During a break at the annual NFL Scouting Combine in February, an impromptu discussion about the NFL's hiring practices broke out among a half-dozen African-American assistant coaches. The men had run into each other on an upper concourse in Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis, where they lamented how minorities were passed over for head-coaching jobs for the second consecutive year, part of a pattern that had become routine in their eyes in the last two years.
Miami's Brian Flores was the only person of color to fill one of the eight vacancies this offseason, just as Steve Wilks in Arizona was the only minority to step into one of seven openings last offseason. Equally troubling to them was that Wilks was fired by the Cardinals after only one season, while Vance Joseph was dismissed in Denver after just two seasons. Wilks' record was 3-13, and Joseph's was 11-21. But neither had a franchise quarterback in place, and Wilks was known to be at a disadvantage because he could not assemble his desired coaching staff after being one of the last hires in that year's cycle.
"Come on, man," one of the assistants said in Indy. "That ain't right."
The frustration in their voices was as chilling as the near-freezing temperature outside. Their emotions ping-ponged from incredulity to disappointment to anger. They wondered how two of them could fail to be considered for a head-coaching interview despite possessing a wealth of experience (including a decade-plus playing in the NFL and another decade working as assistant coaches, plus experience in the Super Bowl as a player or coach) while Kliff Kingsbury, who had never coached for one day in the NFL and had just been fired after going 35-40 at Texas Tech, could be hired by the Cardinals, and Zac Taylor, who had spent only one season as quarterbacks coach for the Rams and had no full-time experience as a coordinator, could get the Bengals job.
Kingsbury and Taylor, who are white, were lauded by their new teams for their creative offensive minds and ties to the quarterback position, attributes that are en vogue these days due to the enhanced enforcement of some rules and the liberalization of others. Those changes have opened up the passing game and increased scoring, making quarterback development and play-calling central to success in the NFL, thus leading many owners to seek head coaches whose backgrounds are in those areas. That's an issue for coaches of color, because currently there are only two black offensive coordinators and four minority QB coaches in the league.
Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake knows the numbers as well as anyone. He tries not to be discouraged, but it's difficult. A former NFL wideout who spent 21 years as a college assistant (he worked with quarterbacks, defensive backs and receivers), he has been a wideouts coach in the league since 2004. Now 62, he knows his window to become a head coach has closed, but he doesn't want the same thing to happen to younger minorities, including those he spoke to that February afternoon inside Circle Centre Mall. He pledged at that time to speak out on their behalf.
"If we don't speak out, then we're running down that same railroad track, and that track is rusty," he said months later. "There are so many qualified minority coaches, which is why the reaction among them is not good. A lot of guys felt slighted in this last hiring cycle; a lot of guys do not know which road to take to get their names in a position to where they can have those opportunities; a lot of guys felt like certain individuals that should have had opportunities to get a job did not get a job."
'We took a step backward'
In March, the Arizona Biltmore was bursting with color as team owners arrived for the NFL's Annual League Meeting. The grass was deep green, the hedges were shades of yellow, and the petunias popped in purples and pinks. It was like a box of crayons, which made the yearly group photos of the league's head coaches and general managers so jarring.
The pictures were as monochromatic as the landscaping was diverse, with just four minorities among the 32 head coaches, matching the league low for the previous 16 years, and only one person of color among the 28 general managers. The meeting offered a chance for the league to reflect on how far it has come over the last 100 years, but it also was a reminder of how far it still has to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion in decision-making positions.
"We don't have to see the numbers to know we took a step backward in the last hiring cycle -- and that has nothing to do with anyone who was hired," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It's just the fact that, man, look at the pictures."
"The visual images were striking," added one general manager.
The league didn't hire its first black head coach of the modern era until 1989, when the Raiders' Al Davis promoted Art Shell. And Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome didn't become the first black general manager until November 2002. The dearth of minorities in those key positions was such an issue that in 2003, the league adopted the Rooney Rule, which required clubs to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a head coach.
It was an attempt to slow the process and get more diverse candidates in front of owners. And while incremental improvements followed, with the number of minority head coaches (not counting interim coaches) reaching an all-time high of eight on three occasions (in 2011, 2017 and 2018), only two of the 15 openings the past two seasons were filled by people of color, and the four currently in place -- Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Rivera with the Carolina Panthers, Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers and Flores with the Dolphins -- represent a tie for the fewest since the year after the Rooney Rule was adopted.
