INDIANAPOLIS — Progress isn’t permanent, and it’s not guaranteed. It requires vigilance and maintenance. The NFL needs to employ both to ensure that its commitment to diversity doesn’t become the equivalent of an end-of-half Hail Mary — a token play with a low success rate. It’s hard not to notice in the epicenter of draft prospect evaluation that the job prospects for aspiring minority head coaches and general managers have dimmed.
Privately, there is an undercurrent of concern among minorities in NFL circles that forward progress has been stopped. Former Patriots de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who took over the Miami Dolphins, was the only minority coach hired this cycle, which saw a quarter of the league’s 32 teams seeking head coaches. He was hired by the only African-American general manager in the league with true authority over player personnel matters, Chris Grier, the son of former Patriots GM Bobby Grier.
That number looms even more conspicuous when considering five of the eight head coach vacancies were created by the ouster of African-Americans — Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Hue Jackson in Cleveland, Vance Joseph in Denver, Steve Wilks in Arizona, and Todd Bowles of the New York Jets. The lone minority head coach among seven new hires for 2018, Wilks was fired after posting the league’s worst record (3-13). Currently, the list of minority head coaches in the NFL is Flores, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers, and Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers.
“I think the NFL is no different than society. We’re always fighting for equal opportunity to this day,” said Lynn. “I just hope that continues. I think we’re headed in the right direction. I hope it continues to get better. I just want guys to get an opportunity that they deserve. That’s all.”
There is room for both context and concern. The 2018 NFL season began with a record-tying eight minority coaches, and none of the fired minority coaches has ever won a playoff game. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization named for the NFL’s first black head coach that advocates for opportunities for minorities in the coaching and personnel ranks, held its luncheon at the NFL Combine on Thursday. It drew a who’s who of NFL coaches and GMs, eager to recognize each other and the importance of diversity. Patriots coach Bill Belichick won the Alliance’s Game Ball Award, presented to those that have made a difference in leveling the playing field for minorities. He delivered a heartfelt video acceptance speech.
However, it’s not just the lack of hires the last two cycles that triggers dismay, it’s the feeling that the Rooney Rule, which mandates the interviewing of minority candidates, has become a bureaucratic speed bump, followed in practice but violated in spirit.
The NFL acknowledged this in December when it announced a recommitment to the Rooney Rule. Now, a club’s final decision-maker, usually an owner, must stay involved in the process. Teams can’t satisfy the rule with a token in-house candidate interview. They must interview a minority candidate from outside their organization or the career development advisory panel’s list. Commissioner Roger Goodell won’t hesitate to crack down on teams that skirt the rule’s intent.
Some of the stall in progress is attributable to the cyclical and emulatory nature of the NFL. Young, white offensive gurus are all the rage in the league with the success of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay. The Ryan Seacrest of NFL coaches has spawned a legion of imitators. Two of his former proteges got head coaching gigs this offseason, Matt LaFleur (Green Bay) and Zac Taylor (Cincinnati). Kliff Kingsbury, a certified FOM (Friend of McVay) got the Cardinals job, despite being fired by Texas Tech after posting a 35-40 record in six seasons.
Exacerbating the issue is that African-American coaches have been typecast as coaches of certain positions, limiting opportunities to work as a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator, the profile currently in demand. It’s an insidious vestige of the days when African-American quarterbacks faced a pattern of prejudice. (There are few African-American offensive coordinators in the NFL, including Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich, part of a staff assembled by new Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians that has African-American coordinators for offense, defense, and special teams.)
“So we have this kind of cousin of bias that is infecting the coaching personnel. So, we need to overcome that historical obstacle,” said Cyrus Mehri, cofounder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance along with former Cleveland Browns All-Pro and trailblazing personnel executive John Wooten.
In order to do that, the Fritz Pollard Alliance announced a new initiative called The Pipeline to provide more opportunities to develop minority coaches. Mehri called the program a “down payment on the Rooney Rule.” The Alliance is asking each team to provide yearlong opportunities in quality control positions to young minorities interested in coaching. Some teams such as the Detroit Lions, who have former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as their head coach, and the Cardinals already employ such programs.
Improving the pipeline is a noble goal, but there also needs to be a focus on who is doing the hiring and how it’s being done. There is a feeling that the process and the prevailing attitudes in the league, not a paucity of quality coaching candidates, are at the root of the issue. That requires greater scrutiny and self-examination by the teams.
It was notable that Flores helped devise a game plan that held McVay’s Rams without a touchdown in the Super Bowl. The NFL’s It Boy didn’t have an answer for Flores’s scheme.
“Defense wins championships, but the owners have been enamored by quarterback gurus or quarterback whisperers,” said Mehri. “We look at it that a coach is a coach, a coach is a teacher. A head coach is an organizer. The skill set is more than being a quarterback whisperer. That’s some of the soul-searching owners have to do. Are you sure that you’re getting the best if you’re not using an expansive criteria?”
Lynn, who spent one season as an offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and was the team’s interim head coach for a game in 2016, said he would like to see more position coaches considered.
“I don’t think that one year made a big difference for me being a head coach,” said Lynn. “I would like to see more position coaches get opportunities to be head coaches where they don’t have to check the coordinator box because I think we’re missing out on some pretty good head coaches just with that as one of our criteria. Then I think you may see more African-American coaches get more opportunities. And it’s not just African-American coaches, every coach.”
There is also a sense of inequality when it comes to giving coaches second chances. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Atlanta Falcons assistant coach/passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Raheem Morris were hired for head coaching jobs the same year, 2009. McDaniels took over the Broncos and Morris was tabbed as head coach of the Buccaneers.
Morris was 17-31 (.354) in three seasons, including a 10-6 season in 2010. McDaniels was 11-17 (.393) in one-plus season in Denver and went 5-17 after a 6-0 start. McDaniels is regarded as one of the hottest coaching candidates in the league. Morris hasn’t gotten a sniff.
A minority coach would be hard-pressed to survive what McDaniels did last offseason, when he accepted the Indianapolis Colts job, put together a coaching staff, and then left Indy at the altar at the last second. That’s not lost on minorities in the league.
An equal opportunity. That’s all minority coaches and general manager candidates in the NFL want. All the forces in and around the league want that too, but right now the pause button has been hit on progress. That’s not good for anyone in the NFL.
Arians hired African-Americans for offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams.
“The more diverse you can make your coaching staff the better it is because you get different ideas,” said Arians.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.