Want More Diversity in NFL Management? Root for New Coaches to Fail

New head coaches, from left: Freddie Kitchens, Zac Taylor and Bruce Arians.

Source Composite: Sean Culligan/OZY. Image: Getty

Why you should care

Because racial equity in football is just as fickle as the trends on the field.

In what has become a yearly ritual, eight NFL coaches met the unemployment line the day after the end of the NFL regular season. But this year, Black Monday hit too close to home.

Five of the eight head coaches out of work were Black, leaving only three minority coaches at the start of 2019. (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers are Black; Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers is Puerto Rican.) Brian Flores, who is Black, picked up the Miami Dolphins job. The rest of the openings have gone to white candidates.  

This low point comes 16 years after the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a head coach, and eight years after the league employed a record eight minority head coaches. Critics will point to racist owners or the continuing fallout from the Colin Kaepernick saga as a backdrop to the whitewash. But this is really about the league’s predictable reactionism on the field.

It’s hard to shake the notion that “offensive guru” in the NFL roughly translates to “young white dude.”

The NFL is and always will be a league of mediocre decision-makers peering over the shoulders of a select few brainiacs, hoping to luck into success by replication. This year — thanks mostly to the ripping success of Rams coach Sean McVay, who went to the Super Bowl at age 33 — young, offensive-minded, well-coiffed Caucasians are the coaching candidates du jour. This winter’s hiring cycle may not have been a planned execution of Black coaching contracts, but there’s a deeply rooted racial context at play.

Start with the people doing the hiring. All but two NFL owners (Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan and Buffalo co-owner Kim Pegula) are white. All but one general manager (Miami’s Chris Grier) are white. Four years ago, there were seven Black GMs — tied for the most ever — and as that number has fallen, so too have the coaches. 

 

Since 2014, only eight of the 42 head coaching hires (19 percent) have been minorities. Dig in and you’ll find the side of the ball matters. Of the white coaches, 70 percent (24) have offensive backgrounds, while 63 percent (five) of the Black coaches came up coaching defense. In today’s offense-obsessed NFL — where the four teams playing in the conference championships were the four best offenses — that means GMs and owners are fishing from a whiter talent pool. 

The running joke this offseason has been that a coach’s best chance at landing a head job depends solely on his degrees of separation from Rams boy wonder McVay. Have a cup of coffee once with McVay? You’re at least qualified to be a quarterbacks coach. Intern for the Redskins while McVay was an assistant? How does Bengals head coach sound?

Suddenly more welcoming of risk than ever before, general managers are using McVay as a model to hire young, inexperienced play-callers who use collegiate schemes and relate well to quarterbacks. Still, that doesn’t explain why all eight teams passed over Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a Black man at the helm of the most explosive offense in football, who helped guide the emergence of MVP Patrick Mahomes and worked under one of the league’s best coaches in Andy Reid. The same can be said of offensive coordinator–turned–head coach Jim Caldwell’s inability to land a job this offseason, or of Philadelphia assistant head coach Duce Staley. Were they simply Rooney Rule fillers brought in to meet the quota?

Probably not, but it’s hard to shake the notion that “offensive guru” in the NFL roughly translates to “young white dude.”

“Black quarterbacks have been, historically, the most discriminated against position in football,” says ESPN columnist Clinton Yates. “There’s a clear pipeline from quarterback to offensive coordinator to head coach, with Black kids being steered away from the position. That’s where inequity comes into play.”

This year, five of the six offensive coaches hired as head coaches played quarterback at the college or professional level. Only New York Jets frontman Adam Gase — who never played college football — did not. The flawed pipeline for minority coaches runs deeper than simply blaming the NFL hiring process for bigotry. Yet, bigotry is surely rooted in many personnel decisions at the youth level that can ripple for decades.

To make its head coaches more diverse, football needs more Black quarterbacks and general managers. Or, hey, just wait for half of the new hires to fail by 2022. At that point, defense will be all the rage again, and around and around we go.

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