New coach means new culture in NFL

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
9:00
AM ET
Ken WhisenhuntFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesTennessee Titans players can expect to see changes on and off the field under coach Ken Whisenhunt.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mike Munchak's sloganeering reminder was in big, bold letters on the wall near the door from the Tennessee Titans' locker room to the practice field.

“BE A PRO.”

Ken Whisenhunt certainly wants his players to be pros. But as the Titans' new coach sets a culture change in motion, even cosmetic alterations are underway just a month into his tenure.

The hallway sign is gone.

“Culture change” is a buzz phrase that bounces off the walls at every team facility where a new head coach takes control. It's about the coach's message and themes, setting new expectations, outlining how the coach expects the team to achieve its goals and getting players to buy in.

And it trickles all the way down to things like what's written on the walls.

“There are certain things that you do because you want the players to know when they come in, it's different -- when you get a chance with them and you're on the field and your routine changes and you make it clear it's different,” Whisenhunt said. “But there are things you do in the building that hopefully will get their attention. You put thought into it. ...

“You do want the players to know it is different. Because expectations are going to be different, at least from our coaching staff and how we put that message across to our players. Hopefully that'll show up on the field.”

After the parameters are outlined, the biggest element of NFL culture change is about the people.

Ryan Grigson is heading into his third season as general manager of the Colts. He was NFL executive of the year in 2012, when he helped craft a roster that turned a 2-14 team into an 11-5 playoff entrant.

Posluszny Guys want a positive presence and they want consistency.

-- Jaguars LB Paul Posluszny
As he and coach Chuck Pagano revamped Indianapolis -- a job made far easier by hitting the Andrew Luck jackpot -- they considered personality as much as play in some evaluations.

“I think in order to change it, you first and foremost need to identify who is and who isn't all-in,” Grigson said. “That's everyone in the building. To stay true to the message you're implementing, you may be forced to cut ties with some guys you really wish you didn't have to, because they may have the talent you are in dire need of. But in the big picture, it just doesn't pay to have cancers around to hinder or slow your overall progress. You need guys to buy in from top to bottom.”

As they assessed their roster, the Colts were wary of “independent contractors” and the sort of message that can create them. Players don't follow hollow talk, Grigson said, and have good sensors for what's genuine.

That certainly was the case last season in Jacksonville.

Coach Gus Bradley inherited a 2-14 team. His energy was contagious and his message was consistent. He didn't talk about winning; he talked about competition and improvement. If his team and each guy on it could just get a little bit better every day, they would be on track for long-term success.

It sounds simple and cliché. But middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said it worked. Even when the Jaguars got to the midpoint of their season at 0-8, they weren't drifting or doubting Bradley's message.

Posluszny has been part of four culture-changing situations. He was with the Bills when Perry Fewell became interim coach during the 2009 season and when Chan Gailey took over in 2010. He was in Jacksonville when Mel Tucker took over for Jack Del Rio in 2011, for Mike Mularkey's entrance in 2012 and for the start of Bradley's term in 2013.

“What guys have responded to the best that I've been around, Coach Bradley has, and that's just a very positive message,” Posluszny said. “He comes out and he's very truthful and he says, ‘I want to maximize the potential of everybody in this room. I want to do my best to have everybody play at their best possible level.’ He doesn't vary from that. He doesn't change. When we started off awful and we're 0-8, there was no variation from that.

“Guys want a positive presence and they want consistency.”

If they don't get it and the results aren't showing up, there is nothing to fall back on. Guys start to question the leadership and things can come apart quickly. Under other coaches, Posluszny remembers locker room talk that included lines like, “I don't know where the head man is coming from” and “The message is not getting across.”

How much different can one changed culture be from the next?

Posluszny said that with the Bills, Gailey consistently talked of sacks and turnovers for both sides of the ball. Good results in those departments would correlate to winning. The Bills were reminded of the team's stats in those categories and where they ranked.

In Jacksonville, Bradley hasn't talked about a single number, stat or rank.

“Never,” Posluszny said.

[+] EnlargeMichael Griffin
AP Photo/Wade PayneTitans safety Michael Griffin: "Everybody is a little shook up and I think that's a good thing. Because that's going to probably get the best out of everybody."
Whisenhunt and his staff can tell a lot about their players from film and they've already done a lot of evaluating. They will get an additional layer of information when they are able to get a sense of players' personalities.

After weeks holed up at the team facility, the coaches have now emerged to observe workouts and talk to players at the NFL scouting combine.

Odds are, as they talk to prospects, they'll be asking the same question Grigson considers as part of his evaluations.

“With so much turnover every year, you're not only trying to find scheme fits but also trying to determine with your head coach, Is this guy one of us?” Grigson said. “You may love him off the film. But on the free-agent visit or the combine interview you may be completely turned off.”

Whisenhunt doesn't intend for his culture change to include ruling by fear.

But every player on the Titans feels some degree of uncertainty right now. The offseason program doesn't start until April 7. They may stop by to meet their new bosses and get some sense of how things will be. They may read everything the team is saying.

Until they get playbooks and until they get on the grass for OTAs and training camp, however, there is a lot they simply can't know.

“You're always uncomfortable with the unknown,” Whisenhunt said. “A big part of this game is about routines and knowing what it's going to be like. Knowing what practice is going to be like, knowing what the expectations are going to be like. When that changes, it is uncomfortable a little bit, but that's a good thing.”

Everyone gets a fresh start, everyone has to compete and everyone will know, Whisenhunt said, that if he doesn't buy in, he won't be on the team or he won't play.

Free safety Michael Griffin has visited with Whisenhunt and some of the staff. Brief hellos and chitchat can't answer all the questions he and his teammates will have.

“Right now I think a lot of players are uncomfortable,” Griffin said. “This coaching staff has nothing to do with the old coaching staff. ... It's kind of scary, it's a shake-up and everybody is kind of curious and wondering what's going to happen. ...

“Everybody is a little shook up and I think that's a good thing. Because that's going to probably get the best out of everybody. You've got to prove yourself all over again.”

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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