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Talking Point: Does culture beat talent?

Jamal Adams and the Baltimore Ravens think so

NFL: Baltimore Ravens-Training Camp Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

“Culture beats talent.”

Those three words are direct, yet have so many layers to them. Culture beats talent. Former Jets and newest Seahawks’ DB Jamal Adams thinks so.

Let this article serve as the spark to a thought, conversation or debate with one question. Does culture beat talent? To answer it, lets think about each one.

Talent: we know what talent is. Consistently making impact plays on the field that show skill and prowess far above expectation. Talent often (but not always) commands attention, particularly media coverage. Some stay humble. Others do not. Talent takes over games.

Culture: culture is not as simple to define, but in football, can be defined as such — strong culture is when a franchise continues to win over time despite turnover from players, coaches and front office executives. Culture is a living, breathing and tangible energy that is within a team’s clubhouse. One that can be toxic, such as a locker room that doesn’t take practice and film study seriously. That energy can also be confident, making all players and coaches feel comfortable and believing in their talent not just as individuals, but as a collective.

There is no empirical data to chart and analyze in order to determine or measure culture. It’s a feeling. The kind of feeling that ones grandparents induce with a recipe that. . . just works. It’s stood the test of time. It might be, “a pinch of this, a touch of that.”

It could also have exact instructions based upon previous experiences. The same way, culture must be established. A winning culture. That is the goal in the NFL. Consistently winning despite turnover in various departments of the franchise is the goal of every owner.

Ed Reed has an anecdotal story about the Ravens during their Super Bowl run.

Reed professes, “it’s the little things.” That attention to detail is also part of what culture can be. An NFL locker room can be some mixture of fraternity and workplace. Brothers and coworkers. The balance is delicate at first, then sturdy over time.

The Ravens are known for their culture being strong. Steve Smith Sr. gravitated to Baltimore after a bumpy end to his long tenure with the Carolina Panthers. The future Hall of Fame wide receiver didn’t meet with any other teams before opting to sign with Baltimore.

That’s what Newsome wanted. He looked Smith in the eye and told him Baltimore searched for certain kinds of players, those who exuded toughness and ran toward expectations. Players like Smith. (The Ravens, in fact, had tried to trade for him in previous seasons.)

“Steve likes to express himself,” Newsome says, “and we felt we could provide an environment where Steve could be Steve.”

“Steve could be Steve” doesn’t mean he didn’t have to buy in. It also doesn’t mean Steve could miss meetings and practices he’s supposed to attend.

GM Eric DeCosta and the Ravens leadership council weighed in that culture most certainly beats talent. That mindset was put on display when the Ravens quietly fined Earl Thomas multiple times, then released him, despite the fact that he played well last season and was arguably the most avoided defender in coverage by opposing passers last season. That didn’t matter, because Thomas skipped team meetings and walkthroughs, weighing more importance in “getting his car washed” than being in meetings.

It's yet to be seen how large a hole the Ravens are left financially and in terms of production on the field as a result of cutting ties with Thomas. The decision to part ways seems to subscribe to the mentality of the old phrase, “one rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.”

What about one good apple, though? That good apple is Calais Campbell, the Ravens saving grace from an offseason that saw Marshal Yanda retire and Earl Thomas gone. Campbell appears to be the antithesis of Thomas. He’s a vocal veteran leader, the Walter Payton Man of the Year, a mentor to younger players and well liked in the Ravens locker room. Campbell fits the culture and the culture fits him. Campbell is an example of strong culture at its best and talent. It works that way. Strong culture attracts and breeds talent while weak culture diminishes and loses talent.

Take a look at the Jacksonville Jaguars, who once trotted out a defense consisting of Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Jalen Ramsey, Telvin Smith, A.J. Bouye, Tashaun Gibson, Dante Fowler, Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and more talented players. Where are they now?

In the end, I will leave you with this — talent wins games, culture wins championships.