The situation is even more striking among general managers or people with decision-making authority over personnel. These individuals typically have ownership's ear when hiring a head coach, and currently, Chris Grier of Miami is the only person of color in that role. That's the lowest number since Newsome broke the GM color barrier 17 years ago.
"That certainly makes us go back and give a lot of thought to things we can do to make that not the case," said Katie Blackburn, chair of the league's diversity committee. Blackburn is also executive vice president of the Bengals and the daughter of Bengals president Mike Brown. "I mean, there have been a lot of really good minority or diverse GMs. Why they aren't still in that position doesn't necessarily mean ..."
She paused, then continued: "There are a lot of things that end up happening at teams. It's hard. You're not going to win the Super Bowl every year. You start to feel a lot of pressure. Coaches change, so the dynamics can change. There are a lot of things that go into it. But there has been Rick Smith (with the Texans), Rod Graves (with the Cardinals), Jerry Reese (with the Giants), Reggie McKenzie (with the Raiders) -- there have been a number of [minorities] who have done well and, I think, have been highly respected in those positions. As we go through time, I do think there will continue to be another group, and if the numbers aren't as strong as we want, we absolutely will be looking at that and making sure there isn't something else we should be doing to improve that."
Russell Okung, left tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers, said the number of minorities in head-coaching or GM roles does have an impact on minority members of NFL locker rooms. "Players take notice any time somebody with shared experiences moves into a position of authority or is delegated any sort of power," Okung said last month. "The reason that that's important is because we intrinsically are of the same color or have the same background, and it's just another example to show you what's possible in the NFL. That person is not only a representation from an ethnicity standpoint, but of a community from which you come, as well."
Okung explained that when he made the somewhat-unique decision to represent himself in free agency, "the three people who understood exactly why I was doing it was Jim Caldwell, Anthony Lynn and Mike Tomlin (head coaches who happen to be black). They understood just how important it was for a young African-American man to do something for himself, to take ownership of his life. They understood that. Of all the trips and conversations and phone calls that I was on, nobody really brought anything up as far as why I did it beyond those three guys."
The Rooney Rule has its supporters and critics. Graves, the former Cardinals GM and senior vice president of football administration for the league and now executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which fights for equality in the hiring of NFL coaches and front-office members, is an advocate. At the same time, he acknowledges the rule is not perfect, contending there have been times when it has been violated in practice and spirit.
Some owners agree with him. One, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "Like with anything, there is a common-sense test. It doesn't pass the common-sense test when ESPN knows that ('Monday Night Football' analyst) Jon Gruden is leaving, and everyone else knows that Jon Gruden is leaving, but Jon Gruden doesn't know that Jon Gruden is leaving to join the Raiders, that's a problem."
The implication is that the interview process for Gruden's hiring by the Raiders in 2018 was more performative than anything. The league office ruled last January that there was no wrongdoing after investigating whether the Raiders had conducted sham interviews to get around the rule. However, in December, the NFL took steps to strengthen the rule by requiring that teams interview at least one minority candidate from outside their organization or from a league-approved list. Previously, clubs could ensure they were in compliance simply by interviewing a person of color already on staff, despite knowing the person did not yet have the qualifications to be a head coach and was not a credible option.
"Those (who) have concerns about the ownership side of the equation are right," Graves said last month. "Owners have to take the question of diversity seriously. They have to embrace it. The consensus has to be that owners will make this part of their business plan, and that they will because it's good for the game, it's good for business (and) it's good for our fans."
'There is a responsibility in the league to kind of figure this out'
If recent history tells us anything, it's that there will be at least six coaching changes at the end of the 2019 season. That's the average turnover rate per year since 2000, which is stunning, considering there are only 32 teams. Because teams' hiring practices are likely to receive even greater scrutiny at that time, NFL.com reached out to owners, league executives, team officials, personnel people and coaches -- active and retired, white and non-white, young and old -- for potential solutions that would level the field.
The suggestions included things like:
-- Get more minority coaches in the pipeline on the offensive side of the ball.
-- Create informal gatherings where owners can spend time with potential candidates before a job comes open.
-- Prohibit interviews to fill a vacancy until after the conference championship games.
-- Create a school or academy to train aspiring general managers on the different demands of the job.
