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Vance Joseph and Anthony Lynn to share historic moment for NFL black coaches

Monday night will mark the first time black coaches have debuted with their NFL teams in the same game

ENGLEWOOD, Colorado – When head coaches Vance Joseph of the Denver Broncos and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers – the first African-Americans to hold those teams’ positions – face each other Monday night, they’ll also share in a groundbreaking moment.

The AFC West rivals’ season opener will mark the first time that two black coaches have made their regular-season debuts with their NFL teams during the same game. And it’s fitting that the longtime friends will start out against each other. On consecutive days in January, diversity in the league’s coaching ranks increased as the Broncos and Chargers, respectively, hired their new leaders, who will match wits at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

For Joseph and Lynn, it figures to be the first of many encounters in their new roles. Now divisional foes, the coaches will lead their teams against each other at least twice a season. Talk about testing a friendship. Joseph and Lynn go way back. They were briefly teammates in Denver, and for years have been part of a close-knit cadre of black assistant coaches. Listen to them even briefly, and their mutual admiration is clear.

“Anthony, man, I’ve known him for a long time,” Joseph said recently in his office at the Broncos’ facility. “He’s in his first year and I’m in my first year – but only as head coaches. We’re not new to coaching. We’ve been doing this for a while. We’ll get started here soon and play them again. It’ll be fun.”

Lynn figures he knows what to expect from Joseph, who will have the Broncos ready to play “smart football with a good defense and balanced attack.”

On paper, Joseph and Anthony have vastly different teams.

Only two seasons removed from winning the 2015 Super Bowl, Denver is loaded on defense, led by edge-rushing star Von Miller. Although the Broncos’ consecutive run of postseason appearances ended at five seasons in 2016, they again have the look of a playoff contender. Any first-time head coach would welcome being in Joseph’s strong position. And he knows it, too.

“We have a good team,” Joseph said.

Lynn’s squad doesn’t appear to be as strong. Last season, the 5-11 Chargers finished last in the AFC West. Now, they’ll try to rebound while also dealing with their move from San Diego to Los Angeles. Uprooting an entire organization, and the logistical issues that arise from moving, can have an adverse effect on a team’s on-field performance. At the very least, the Chargers’ transition this season figures to be bumpy. But Lynn isn’t the type to embrace excuses.

Lynn’s meteoric rise with the Buffalo Bills in 2016 – because of multiple staff shake-ups, he was promoted twice during the season – culminated with his stint as the interim head coach after Rex Ryan was fired with one game to play. Lynn is accustomed to overcoming obstacles, not succumbing to them, Buffalo All-Pro outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said.

“It was only one week,” Alexander said, “but you could definitely see the qualities that you would want in a head coach.”

If not for the Rooney Rule, Joseph and Lynn might not be head coaches. The rule – named after Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and one-time head of the league’s diversity committee – mandates that teams must interview at least one minority candidate in searches for head coaches, general managers and equivalent front-office positions. Although there are problems with the Rooney Rule, it has helped improve the hiring culture throughout a workplace where most players are African-American. This season, the NFL will have eight head coaches of color – matching 2011 as the most it has had in any season – including seven of whom are African-American.

Even in 2017, the NFL’s African-American head coaches still feel a sense of responsibility to succeed more than for purely personal reasons, because “if I do a good job, it won’t be an issue in the future for the Broncos to hire the next black head coach. That’s important to me,” Joseph said. “I take this responsibility very seriously. It means something to me.”

John Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager, wasn’t seeking a black head coach. Elway just wanted the right head coach. He wound up getting both.

“To me, V.J. happens to be black. But to me, it doesn’t matter,” the Hall of Famer said. “Having been in this game for so long, I don’t see color. Here’s my deal: I want to get the best football coaches to give those kids [in the locker room] the best opportunity to be the best they can be and win championships. Having been there, and the experience that I’ve got, that’s what’s so important. I’m able to draw from what I liked about my favorite coaches. That’s what matters to me about V.J.”

For black assistants striving to sit in the head coach’s chair, what matters most is that Joseph and Lynn are getting their shot. Tennessee Titans secondary coach Steve Jackson, who knows both men well, we’ll be watching his friends on television Monday night.

“These are guys, and I say this with total respect, who are just regular, hardworking guys,” Jackson said. “For them to get these opportunities, yeah, you better believe there are a lot of guys just like me who are encouraged about that.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.