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Future of black NFL coaches a concern after round of firings

2018 season ends with five African-American coaches out of jobs

A troubling year for diversity in the NFL ended on an awful note for the league Monday.

Four African-Americans — Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, Todd Bowles of the New York Jets, Vance Joseph of the Denver Broncos and Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals — were among eight head coaches ousted in the annual purge that occurs the day after the regular season ends. Lewis, Bowles, Joseph and Wilks joined former Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson, who was fired in October. That’s five black head coaches let go in one season. And Wilks only got one — one — season in what the organization acknowledged was a rebuilding year. Good luck proving you’ve got the coaching chops when you’re essentially working on an egg timer.

With the dismissals, the NFL now has only three minority head coaches, including two who are black: Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers. Ron Rivera leads the Carolina Panthers. When the season kicked off, the NFL had eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 and 2017 as the most the league has had in any season, including seven African-Americans. The news from the front office is even worse.

At the conclusion of the 2016 season, the NFL had seven black general managers. In early December, the Oakland Raiders fired Reggie McKenzie, the 2016 NFL Executive of the Year. Once Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens steps down, as long planned, from his position at the end of the playoffs, Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins will be the NFL’s lone African-American general manager. League officials insist they are committed to diversity. Well, the state of diversity in the NFL can best be described as abysmal.

The person who leads the group that oversees compliance of the Rooney Rule, which states that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manager openings, expressed concern for the sacked coaches.

“You dislike anyone to be fired because of what it does to families. It really knocks you back, and so forth,” John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said on the phone. “But you also understand that there are certain realities about this game, and the No. 1 reality is coaches have to win. We just have to make sure we’re showcasing people of color and giving them opportunities, which we do through the Rooney Rule.”

Acknowledging that the Rooney Rule — named after the late Dan Rooney, former Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — needed to be bolstered after being in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the league recently made an addendum to it following questions surrounding the Oakland Raiders rehiring of head coach Jon Gruden.

Teams are now required to interview a minority candidate from outside their organizations or candidates from a league-approved list. Additionally, clubs must maintain complete records of their hiring processes and forward them to the commissioner’s office upon request. If the person who has the final say in picking a coach is involved in the beginning of the process, that person must be involved through the conclusion of the process. If clubs fail to comply or seek to evade procedures outlined in the rule, the NFL’s workplace diversity committee has endorsed enforcing accountability measures.

So who could be on deck on the interview circuit?

Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards, Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard, New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, Philadelphia Eagles assistant head coach Duce Staley and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are among the highly regarded black assistants who are expected to be considered for head-coaching positions during this cycle.

In his first season with Dallas, Richard, formerly the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, has earned strong reviews for his wide-ranging contributions to the Cowboys’ defense, which finished fifth against the run, sixth in scoring and seventh in yards per game.

With five years as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator, Edwards has the type of experience some owners seek. He inherited a group that was 31st in total defense in 2013. The Vikings finished atop the rankings in 2017 and fourth this season. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer calls the defensive plays, but Edwards is heavily involved in devising and installing weekly game plans. In Philadelphia, Staley has a well-deserved reputation for working well with players. Although Chiefs head coach Andy Reid calls the plays on offense, Bieniemy has been credited with helping second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes become a superstar. Flores, whom the Green Bay Packers reportedly plan to interview, is the Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator. He’s in his first season as the team’s primary defensive playcaller.

Former head coach Jim Caldwell, who led the Indianapolis Colts to Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, has reportedly already drawn interest from the Packers. The bench is deep, Wooten said.

“Look at the job [Richard] has done for the Cowboys. Look at how long George [Edwards] has been doing a great job with Minnesota. Brian Flores with the Patriots. There are so many guys who can do the job that I’m not going to remember everyone’s name right now,” Wooten said. “But they’re out there proving it.”

Wooten hopes the increased emphasis on the rule entering this hiring cycle will prompt teams to interview more qualified candidates of color. There are definitely plenty of openings to fill.

In NFL history, no African-American head coach had been on the job longer than Lewis of the Bengals, who led the team for 16 seasons. Lewis outlasted Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. He spent more days on sidelines than Super Bowl winner Tomlin. Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati included a 131-122-3 record, a .518 winning percentage and seven playoff appearances. Unfortunately for Lewis, his Bengals teams suffered seven consecutive playoff losses and were outscored 176-90 in the postseason.

It’s important to note, however, that Lewis took control of a hot mess.

Before Lewis joined the franchise, Cincinnati had the worst season in its history, finishing 2-14 and being outscored by 177 points. Before Lewis guided the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005, they had a 14-season playoff drought. In a span of 11 seasons (2005-15), Lewis won the AFC North four times. The Bengals, who have been playing since 1968, have 10 division titles total.

And Lewis, the Associated Press 2009 NFL Coach of the Year, pushed the once-lowly Bengals to a higher level while working for team owner Mike Brown. By NFL standards, Brown ran a threadbare operation for decades, which showed on the field.

In New York, Bowles failed to recapture the magic of his first season in 2015, when the Jets finished 10-6. Although the Jets missed the playoffs that year, it marked their first winning record in five seasons. Bowles subsequently finished 26-41 (.388) with three consecutive losing seasons.

Joseph’s fall occurred in two seasons with the Broncos. He got off to a good start after taking over a team two seasons removed from a Super Bowl title. Under Joseph, the Broncos won their first two games — then lost eight straight and 10 of 12 to close the 2017 season. Joseph had records of 5-11 and 6-10, respectively, for a .344 winning percentage.

Out in Arizona, Wilks’ one season, admittedly, was awful. The Cardinals (3-13) finished with the league’s worst record, were last in offense and ranked 20th in total defense. It’s still somewhat stunning, however, that Wilks was fired and Arizona general manager Steve Keim remains on the job. Keim put together the Cardinals’ roster, such as it is, and the team suspended him for five weeks and fined him $200,000 after he pleaded guilty to extreme DUI in July.

Of course, fairness is not part of this process. Wilks is the latest African-American coach who could attest to that.