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Sunday Football Notes

Is NFL’s Rooney Rule getting the job done?

The NFL only has four current minority head coaches — Marvin Lewis (above), Lovie Smith (hired last week by Tampa Bay), Mike Tomlin, and Ron Rivera.AP/File

Former Patriots assistant and Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien was arguably the hottest name on the coaching market this offseason, and the Texans snapped him up last week before another team could.

The second-hottest candidate, arguably, is Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He had an interview Friday with the Browns, and the Vikings and Lions have also shown interest.

But whether Bowles has a legitimate chance at landing one of the five remaining vacancies around the NFL (Mike Munchak was fired by the Titans Saturday) is up for debate. Bowles, 50, is an African-American, and can help teams satisfy the Rooney Rule, which since 2003 has required teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a head coach.


Bowles, a former eight-year defensive back and an NFL secondary coach since 2000, certainly had a great year in his first as a defensive coordinator, helping the Cardinals finish No. 1 in run defense, No. 6 in total defense, and No. 7 in points allowed.

But are teams genuinely interested in interviewing him for a head coaching job? He previously interviewed for vacant head coaching positions in Detroit (2009), Denver (2009), St. Louis (2009), Miami (2012), and Oakland (2012), and didn’t land any of the jobs. Is he being given a legitimate chance now? And is the Rooney Rule, which in 2009 was expanded to include senior front-office positions, being taken seriously by teams?

The NFL only has four current minority head coaches — Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith (hired last week by Tampa Bay), Mike Tomlin, and Ron Rivera. The Vikings recently fired Leslie Frazier, who is African-American. In addition to Bowles and Smith, Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell also is a candidate for openings in Detroit and Minnesota.

But of the eight head coaching vacancies last year, none went to a minority.


“We have a good sense as to whether some of the interviews by owners and GMs are legitimate interviews, or interviews to satisfy the Rooney Rule,” said former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps promote diversity in the NFL and helped create the Rooney Rule. “I think we’re getting good cooperation from clubs. Last year we were disappointed, and I think the commissioner [Roger Goodell] and Mr. [Dan] Rooney were disappointed with the lack of minorities being hired with positions. Hopefully, this year will be different.”

The idea that teams are giving sham interviews to minority candidates just to fulfill the Rooney requirement is nothing new — Dennis Green famously turned down an interview with the Raiders in 2007 when he felt it was a sham.

Carson said that minority candidates can still use the interviews as a learning experience even if getting the job is a long shot.

“You can look at it as a token interview, but he has to look at it as an opportunity to strengthen whatever his interview skills might be lacking,” Carson said. “The same thing happened to Leslie Frazier several years ago. He was the hot minority candidate doing a lot of interviews and it was not happening. He interviewed with Bill Parcells in Miami. I called Bill, I asked him about the interview, and he’d given critical feedback to the situation with Leslie. Then finally, Minnesota hired him as head coach.”


Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said last week that the coaching hires last year had nothing to do with race, and “everything to do with their football backgrounds.”

The most frequent path to becoming a head coach, Angelo pointed out, is to evolve from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator.

“Teams want to hire head coaches who know offense, and most of the African-American coaches who are coordinators are on the defensive side of the ball,” Angelo said. “Except for [Jaguars coach] Gus Bradley, all the other seven head coaching positions were filled with offensive-minded coaches. Why does that practice go on? Because running an offense is the toughest task a coach has to do.”

The NFL currently has eight African-American defensive coordinators, but only three African-American offensive coordinators — Indianapolis’s Pep Hamilton, Arizona’s Harold Goodwin (who doesn’t call the plays), and Caldwell.

And the league currently has just two minority offensive line coaches — Cleveland’s George Warhop (who may be fired soon) and Goodwin.

“Offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches are usually tied at the hip,” Angelo said. “These are the positions where minority coaches have to start matriculating into. Once this happens, there will be no more need for the Rooney Rule.”

Carson and the Fritz Pollard Alliance believe the Rooney Rule needs to be expanded to include coordinators and assistant head coach titles.

“We are very much aware of that situation that most head coaches now are offensive-minded,” Carson said. “If you can get a good defensive-minded coach like a Lovie Smith, if that coach can bring along with him a very good offensive coordinator, that also works very well. But obviously you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have that offensive experience as a coordinator.”


Carson said he recognizes that the Rooney Rule can only do so much, but he believes it has at least helped drive awareness toward the lack of diversity in head coaching and coordinator ranks, and provided opportunities to coaches such as Bowles and Tomlin, who wasn’t initially the favorite to land the Steelers’ job.

“I think it’s still effective. You can’t really mandate to an owner what he should do,” Carson said. “The Rooney Rule is not perfect, but I think it’s going to help level the playing field to a certain degree. We’re still trying to tweak it in such a way that everybody will be able to live with it.”

“Quite frankly, we wish that we didn’t have to have the Rooney Rule. But something, some mechanism, needs to be put in place to give some people an opportunity.”


Belichick offers thoughts on PATs

Bill Belichick joked on Wednesday that he’s “not here to solve the world’s problems,” but he had a fascinating diatribe about the importance of the kicking game and how the extra point needs to be significantly altered or eliminated.

Kickers were 1,256 for 1,261 on extra points this season (99.6 percent).

Belichick didn’t offer any suggestions for improving or replacing the PAT, but said, “I would be in favor of not seeing it be an over 99 percent conversion rate.”


“It’s virtually automatic. That’s just not the way the extra point was put into the game,” he said. “It was an extra point that you actually had to execute, and it was executed by players who were not specialists, they were position players. It was a lot harder for them to do. The Gino Cappellettis of the world and so forth, and they were very good. I don’t think that’s really a very exciting play because it’s so automatic.”

