Sleeping your way to the top   

Updated: January 21, 2009, 11:31 AM ET

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Without wishing the man or his family any ill, I can't say I'm sorry to see Jon Gruden absent from an NFL payroll for a few weeks. I need the sleep.

Back when he was a young, fast-rising star, Mr. Gruden was famously taken up by the sporting press as a can't-miss model for the NFL's new, postmodern coach: a sleek, sleepless, digital workaholic engineered for the go-go age of the Internet bubble.

Jon Gruden

Doug Benc/Getty Images

Jon Gruden was the poster boy for self-assured, sleep-deprived excellence.

Like whistles, clipboards and heart attacks, working late had always been a foundational truth of the old-timey football coach, a Hollywood cliché with an analog crew cut breaking down X's and O's on his blackboard the night before the Big Game, chain-smoking Luckies and eating cold lo mein out of cardboard cartons.

But by the late '90s, it was sexy for professional football to think of itself as a calculus so complex that only a coach who could remain awake around the clock for an entire season would ever succeed in it, or even understand it. Unspoken was the implication that Paul Brown or Vince Lombardi or those other inspirational types in their loden coats and fedoras from the game's Ice Age couldn't have kept up.

This new age of complication needed a poster boy, and the boyish Mr. Gruden fit the bill. The national press loved the idea of a coach who rarely slept, rarely went home and was wired to the game 24/7/365. It loved, too, how well his story dovetailed with the larger cultural moment of profitable insomnia down on Wall Street and out in Silicon Valley.

His self-assured, sleep-deprived excellence became an indictment of our own drowsy mediocrity. Even the title of Gruden's book -- "Do You Love Football?! Winning with Heart, Passion & Not Much Sleep" -- played on the new hotness, which said that to snooze was to lose.

There was something a little smug in all this, of course, something of a rebuke to those of us who wasted six or eight hours a night only dreaming. Life had become much too complicated for that, we were told, and the real achievers, the moneymakers and the wild-eyed Masters of the Universe, were gaming up their playbooks and their credit derivatives and their 200-gig disposable widgets while the rest of us merely drooled and farted and snored.

A lot of things -- many of them the opposite of excellent -- have come and gone in this country since the heady days of Pets.com and the Gruden Bowl. Maybe a simple night's sleep is more necessary for an honest day's work than we all thought. Because it turns out that swagger and constant wakeful ambition alone aren't enough to guarantee, or even bend toward, actual success. Especially without a franchise quarterback. Just as it turns out that much of what was done in the dark on Wall Street couldn't stand up to the sour light of day a decade later, it turns out, too, that the effortful, self-promotional appearance of excellence isn't excellence itself.

Thus it turns out that our greatest failures sometimes lie in the stories we tell ourselves about what it takes to succeed.

The good news is that history always hands us another chance to change those stories. In the span of just a few days this week, we've been given several.

Looking back, for example, I'll suggest that Captain Chesley Sullenberger was pretty well-rested when he got behind the yoke of Flight 1549 last Thursday. Studies have long shown lack of sleep to be a baseline safety risk in every field, a root cause of deadly human error. I'm betting an old-school fighter jock/airline pilot who also founded a company called Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. knows this. I'll assert, then, that Sully takes his sleep seriously, and furthermore that he thinks folks who confuse being awake with being indispensable are chumps.

What some of us find so remarkable in the story of last week's water landing in the Hudson is more than just the cool efficiency and expertise of the flight crew. It's more than the notion of their genuine heroism. It's the absolute absence of brag or swagger in their story so far. Part of what we find uplifting is the simple inspiration of their modesty.

We can also admire the inspiration of simplicity. What an old-fashioned ace like Sully can teach us all -- including that next generation of young studs coaching in the Adapt-or-Die NFL -- is that sometimes the most complex problems yield only to the simplest solutions. Practice. Plan. Practice. Execute. Then embrace things as they are, rather than as you hoped for them to be. Ground attack not working? Confront reality. Plane won't make it to Charlotte? Change your strategy to suit your circumstance. Because in a complicated world a flexible pragmatism, not a rigid ideology, is what succeeds. Bluster, self-regard and sleepless hope alone won't get you there.

Looking ahead, that's the other story we can tell ourselves this week, as we seat a new man behind the controls of another great machine with an uncertain flight path. Because with all due respect to Jim Schwartz and his challenges in Detroit, Barack Obama now undertakes the toughest job in the world. And does so on behalf of us all.

This, then, is an apt moment for us all to remember that even with the most complicated playbook on the planet, winning is never guaranteed. If you can't inspire your players to greatness and sacrifice in service of it, you're lost.

So practice. Plan. Adapt. And be sure to get your rest, Mr. President.

We'll all sleep better.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him here.


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