Tony Dungy has heard the suggestions before. He believes they are fine, in and of themselves. But he also believes the focus must broaden. The retired Hall of Fame coach, who became the first African-American to win a Super Bowl as a head coach in 2006 with the Colts, contends there are plenty of qualified minorities to be head coaches. What's lacking is the demand for them by owners.
"I feel like we're always looking at, What can these minority candidates do to make themselves better? And you always have to look at that, and guys are doing that," Dungy said by phone in June. "But that's where the frustration comes in on so many of their parts. What I hear is: 'Hey, I've done this, I've done that. I've been at this a long time, and Kliff Kingsbury can't win at Texas Tech, and he gets this job. What more can I do?' That's where we have to always be aware of the other side. Yeah, guys are needing to do what they can do. But there is a responsibility in the league to kind of figure this out."
By league, Dungy means owners in particular.
"The biggest problem is, people making decisions, many times, don't know what they're looking for or how to find it," he said. "Then it becomes a matter of, 'If I go with what's popular, or what everybody else says is good, at least I'll feel good about it and people won't be able to second-guess me.' Then it becomes easy to stay with what's trendy, because there are enough good, trendy candidates that you'll never run out. But that doesn't always allow you to find the diamonds in the rough. ... My suggestion would be to have all these owners take a class in how to hire people, and just talk about the basics. The late Dan Rooney (the former Steelers chairman, after whom the Rooney Rule is named) would have been ideal to teach the course, but unfortunately, he's not with us anymore. But that's the biggest problem: Guys don't know what they want, so they have to stay with what's popular or trendy."
'All we're asking for is a fair process'
The current trend of hiring coaches with offensive backgrounds began after the 2015 season, when the conference finals included each of the top three scoring teams that year. The year before that, owners seemed to favor head coaches with defensive backgrounds, with six of the seven vacancies in the 2015 hiring cycle being filled from that side of the ball. But the next year, after Carolina, Arizona and New England -- the highest-scoring teams during the regular season -- advanced to their respective championship games, owners turned an eye toward offensive hires, resulting in 21 of the last 28 vacancies being filled by someone with that background.
No one has influenced the trend more than Sean McVay. In 2017, he took over a Rams team that had gone 13 straight years without a winning record and guided it to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, including a spot in last season's Super Bowl. At the time he was hired, McVay was 30 years old and had just three years as an offensive coordinator in Washington under his belt. Now, many teams are looking for the Next McVay, and anyone within six degrees of separation of the offensive wunderkind seems to be an immediate candidate for advancement.
For instance, Matt LaFleur worked with McVay when both were assistants in Washington (from 2010 through '13), served as McVay's offensive coordinator in 2017, got the Titans' offensive coordinator job the following year and this offseason was named Green Bay's head coach. Zac Taylor worked as an assistant under McVay for two years, serving as the QB coach in 2018, and now is the Bengals' head coach.
"In the mid-1990s, I was a young offensive coach, and I received sound advice that I had a better chance of ascending on the defensive side of the ball, so I became a defensive coach," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in March. "If offensive coaches are in vogue in this hiring cycle, and guys in my age group, particularly those of color, have been advised in that (same) way, then obviously there might be a void of offensive coaching talent."
Or perhaps teams simply don't know where to look for that talent. It's one of the reasons Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, joined with the Black College Football Hall of Fame to hold a Quarterback Coaching Summit in June in Atlanta. The two-day symposium brought together several dozen minority coaches with offensive backgrounds to network and strategize on how to climb the vocational ladder.
Among the attendees were both offensive coordinators from last season's College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Tony Elliott of Clemson and Michael Locksley of Alabama (Locksley is now the head coach at Maryland). Each oversaw a unit that featured a highly touted quarterback prospect (Trevor Lawrence at Clemson and Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama), and Elliott also was co-coordinator when Deshaun Watson, the Texans' rising star, led the Tigers to the national title. Yet, neither coach received a sniff from NFL franchises this offseason. If teams are serious about finding the best and most creative offensive minds, wouldn't one or both of them deserve an interview? If two white coordinators had been leading those units, would they have at least been interviewed?
"God damn it, we know this game," Vincent said to the audience at the Quarterback Coaching Summit. "We can coach it and we can teach it. All we're asking for is a fair process."
In the meantime, here are three broad ideas for making the hiring process more equitable, based on steps identified by sources from across the league:
1) Identify traits of a good head coach, then stand behind the hire.
