because it’s not really a scandal specific to coaching in the NFL—it’s more about power in the NFL and what happens to people who have it and don’t deserve it. Coaches with full power like Gruden are de facto HR people and a man with that many biases and prejudices should not have control over anyone’s professional fate. Gruden took shots at players who protested; he took shots at Michael Sam, an openly gay player selected by the Rams in 2014 (until this week Gruden coached the first openly gay player on an active roster, Carl Nassib); and he took shots at women. He should not have hiring power. The main lesson from Jon Gruden’s downfall is that Jon Gruden talks and acts like a jackass and spends a lot of time talking with other jackasses. When you get a few jackasses on an email chain, they say jackass things to each other, cc other jackasses, and feed on each other until they leave a record of abhorrent things said over a seven-year span that one day gets released in a workplace misconduct investigation.

That Gruden was saying these things to an NFL team president on a work email tells you how comfortable he was talking like a jackass. There has been a common Twitter refrain this week: How would you feel if your emails from the last 10 years leaked onto the internet? The answer for almost everyone is they’d feel better than Gruden and Bruce Allen do now. If, downriver from this all, there is an original sin of the whole ordeal on the Raiders side, it’s the decision to give Gruden a 10-year deal that paid him more money than any head coach in history.

I’d argue that the Raiders made a couple of classic football mistakes: The first is believing one big name, especially one with ties to the franchise, can come in and stabilize everything. The second was overlooking the fact that Gruden’s last season with double-digit wins came in 2005, and his last playoff win was in 2002. Getting Gruden to come out of the broadcast booth wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but turning your franchise over to him and paying him accordingly was the mistake. The idea of handing everything over to some all-seeing, all-knowing coach has always been a bad idea and doubly so in a new era when we know more about why teams win and lose games.

There will never be a player empowerment era in the NFL similar to what we’re seeing in the NBA—the franchise tag gives teams control over a player for up to three years after their contract expires, which ensures that superstar movement will always be limited. There are so few players who could try to change this paradigm, and when they attempt to do so—Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers come to mind—their teams simply don’t let them go. Eventually, there will be a weakening of the league positions that used to come with broad power. Coaches will be more collaborative with players and the front office. Players will have more say in team decision-making, even if their power of movement is restricted.

The other team that went all in on a coach and failed is Jacksonville. Urban Meyer’s situation is dramatically different from Gruden’s, but it is headed to a similar place: a coach who is losing respect quite quickly. Michael Silver recently reported that after Meyer apologized to his team for a disastrous weekend in which he didn’t fly home with the team following a road game in Cincinnati and then, uh, had a night out at a bar in Columbus, he became an object of jokes among his players. Per Silver: “Said one player: ‘We looked at him like, WTF? Right when he left everyone started dying laughing. And he knew it.”

Meyer has made a series of generally unchecked, bullshit statements that sort of feed into this coaching mythmaking. When he was hired, he said that “people who work for me, with me, they all hear a statement of ‘Is this the best of the best? If it’s not, then the question is, ‘Well, why?’ That’s the same thing that I’m doing every time I walk through everywhere. We did that at Ohio State. We did that at Florida. ‘Is this the very best?’ And if it’s not, especially when you start talking about player welfare and safety and just the players … if it’s not the very best, let’s have a chat and do what’s very best. The Jacksonville players are going to get pushed. In return, we give them the very best.”

If you haven’t noticed, Meyer is not giving the Jaguars the very best. In fact, it looks like he might be giving them the literal worst in the NFL. With the direction football is headed, the future for anyone who makes this sort of wild mistake is players laughing at you as you leave the room, and you knowing it. Gruden is gone, Meyer will likely be gone in the near future, and the cult of the coach will continue to erode. Coaching has changed, and the organizations who haven’t realized that are losing to the ones who have.