It’s reached a point where NFL insiders and fans shouldn’t compile lists of capable or even extremely qualified head coaching candidates because chances are they probably won’t get hired.
We have no idea what most NFL teams are thinking when they conduct a coaching search, what goes on in that interview room, how someone like Joe Judge could be a better candidate than Byron Leftwich or Eric Bieniemy. Or why the Lions were swayed by Matt Patricia, or why Adam Gase was employed by any team in the first place.
The coaching hiring process for most NFL teams is a crapshoot, a combination of winning the three-hour interview, looking the part (which has several meanings), and recommendations from friends and colleagues in the business.
Very rarely do teams go outside their comfort zone to make a hire, or they choose the talking head who conducts himself well on television despite a lack of pro experience, i.e. Urban Meyer.
What we do know about the hiring and firing process is that it sometimes doesn’t make sense. Brian Flores inherited a Dolphins team with a history of high expectations and bad decisions. The Dolphins want to be on the level of the Patriots, or Steelers or Packers, but haven’t been truly significant since Don Shula strolled the sideline.
That lack of recent success still doesn’t rein in expectations, and Flores was supposed to bring the franchise back to respectability. It was a longer process than he envisioned, and because the Dolphins didn’t reach the playoffs this season, with a slew of injuries and an uncertain quarterback situation — despite the club trading up to draft Tua Tagovailoa in 2020 over prospects such as Justin Herbert — he was fired.
What’s distressing about the Flores firing is that the expectations for such coaches continue to be higher but the leash shorter for Black coaches over their white counterparts. Jim Caldwell got canned after leading the Lions to consecutive 9-7 seasons — do you know how hard that is to do in Detroit? — and was replaced by Patricia because he was a Bill Belichick disciple. Patricia looked a mess from the outset and was fired after going 13-29-1 in two-plus seasons.
Caldwell is still looking for his next NFL job because the league only appears to feel comfortable with Black retread coaches as coordinators, not head coaches. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season in Pittsburgh, but the question is does that reflect positively on other Black coaching candidates? For most teams, that’s a fast no.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley was a defensive coordinator for one season, considered a wunderkind, and yet doesn’t know when an opponent is trying to hand him a playoff berth. He outsmarts himself by calling a timeout and losing a play-in game. Is this a fireable offense? No. But the perception that Staley is somehow more qualified than let’s say Bieniemy or Leftwich, or Jerry Gray or Teryl Austin, is laughable.
The issue is people in high-ranking NFL circles tabbed Staley, Patricia, and Judge as elite coaching prospects. Someone in the Giants’ front office looked at Judge and said, “You’re the guy to lead our franchise back to the Super Bowl!”
The talent evaluation for coaches at the NFL level is embarrassing. The fact is most coaches hired will be fired within five years rather than lead their teams to the playoffs. The NFL has to reevaluate how it assesses coaches, executives have to get out of their comfort zone and hire someone who doesn’t look like them over a low-level coordinator who happens to get a recommendation from an elite coach (See: Judge and Belichick).
There are now two Black head coaches in the NFL, Tomlin, who led probably one of the worst teams of his tenure to the playoffs in Pittsburgh, and David Culley, a 66-year-old who was given the Texans job, perhaps the NFL franchise with the most issues. Franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson asked for a trade and then was bombarded with sexual assault charges that are pending.
Culley won four games with third-round pick Davis Mills as his starting quarterback, ex-Patriot Rex Burkhead as his leading rusher (427 yards), and journeyman Brandin Cooks as his leading receiver. It’s not a good situation, but Culley was so desperate for his first head coaching opportunity that he understandably accepted it.
Flores led the Dolphins to a 9-8 season that included two victories over the Patriots. The detractor was a seven-game losing streak that hurt any playoff chances. But the Dolphins are a better franchise than when he arrived, and that’s without a surefire quarterback and a reliable running back. The Dolphins win with a steady defense and a sparkling rookie wide receiver, Jaylen Waddle. The franchise appears to be rising if the organizational dysfunction — no franchise quarterback since Dan Marino, and six coaches in 11 years — doesn’t curtail the ascension.
The hope is Flores gets another opportunity because he appears to be a capable coach. The hope is NFL teams actually look outside the box and outside their comfort zone for coaching candidates. The hope is that Black coaches such as Bieniemy, Leftwich, Caldwell, Austin, and Jerod Mayo get the opportunities to lead teams because they are qualified.
What we do know is the formula that most of these NFL teams, led by mostly white owners, are following isn’t working. Coaches such as Judge, Patricia, and Gase have become more successful memes than head coaches. Meanwhile, the chances are some if not all of the aforementioned Black candidates will be passed over for one of the seven head coaching openings and we’ll be talking about this again next year, when the next crew of onetime coaching wunderkinds are fired.