According to NFL Research, 113 head coaches have been fired since the start of the 2000 season. Of those, 60 were fired after three seasons or fewer, 32 after two seasons or fewer and 11 after one year. That means 53 percent never reached a fourth season, confirmation that it's difficult to find the right person. But how much of that is due to owners not having a clear vision of which traits they value in a coach?
"I've probably been approached four or five times to help people with their search, and my first question to them is always: 'What do you want (in a coach)?' " Dungy said. "They typically say: 'I don't know. Tell me who's a good coach.' And then I'll ask again, 'What do you want? Do you want a defensive coach, an offensive coach, a young guy, an old guy? Do you want a leader, someone who's old-school?' And they'll say, 'Just give me somebody good. Just give me somebody who can win.' "
The lack of specificity is not shocking, considering many owners did not grow up inside the game and, hence, might lack an understanding of the nuances and characteristics that make the NFL different from their outside companies.
"They can hire the right business people for their company, because that's what they do for a living, and they have a very good idea of what's necessary to be successful," one general manager said. "But how much do they actually know about the football world? Do they know what it's like to go scout on the road? Do they see these guys in meetings every day? Do they know what a coach does every day? They have a global understanding, but they're not educated enough on the ways of the NFL. Most of these owners are fans, so them hiring a head coach is like me going to Google and trying to hire a chief engineer for a new search engine. How the hell am I qualified to do that?"
Being a head coach is about so much more than whether you've worked on offense and have experience with quarterbacks. Jerry Reese, who was general manager of the Giants when they won their last two Super Bowls, said at the Quarterback Coaching Summit that 10 percent of a head coach's job is actually coaching. The rest involves things like handling roster and personnel matters, dealing with the media and ownership, arranging schedules and approving daily meal plans. A successful coach often must be a good manager of people, not just games. Being able to communicate and connect with players is also important.
When the Vikings were looking for a head coach five years ago, general manager Rick Spielman was not predisposed to finding someone on offense. He wanted the best fit for the team, so he interviewed 46 of the players and asked which traits and qualities they wanted in a coach. Don't think offense or defense or special teams, he told them. Just think of traits the team needs in a leader.
"All I wanted was the traits, because that would give us a pretty good indication of the type of leader our players were looking for, which was one of the driving forces behind us hiring [Mike Zimmer]," Spielman said recently, speaking of the longtime defensive coordinator. "They gave me three or four different things, the most notable being someone who was going to hold them accountable -- not only for what they did on the field, but for what they did off of it. Our approach was to try to match up what our team needed with the type of players we had in our locker room."
The Chargers took a similar approach in 2017, when they hired longtime running backs coach Anthony Lynn to replace Mike McCoy. Management believed there was a disconnect between McCoy and the players, so they set out to find someone whose authentic voice would resonate with the players. They did not worry about offense or defense, nor did they concern themselves with winning the press conference by hiring a hot name, as frequently happens. They knew what they were looking for and went after him. There was no need for a search firm or consultant.
"It's ludicrous (to use search firms)," Dungy said. "What do they know about what you're trying to create or what you want? But in 18 months, if the team is struggling, the owner can take the attitude of, The search firm recommended him, so I have no skin in the game, so to speak. I can move on and hire someone else. Instead of just saying, I know what I want, and I'm going to find that person. I'm going to do the research, and when I find him, I'm going to back him to the hilt, because my stamp is on this, too."
2) Create opportunities for owners to meet and get comfortable with prospective candidates before there's an opening.
Owners repeatedly talk about a lack of diversity in the pipeline, but minorities who aspire to be a head coach or a general manager feel there is an even bigger impediment to having an equal shot at those jobs: an owner's lack of comfort with the minority sitting on the other side of the table.
"People of color often have different upbringings from whites and different things they consider the norm," said one such aspiring candidate, who has had firsthand experience with the hiring process, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "And it's not that you don't like the other person or can't get along with them, but you naturally, instinctually gravitate toward someone else. I'm sure 99 percent of the owners will say, 'I'm an equal-opportunity person.' Well, then, let's talk objectively about the content of the interviews. Do you feel that people of color are not giving you the same information and organization and planning, the same kind of articulation in their presentation that you're comfortable with and whites are giving you? Because there are plenty of us out here. If you're saying it's not something instinctive or cultural or comfort level hindering you, then what is it?"
Blackburn said comfort level is not contributing to the recent downward trend in minority hires.
