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What the NFL champs can teach us about team culture

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5 leadership lessons from Tampa Bay’s win in the big game.

Miami Hurricanes vs. Temple Owls

I’ve never thought of the NFL as a place to learn about ‘culture building’ in a what to do sense. What not to do? Sure. But to acquire a blueprint for cultural success, outside of New England, and post-Bill Walsh, it seems almost hilarious. However, what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off in Super Bowl LV is nothing short of impressive.

Even in New England, the Patriot Way hasn’t come without owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and former star quarterback Tom Brady being under fire for violations ranging from ball size (Brady) to filming walk throughs (Belichick), to sexual predilections (Kraft) or murder (Aaron Hernandez).

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs chose to employ Britt Reid after his background check, Tyreek Hill after his domestic violence history, and a flavoring of other arrests in both the staff (Eric Bieniemy) and roster (Frank Clark). The Chiefs have legal issues from ownership on down the line (read this article about their long history of issues). But at least they got rid of Kareem Hunt, right?

The NFL has long been filled with shady characters in ownership, coaching, and playing. Jim Irsay, the aforementioned Kraft, Jerry Richardson... you name ‘em, they’ve been in trouble. Coaches have long been the subject of controversy, too. Belichick for cheating, Jon Gruden for DUI’s, Jay Gruden for whatever that incident was at Washington, Vance Joseph for sexual assault, and countless others for a variety of misdeeds (remember that one Miami Dolphins assistant with the coke video? Yep, he still has a job in the NFL).

The Buccaneers haven’t been without controversy or scandalous players, either. It just seems like since Bruce Arians has arrived they attempted to build a real culture. Jameis Winston was sent away, Tom Brady came in, and the Bucs won a Super Bowl. Brady has long managed troubled players well, as has Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. Brady has worked with Hernandez, Randy Moss, and now Antonio Brown, twice.

What a cool under pressure, ‘no risk it / no biscuit’ type like Arians brings is a culture of ownership and accountability. Coach Arians hires diverse staffs (both in race and gender), enables them to succeed, signs or drafts players and gets the most out of them. Arians has a ‘cool’ persona, Brady has a maniacal work ethic, and Arians’ OC Byron Leftwich and DC Todd Bowles are both known for being creative, and as guys that can adapt under pressure. And Leftwich is also known for being one tough SOB (see above video). As much as players scoff at playing stories- Leftwich has one for the ages.

Players that were known for their off-field antics more than on-field play, like Rob Gronkowski and Brown, both pulled it together under Brady’s guidance to, “Just win, baby!” On the other sideline, Andy Reid couldn’t even control the off-field dealings of his own flesh and blood.


What about The U?

So what can college football fans, and Miami Hurricanes fans more specifically, learn from Tampa’s run to Tom Bradys’s 7th and the franchise’s 2nd Super Bowl victory?

1- Culture matters. A great franchise has to get rid of the guys in the locker room that aren’t buying into the culture both on and off the field. 10% of your people can’t take up 90% of your time. Look at their WAR and judge if that player is worth the headache. If not, move on.

Miami has had great locker room cultures, like back in 2001. Miami has had some poor locker room cultures, too. I think of the Sun Bowl snowball fight against Notre Dame, I feel like players were arrested at an all-time rate before the 2016 season. Also the quitting and dancing while FIU pounds the crap out of you... bad culture. No leadership in the locker room, which leads me to my next point...

2- Player led model. A great franchise and head coach build a roster that polices itself. It’s player led, not coach led. Good teams are coach-led, great teams are player-led. Tom Brady clearly had a player-led 2020 season. Just read the articles about how much his teammates learned about culture, discipline, and drive from Mr. Brady. The head coach should set the tone, handle the big issues, and keep the machine greased and running well.

3- Discipline runs deep. Off-field discipline and on-field discipline are a Venn Diagram that will bleed together. The Chiefs have issues from the top down in the discipline department. It’s hard to punish or cut a player when the coach’s son, also a coach, has a history of illegal and troubling behavior. And the coaching staff and ownership do too.

Then you watch K.C.’s style of play. The Chiefs were penalized heavily all game, and committed some costly mental mistakes. They were proven to be front runners, unable to overcome adversity and show resilience when the chips were down. I would find a lack of grit to be a common thread among teams with no personal or professional discipline. I’m interested in seeing the moves the Chiefs make this off-season, I would begin moving some of the culture issues out of the franchise before they’re another version of the Seattle Seahawks.

4- The CEO model. Great head coaches in 2020 and beyond are CEO’s. This new model of being a CEO has began to work. Nick Saban has his hands in everything, sure, he’s the CEO, but he was also willing to let Lane Kiffin adapt the offense. It’s starting to work for Mack Brown at UNC, it works for Dabo Swinney at Clemson, and Bruce Arians in the NFL.

CEO coaches are hiring coordinators they trust and getting out of their way. The CEO head coach can take on the media, parents, boosters, owners, etc and let the coordinators coach the game! The days of the “offensive” or “defensive” head coach are about to be passe’. With the amount of social media, player drama, transfer portal stuff (free agency in the NFL), et al- there’s too much for a head coach to do to coach one side of the ball.

5- Quarterbacks still rule. The leadership of an elite, disciplined quarterback can supersede other issues. D’Eriq King is that leadership driven QB who can make big plays in crunch time. But is the coaching staff developing that ability in the younger QB’s on the roster? Will Tyler Van Dyke, Jake Garcia, or Peyton Matocha have that same leadership gene, or will Miami need to hit the transfer portal once again in ‘22?

As fans we could see the difference in press conferences, rumor mill stories, and game tape of the difference King made over Jarren Williams and N’Kosi Perry. Or even past QB’s who didn’t have the “it” factor King possesses.

Getty Images

Is Patrick Mahomes a more talented QB than Brady is right now? Of course. The throw from the image above hit his player in the head in the end zone. Mahomes is a next level talent and he’ll be a great player for years to come. But Brady’s legendary leadership ability drove Tampa from a sub-500 ball club that hadn’t won a playoff game since 2002 to the NFL champions.

It’s really hard to repeat as NFL Super Bowl Champions and the uber-talented Chiefs found that out on Sunday night in Tampa, FL. Only seven franchises have done it, and only eight different times (The Pittsburgh Steelers repeated twice). The NFL has a salary cap, free agency, a draft model that benefits the worst team, and the largest roster in professional sports. Where the MLB allows 25, the NHL allows 23, and the NBA allows 15; the NFL has to keep 53 different egos, salaries, and talent levels in check in order to win the championship.

That’s more than double the amount of variables on an NFL roster than the next highest pro sports team. And in the world of college football? It’s often around 100 players on the roster with another 25-plus coaches and staffers to manage as well as academic eligibility.


Summary

The Miami Hurricanes are above the 50% Blue Chip Ratio magic number that can deliver a championship team. The talent is there. The question that is left is whether or not the culture is in place to win the ACC and the College Football Playoff. You can ask yourselves these questions and answer in the comments:

1- Are the Hurricanes a high culture program?

2- Is The U player-led?

3- Does Miami show on and off the field discipline, both on the roster and staff, needed to win the big one?

4- Is the head coach using a more CEO based model?

5- Does Miami have the QB that can lead this program to greatness?

I look forward to your comments.