MOBILE, Ala. – A familiar wave of frustration and confusion washed over several members of the NFL coaching community as this winter’s firing and hiring season passed.
The fraternity within the fraternity – minority coaches themselves – watched as five of the eight head coaches of color were dismissed, with only one (the Patriots’ Brian Flores, expected to be hired by the Dolphins) now set to take a top job.
Many of these coaches struggle to understand why a league consisting primarily of black players continually fails to provide sufficient opportunities for them to advance their careers.
In this copycat league, several teams sought the next Sean McVay – the Rams’ young offensive whiz.
But in hiring Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona), Zac Taylor (expected to be hired in Cincinnati), Matt LaFleur (Green Bay) and Freddie Kitchens (Cleveland), organizations essentially said that head coaches don’t need extensive coordinator experience — or, in Kingsbury’s case, any NFL coaching experience at all. Winning records don’t even matter, but potential and creativity do.
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That dynamic has been frustrating to minority coaches — particularly those on the offensive side — long denied consideration for top jobs.
Opportunity based on potential and creativity is all they’ve ever asked for. But for years, many position coaches have heard that their lack of hands-on work with quarterbacks precludes them from offensive coordinator duties. And without play-calling experience, they’re seldom seen as ideal head coaching candidates. LaFleur, Kitchens and Taylor, however, all have either limited or no history with that responsibility.
This time every year, the NFL descends upon Mobile, Alabama, for the practices leading up to the Senior Bowl. The period of talent evaluation also serves as a reunion of sorts. This week, black coaches and talent evaluators commiserated about the apparent regression of the league’s diversity at the top levels.
The prevailing sentiment among many black assistant coaches and scouts: Yes, NFL owners might have decided to go outside of the box with hires, but minorities remain overlooked and excluded.
In this hiring season, teams spurned an extensive slate of black coaches: former Colts and Lions head man Jim Caldwell, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Atlanta passing game coordinator Raheem Morris, Philadelphia assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley, Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards, Cowboys defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard, former Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and former Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
And only there are only two black offensive coordinators in the league: Bienemy and the Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich.
The biggest problem on this front stems from the mythical thinking that the NFL’s coaching talent pool features few bright offensive-minded minorities at the positional level.
Bieniemy, a former running backs coach, helped direct a high-powered offense featuring Patrick Mahomes. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, meanwhile, has compiled a 21-11 record in two years in Los Angeles despite not serving as an offensive coordinator until 2016, when he took over that title for the Bills (and later served as interim head coach) after an early-season firing.
Other coaches could also defy the stereotype if given the chance.
“I’ve been around way too many great football coaches that aren’t quarterback coaches. I believe they’re very qualified,” Leftwich told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “They’re running back coaches, wide receiver coaches, tight ends coaches. I’ve been around some really, really, really good coaches that helped me along the way. I don’t think it’s particularly has to come from the quarterback coaches. I think coaches are coaches. … Again, all they need is the opportunity.”
The question of when and if remains most pertinent. Multiple coaches who spoke to USA TODAY Sports (many speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of repercussions) believe substantial advancement struggles for men of color remain in the NFL 15 years after the implementation of the Rooney Rule.
A classic yet unfortunate indicator of the problem is Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson.
Johnson, 58, has been a coach for 36 years in college and the NFL. He’s the man who developed 2003 NFL co-MVP Steve McNair and 2006 offensive rookie of the year Vince Young while also coaching a total of six pro Bowl quarterbacks. But while bouncing between jobs overseeing quarterbacks and running backs, he has never held a coordinator position in the league or received serious consideration as a head coach.
“Absolutely, I’d like to be a head coach, “Johnson told USA TODAY Sports. “I think most assistants in the NFL want the opportunity to run a team. … You would love to have the opportunity – and that’s all we’re asking for, is the opportunity. But until then, you do your best, and you try to show you can be a leader of men, because that’s what it’s really about.”
Johnson’s peers agree.
“You can’t sit back and complain about it,” one minority AFC talent evaluator told USA TODAY Sports, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he hadn’t received permission to speak publicly on the topic. “You’ve got to go out and just work and do the best that you can, and with that, maybe an owner will say, ‘Hey, this young man is very sharp,’ and they might bring you in, and that’s all you can ask: to get the opportunity to come in and talk to them, and that’s why you have to be proactive at this time.”
But a change in mindsets among the league’s most powerful men also is necessary.
An encouraging case is in Tampa, where owner Malcolm Glazer has a track record of embracing diversity. New head coach Bruce Arians hired Leftwich as OC, Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator and Armstrong as special teams coordinator, making the Bucs the only team to hire minorities for all three of their top assistant positions.
But that’s too small a sample size. More owners must adapt a truly inclusive mindset. It’s well beyond time for the NFL to scrap these long-held and false notions on what makes a good head coach.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.