"I think everyone in that room has been successful in one way or another; they've done a lot of things with a lot of different people," she said of owners. "I don't really see there being an issue myself. I think these people are going to pick people who they think will do a good job for them and their teams. I just don't see lack of comfort being a real issue."
Though she was speaking in her capacity as chair of the league's diversity committee, she does have direct experience with the hiring process. As a front-office executive with the Bengals, she was involved in the search for someone to replace Marvin Lewis, who compiled a 0-7 postseason record in 16 years as Bengals head coach. A number of candidates interviewed with Cincinnati -- including Hue Jackson, Eric Bieniemy and Vance Joseph, who are African-American -- with the team ultimately settling on Taylor.
For their part, minority candidates believe that if there was more diversity in decision-making positions, there would be greater balance. For instance, the NFL has no African-American owners, no black club presidents and only one general manager of color. Is it a coincidence that the only minority brought in to fill one of the eight coaching openings this year was hired by the league's only black general manager? That in no way is meant to say Grier chose Flores based on race; he did so, he has said, because Flores was the best candidate for their job. Period.
And yet, when asked what needs to happen to level the playing field, six minorities seeking to be general managers answered in a similar fashion.
"Can we get some minority owners/presidents?" said one.
The GM position is a key factor in the coaching equation, because that person often selects the coach and presents him to the owner for final approval. Each year, the league's Career Development Advisory Panel puts together a list of top candidates for the position, regardless of race. That list is then distributed to hiring clubs, the implied message being that there should be someone for everyone. However, 12 of the last 16 GM hires were not on the list in the year that they were hired, and a person of color has not been hired from the list into a decision-making position in at least six years.
The promotion rate is just as specious when it comes to coaches. In three of the last six hiring cycles, fewer than half of the coaches were on the CDAP list, including this offseason, when Flores was the only person among the nine names to get a job.
Some believe familiarity could help, which is why they suggest more interaction between owners and assistants who've been identified as head-coaching material should take place. Perhaps the Annual League Meeting would work, although the schedule has become more condensed of late, with owners seemingly getting out of town earlier each year. Doing it on the local level also presents problems, because, unlike two decades ago, more owners live in cities other than where their teams are located. So they're not in the building on a daily basis.
3) Expand the pipeline.
This is the common narrative from team and league executives when discussing the racial imbalance among head coaches. There simply aren't enough minorities who are quarterbacks coaches or offensive coordinators. But that explanation fell flat at June's Quarterback Coaching Summit, where some three dozen minorities with offensive backgrounds gathered.
Last season, Eric Bieniemy coordinated a Chiefs offense that ranked No. 1 in scoring and yards and saw QB Patrick Mahomes win league MVP in his first season as a starter. In addition to interviewing with the Bengals, Bieniemy interviewed for openings with the Bucs, Jets and Dolphins, but he was passed over in each case. That raised eyebrows, because in each of the previous two offseasons, two of his predecessors were hired as head coaches: Doug Pederson with the Eagles and Matt Nagy with the Bears.
Some have speculated that Bieniemy was passed over because Pederson and Nagy are former quarterbacks who also tutored the position, while Bieniemy is a former running back who coached that position exclusively until becoming coordinator last year. Bieniemy smiles when he hears this.
"Here's the thing," he said at the Quarterback Coaching Summit. "When you're coaching, you've got to know it all. I pride myself on knowing all the positions. Everyone wanted to call me a running back coach. No, I'm a ball coach. I coach football. I'm a football coach. At the end of the day, I've got to know the pass game, I've got to know the run game, I've got to understand defenses, I've got to understand coverages. You've got to know it inside and out. Every year, I challenge myself to learn something new. I did that in Minnesota. I did that as a young assistant at the collegiate level. Not only would I listen to what I was being told, as far as what are the running backs' responsibilities, but I would listen to: What is the offensive line doing? What are the tight ends doing? What are the receivers doing? What's the quarterback's drop? What is he reading? You train yourself over a period of time. I work with the quarterback. I spend valuable time in that room."
There is no bitterness in his voice. He says he was blessed for the opportunity to sit with teams and learn from the experience. He believes he will get the chance to be a head coach, because he will work and do what's necessary to make it happen. But he also knows the decision is out of his hands. As Bucs coach Bruce Arians said last year: "It all comes down to those 32 people writing the checks."
Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.