Jon Gruden’s demise was spectacular and brutal. His end came when first the Wall Street Journal and then the New York Times obtained a data dump of emails from NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team, revealing language from Gruden which was racist, sexist and homophobic.
The Super Bowl winning head coach and, until Monday, head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders was a bitterly divisive figure in football. Prone to outrageous outbursts and putdowns to players, staff and officials, few people will be surprised that he was implicated using despicable language. Screaming at the players and sowing division is part of his style. That his behaviour could go unchecked for so long is problematic for football.
It is alarming that the NFL was privy to this information and chose to keep much of it. This spells some bigger questions. Will Gruden be the sole person outed? Were other owners using similar language? Is the NFL holding key details back to protect itself? And for all the slogans in the league about embracing change and diversity after the summer of George Floyd, white privilege and entrenched values appear to be dominant forces. After analyzing the first third of the NFL season, I’ll delve further into the ugly Gruden case.
State of the Race Five weeks into the NFL season is a good time to take stock. Here are six flash points:
Surprise teams: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers - Kyler Murray is in early season MVP form for the Cardinals, who are shredding the normally uber competitive NFC West. Arizona is the NFL’s remaining undefeated team and there’s no coincidence that a buoyant defense is behind their push. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury came into the season under pressure having failed to make the playoffs in his previous seasons. On this form, they’re set for a deep playoff run in 2021. The Chargers are one of the NFL’s most explosive teams, spearheaded by young quarterback Justin Herbert. Last years’ rookie of the year has made the leap to becoming a top NFL quarterback. Los Angeles has found ways to win close games that it was famous for losing in the past. Their defense is fortified with top talent in Joey Bosa and Derwin James. If the Cardinals are the best team so far in the NFC, the Chargers are running the Buffalo Bills close as the pick of the AFC.
Nagy and Bears: The Bears have had a problem called head coach Matt Nagy problem for a long time. The danger is they now have a talented quarterback - Justin Fields - who might save Nagy’s job, and that of equally floundering general manager Ryan Pace - the two men in the organization who survived their poor decisions. A case in point being drafting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and hitching themselves to his career, which ushered in some of the worst quarterback play Chicago has seen in its storied history. Nagy has already insisted, with no zero credibility, that journeyman veteran quarterback Andy Dalton is the starter. Fields is the future and offers them the best chance to win now. He needs a head coach to back him and allow him to lead the team. Bears fans must be hoping it isn’t at the expense of keeping the existing head coach-GM double act for one more season.
Ahead of Expectations: Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals. Each team is making strides. Joe Burrow has combined with LSU team-mate J’Marr Chase to make for a lethal combination in Cincinnati. The Bengals have been in every game and have improved on defense. It is going to be hard to keep up with Baltimore and Cleveland but look set to give it a real crack. In the NFC South, the Panthers have stepped into the void left by New Orleans and are playing good complementary football. They’re not going to stop Tampa Bay, but are well coached under Matt Rhule. They can still be relevant come December despite a string of losses.
Biggest Disappointment: The Seattle Seahawks abject defense. Washington Football Team’s no-show defense, which impressed last season.
Newbie Coach: In 2021 Brandon Staley took over a Chargers team perennially laden with talent, yet deeply dysfunctional. Last season they unearthed a quarterback gem in Justin Herbert. Around Herbert, the Chargers have a stacked defense and weapons on offense. Underachievers no more. Perhaps. Staley deserves credit for getting them to play consistent, dominant football on both sides of the ball, and winning tight games.
Enemy Action: Urban Myer cannot get out of his own way. That his team is 1-5 is not a surprise. Instead of travelling home with the team after a recent loss in Cincinnati, Myer chose to stay on for a friend's birthday, under the guise of having dinner with his grandchildren. Instead he enjoyed himself rather too much, and footage emerged of him in close contact with a young woman. In a long list of actions that ostracized the Jaguars locker room (he only took over in 2021), this took the biscuit. “I apologized for being a distraction. A coach should not be a distraction”, Myer said. Jacksonville’s owner has publicly reprimanded him. It's unlikely to end well.
NFL Has A Duty To Act It’s hard not to feel for the Raiders players in Jon Gruden’s locker room, one of whom made a unbelievably brave call earlier this season by coming out as a gay man. Carl Nassib is the first openly gay player to play in the league. What must he be thinking?
There will be significant ramifications for the Raiders, and owner Mark Davis. Their history is one of inclusion: having women and minorities in positions of responsibility in the organization. Gruden’s antics are a body blow to that culture. On the field, the team is languishing at 3-2 and must be reeling.
The man whose nickname is Chucky after the psychopath from the movie Child’s Play, and started life as one of the brightest young lights to come into the NFL, has revealed his stripes. Others like Gruden dumb enough to commit their disgusting thoughts to email must be looking over their shoulder.
The irony of Gruden and the Raiders public divorce in the middle of ESPN’s Monday night football – Gruden’s employer at the time of his emails – was not lost on anyone. This is football’s “Harvey Weinstein” moment. The NFL has a duty to release more emails even if this means shining a torch in the corner of owners and executives, which isn’t good for business. Having staked out its path on inclusivity, its credibility is at stake.