Where could Michael Sam thrive?
Patriots, Seahawks, Eagles have leadership, culture to accept an openly gay player
How Will Sam Be Received?
This will not be easy.
Let's not kid ourselves. There will be teams in the National Football League that will not be willing to draft Michael Sam because he is openly gay. They won't want the potential locker-room distraction or the onslaught of non-sports media that will descend on the team after the draft, for organized team activities, for minicamp, for training camp, for the first preseason game, for the first regular-season game.
There will be some teams that don't have strong enough leaders -- from ownership on down -- to embrace Sam. There will be some that don't have a roster of players secure enough to handle having a gay teammate. There are some teams that don't have organizational cultures or coaches that could accept Sam the person as well as Sam the player.
More On Michael Sam
The best way to honor Michael Sam's decision would be to leave him alone and let him play football, but that won't happen right away, Dan Graziano writes. Story
If Michael Sam's All-American skills translate to the next level, there's no reason he can't enjoy a successful pro career, Kevin Seifert writes. Blog
Michael Sam as a novelty? Not really. There have been gay players in the NFL since Vince Lombardi coached, LZ Granderson writes. Story
Seeking to tell his truth from the beginning, NFL draft prospect Michael Sam becomes a key figure in the changing LGBT landscape of professional sports, writes Kate Fagan. Story
• NFL Nation: Michael Sam and the NFL
• Scouts Inc.: Sam's draft profile
But there are some that do.
This is uncharted territory for the NFL, and many teams would prefer to steer clear of being the first franchise to employ an openly gay player. Teams make choices all the time about players that go beyond the typical measurables of height, weight, wingspan, 40 time and game statistics.
Building a successful NFL team is about more than just plugging in players at positions and expecting them to perform. It is about culture and chemistry, about understanding the personality of your team, about players' character. And it is about understanding what your team can handle and what it can't.
Not every team can handle an openly gay player. That is reality. It doesn't make it right, but it is true nonetheless.
At the same time, there are some teams that can handle Sam and almost certainly one that will. What matters more than anything to teams is whether Sam can play effectively at the professional level. Can he rush the passer against bigger, faster and stronger opponents than he typically faced at Missouri? At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, can he transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense? Can he be an effective pass-rusher as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme? Can he be a difference-maker on special teams?
Will Sam work hard? Will he be a team player? Will he have a realistic expectation for where he should be drafted, if his skills warrant him being drafted at all?
I could see a handful of teams more than willing to add a player who, by all accounts, has a high motor, is coachable and is a team-first guy.
The New England Patriots are a prime example. No coach wants to deal with outside distractions, but Bill Belichick has done the best job in the league of developing a culture where outside distractions rarely seep in. The Patriots' locker room is strong, led by veteran leaders such as quarterback Tom Brady and nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
The Patriot Way might be an urban legend, but Belichick has a way of limiting distractions. It is why he was willing to invite the Tim Tebow circus to New England last year, and that didn't turn into a circus. It is why he traded for Aqib Talib, who brings on- and off-the-field issues to the table, and then was able to maximize Talib's talents. It is why he took a chance on Randy Moss and why Moss thrived with the Patriots.
Belichick demands a lot from his players, and he does not tolerate any foolishness that detracts from the team's ultimate goal. It is his way or the highway. Players understand that. They might not adore Belichick the man, but they respect Belichick the coach. Three Lombardi Trophies will do that.
Mike and Mike
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel discusses the Tigers' team-building activities, how the squad proceeded after Michael Sam came out, Sam's NFL potential and more.
The Seattle Seahawks are another example. The Seahawks' culture is vastly different than the Patriots', but it is obviously one that has proved successful. Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have created an atmosphere in which the players regard each other as brothers. It isn't just lip service. They believe in one another. They thrived last season by truly believing it was them against the world.
And it worked.
The Philadelphia Eagles are another possibility. The Eagles withstood the first major crisis of the Chip Kelly era -- Riley Cooper's racial epithet -- because Michael Vick touted the power of second chances and forgiveness. Cooper's remark could have shattered the Eagles' locker room last season, but it didn't.
Last season in Philadelphia was all about the program, the program, the program. With each win, it became easier to believe in what Kelly was preaching. That's why a team that finished 4-12 in Andy Reid's final season was able to win the NFC East one year later. Not everybody was friends with Cooper, but Eagles players knew he could help them win. That's what mattered most.
There are undoubtedly other organizations that would welcome Sam. The New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants -- teams with proven head coaches, veteran quarterbacks and established cultures -- immediately come to mind.
Ultimately, whichever team decides to draft Sam or sign him as an undrafted free agent will do so for one reason: It believes he can help win football games. In the end, nothing else should matter, even if it won't necessarily be easy.
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