Belichick, who coached special teams in several of his early stints in the 1970s and ’80s, also decried the prevalence of touchbacks on kickoffs. The NFL moved the kickoff line from the 30 to the 35 to increase touchbacks as a player safety measure — the league felt too many injuries occurred on kickoffs, in which players often reach top speeds when racing down the field — and this season 50.6 percent of the 2,586 kickoffs went for touchbacks.

“I don’t know how much excitement there is for the fans in a touchback,” Belichick said. “I personally would love to see those plays be the impact plays that they’ve been. As you mentioned, where would last year’s Super Bowl have been without the 108-yard kickoff return. The play that that added to the game was a spectacular play. I mean, forget about who you’re rooting for, but just as a fan of the game, it was a spectacular play in the game that I think all fans — unless you’re a 49er fan, but you know — that all fans objectively love to see those plays as part of the game.”

We agree wholeheartedly about adjusting the extra point, whether it’s moving the kick back to, say, the 20-yard line, moving the line of scrimmage up to the 1-yard line to encourage teams to go for 2 points more often, or simply awarding 7 points for a touchdown, with the option to go for 2 for a total of 8 if successful or 6 if unsuccessful.

As for the kickoff rules, we agree that it can be one of the more exciting plays in the game. But seeing Kevin Everett and Eric LeGrand suffer life-altering spinal injuries on kickoff plays is enough to convince us that player safety is more important than exciting kickoff returns.


For most part, they behaved quite well

Not only were the Patriots ranked in the top 10 in points scored and points allowed this year, but they didn’t hurt themselves much, either.

The Patriots finished the regular season tied with the Dolphins for the second-fewest penalties in the league (69, or 4.3 per game) and third in penalty yards (625). The Colts had the fewest penalties (66) and penalty yards (576). The Patriots’ opponents were called for 110 penalties for 951 yards, and their 326 net penalty yards were the second-most in the NFL, again behind Indianapolis (414).

On offense, the Patriots’ 37 penalties were fifth fewest, and their 32 defensive penalties were fewest in the league. Overall, they had the third-fewest presnap penalties in the league (22), and were not called for a horse collar, illegal motion, or illegal substitution.

Aqib Talib led the team with eight penalties (four holding, two pass interference, one illegal use of hands, and one unnecessary roughness), while Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole were flagged three times each.

On the line, Logan Mankins and Marcus Cannon each had six penalties, with Mankins busted three times for holding and Cannon four times for false starts.

Among the most impressive performances: Chandler Jones (illegal use of hands), Rob Ninkovich (pass interference), Dont’a Hightower (facemask), Devin McCourty (holding), and Logan Ryan (pass interference) were each called for just one penalty all season.

The NFL’s worst offenders this year: Seattle (121 penalties), Tampa Bay (120), Denver (117), Oakland (116), Baltimore and Houston (112 each).

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the league with 12 penalties committed, followed by Jets guard Willie Colon and Falcons offensive tackle Lamar Holmes with 11 each. Interestingly, Giants quarterback Eli Manning committed a whopping 10 penalties this season — five for intentional grounding, four delay of game, and one false start (yes, a false start on the quarterback).

Near blackouts are tough to see

The NFL almost had an embarrassing situation on its hands this weekend as three of the four teams hosting playoff games (Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Green Bay) needed 24-hour extensions and a boost from local businesses just to sell all of their tickets and avoid a television blackout in the home market.

The Colts narrowly avoided a blackout when supermarket chain Meijer agreed to buy the remaining 1,200 tickets and donate them to military families. Kroger, another supermarket chain, did the same with about 3,500 tickets in Cincinnati.

The Packers announced a sellout at 12:30 p.m. Friday after Associated Bank and several Wisconsin businesses, including several TV stations, purchased the remaining tickets.

That even the mighty Packers, who have sold out every regular-season game since 1960 and have a season-ticket waiting list of 105,000, couldn’t sell all of their tickets shows how outdated and unfair the NFL’s blackout policies are.

It would have been a nightmare for the NFL to black out the game in Wisconsin when people are feeling the pinch from the holiday season, and temperatures are expected to dip to minus-19 in Green Bay on Sunday.

As for why the Colts couldn’t sell out their game? Well, the NFL has made the television viewing experience too good, and the cost of attending a game too pricey and inconvenient.

Either costs need to come down — tickets, parking, concessions, souvenirs — or the blackout rule needs to be eliminated.

They’ve got it covered

A few interesting Vegas-related tidbits about Sunday’s games from our buddy RJ Bell of pregame.com:

■  The Bengals, 7-point favorites at home against the Chargers, are 8-0 against the spread at home this season, only the fifth NFL team in 25 years to accomplish such a feat. The Bengals are also 16-2 against the spread at home in their last 18 games, but coach Marvin Lewis has never won, nor covered, a playoff game.

■  The 49ers are 3-point favorites at Green Bay and have covered the spread in seven straight road games. In the last 35 years, there have only been 18 first-round home underdogs, and they are 13-5 against the spread.

Loading up the Bus

Mississippi-based agent Bus Cook, most notable for representing Brett Favre throughout his career, had a pretty good day on Thursday. He finalized a seven-year, $126 million contract extension for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and signed as a client South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, widely regarded as the top pass rusher in this year’s draft, a lock for the top five, and the potential No. 1 overall pick.

On Cutler’s contract, the more important number is $54 million guaranteed over the first three years (he would likely be released or have his contract restructured after the 2016 season). The three-year payout is in line with other top quarterbacks, trailing Matt Ryan ($63 million), Aaron Rodgers ($62.5 million), Joe Flacco ($62 million), Drew Brees ($61 million), Peyton Manning ($58 million), and Tony Romo ($55 million).

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.