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Vance Joseph wants another shot at NFL head-coaching gig

But will Arizona’s new defensive coordinator get a second chance after Denver fired him last season?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — New Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has no interest in relitigating the Denver Broncos’ decision to fire him after only two seasons. Joseph has moved on.

Then again, he gets the interest in the topic.

With the dearth of minority representation at the highest coaching ranks of the NFL (the league has only four head coaches of color), any change is significant in an African American league whose on-field workforce is nearly 70% black. And while commissioner Roger Goodell continues to acknowledge the NFL has a problem on this front and must do better, Joseph’s situation illustrates that the things are still trending the wrong way with no clear path toward improvement in sight.

“It’s just the culture of the NFL right now,” Joseph said after practice at the Cardinals’ headquarters recently. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy about that [being fired after only 32 games on the job]. And it’s true that some situations [to succeed as a head coach] are better than others, but you have to win.

“No matter what job you take, you have to win early now. That’s a very big part of it. Everyone goes into it with their eyes open about that. So when we look at the numbers [of minorities currently leading teams] and whatever may happen in the future, you have to understand that’s just the way it is.”

The pressure to win immediately, at least in part, also resulted in Steve Wilks being sacked in Arizona after a 3-13 season — his first occupying a head coach’s office (Wilks is now the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator). When the 2018 season began, the league had eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 and 2017 as the most it has had in any season.

Joseph, Wilks and Todd Bowles, formerly of the New York Jets, were among the head coaches fired at the end of last season (Bowles quickly resurfaced as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator). Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals, meanwhile, mutually agreed to part ways in December with a year remaining on his contract. And Browns head coach Hue Jackson was ousted during the 2018 regular season.

Currently, Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers are the league’s only head coaches of color. The NFL has 32 teams.

To some longtime observers of the league’s efforts to increase inclusive hiring among head coaches, the firings of Joseph and Wilks were particularly unsettling.

During Joseph’s two seasons leading the Broncos, they started four quarterbacks — none of whom was, to put it kindly, a top-notch passer — and went 11-21. In a league in which having an elite signal-caller is the key to success, it’s hard to win much if you don’t have one.

Then there’s Arizona.

The Cardinals ousted Wilks despite being in the midst of their latest rebuild, which continues this season under Wilks’ successor, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The fact that the Cardinals fired Wilks and hired Kingsbury, who had no previous NFL experience, was also a crushing blow for minority assistant coaches, several coaches said. In six seasons at Texas Tech, his alma mater, Kingsbury went 35-40, never won more than eight games in a season and never had a team ranked in the final polls.

There’s no sugarcoating it: The optics are bad.

Rod Graves, who was hired in April as the new executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which assists the league in its goal of improving diversity in management, understands that winning is the bottom line. However, he said, owners who say they’re committed to diversity must prove it through their actions.

“It’s important for owners to … they have to embrace it,” said Graves, formerly the NFL’s senior vice president of football administration and club services and Arizona’s general manager from 2003 to 2012.

“Owners have to take the question of diversity seriously. The consensus has to be that owners will make this [improved inclusive hiring] 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.”

The Rooney Rule, in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, states that an NFL team must interview at least one candidate of color for those jobs. There’s no doubt that the rule — named after Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — has had a positive overall impact on the NFL’s culture, but it recently became clear that the rule needed to be modified.

Last December, the league required that teams interview a minority candidate from outside their organizations or candidates from a league-approved list. The potential for sham interviews has always been the rule’s underlying flaw. Teams could comply with the letter of the rule by merely interviewing a coach of color regardless of whether the candidate had the credentials to be considered, in earnest, for a head-coaching position. With more uniformity to the process because of the rule change, the expectation is that teams will interview in-house candidates who have the credentials to warrant serious consideration.

Graves also hopes that experienced minority coaches such as Joseph and Wilks will get more than one bite at the apple.

“For coaches of color and front-office executives of color, we have not seen repeat opportunities as often as we would like,” Graves said. “It’s a major issue.”

Joseph was a rising rock star when Denver general manager John Elway tapped the then-Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator to lead the Broncos. Likewise, Kingsbury identified Joseph as the right person to be his top lieutenant.

“I knew I wanted a guy I could lean on [and say], ‘You’re taking this defense, handle it, do your thing,’ ” said Kingsbury, who received rave reviews from other coaches about Joseph’s leadership skills. “And he’s been awesome for me, just to bounce ideas off of.

“I’ve got so many questions that a first-year head coach would have. And to have a guy who was just in that seat [and to be able to ask him], what would he have done differently, ‘What did you do that you liked?’ All those questions have been phenomenal for me.”

Joseph, too, has embraced his role.

“It’s flattering he trusts me with his defense. Obviously, though, he’s the head coach and I run everything by him,” Joseph said. “But he gives me the authority to coach the defense, and that’s on and off the field. That works for us. So far, it’s a perfect marriage.”

Although the Cardinals (2-3-1) are in last place in the NFC West, rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, has been a bright spot for a franchise that last qualified for the postseason in 2015 and has made the playoffs just six times since the 1976 season. Opponents are averaging 28.5 points against the rebuilding Cardinals, the fourth-highest total in the league, but Joseph’s overall impact on the team is evident in ways not measured by stats alone.

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals (left) hugs then-head coach Vance Joseph (right) in 2018.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

“Coach Joseph … you just respect him as a man,” 11-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “You always admire him for what he’s done on the football field, and from the times you’ve talked to him.

“But getting to know him over the last few months, you just have that much more respect for him. That’s because you get to hear about his stories, where he started, the places he’s been and the guys that he’s coached. He’s the type of guy who his players are going to play really hard for him.”

Although Joseph is squarely focused on helping to turn around the Cardinals, he’d welcome another opportunity to prove he’s capable of running an entire operation successfully. Call it unfinished business.

“I really appreciate John [Elway] and the Bowlen family [the Broncos’ owners] for giving me a chance to be their head coach for two years. I have no bitterness at all,” Joseph said. “Hopefully, if I hang in there and do the right things, I’ll get my chance again. Having a chance to do it the first time, your second time is only going to be better.”

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