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Will Black coaches get fair shot at recent NFL openings?

Black candidates should have assurance that a level playing field exists in the NFL and that they’re not simply a box being checked

Raheem Morris is the right man for the Atlanta Falcons. For now.

If he wants to have a real shot at being a “candidate” for the full-time head-coaching position, according to team owner Arthur Blank, he’ll have to go undefeated over the final 11 games.

So now we know what the NFL’s idea of an equal playing field is, or so it would seem.

In the aftermath of the Falcons firing former head coach Dan Quinn and longtime general manager Thomas Dimitroff following an 0-5 start, the front office says it’s on a mission to find “a great leader” and “a difference-maker” for its roster.

“I know we made the right choice with Raheem,” Blank said confidently of Morris, who has previous NFL head-coaching experience and has coached both offensive and defensive players.

But after delivering unequivocal praise for his interim guy, and insisting the Falcons will cast a wide and diverse net for coaching candidates, Blank showcased the warped double standard that has long vexed Black candidates looking to move up the NFL ranks. Asked if Morris will get a “true opportunity” to be considered for the full-time job after this season, Blank said: “Absolutely. If Raheem ends up 11-0, he’s going to be certainly a candidate.”

Even Falcons CEO Rich McKay, who also was on Monday’s video call, couldn’t help but laugh at the comment.

The words might have been said completely in jest. Or, perhaps Blank really has no intention of entrusting a former Quinn assistant to remold the Falcons’ winning culture. But there’s nothing funny about the shifting goalposts, the unattainable standards and ever-changing criteria that are used to weed out prospective candidates during NFL hiring cycles. The same man who gave Quinn a pass and a vote of confidence for 3½ years after an inexcusable Super Bowl LI collapse, would only say Morris could be a real head-coaching candidate if he wins 11 straight games — an altogether improbable feat.

To be Black in NFL coaching and front-office circles means to often feel pressure to be perfect or, at the very least, twice as good as your white counterparts.

And herein lies the problem in the NFL: hypocrisy.

Race shouldn’t be the reason you hire someone. But the evaluation process should include the same criteria for all prospective job seekers. And the same standards, expectations and patience level should be shown to head-coaching and personnel hires across the board.

After an offseason in which the NFL trumpeted the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and vocally expressed a commitment to leveling the playing field for Black coaching and front-office candidates, we’ll soon see if NFL owners — the people actually making the decisions — are just as devoted to diversity in their own buildings.

After the 2019 and 2020 hiring cycles yielded only one Black (Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores) and one Latino (Washington’s Ron Rivera) head coach, the league approved changes to the Rooney Rule that stipulate NFL teams are now required to interview at least two external minority candidates for head-coaching openings and at least one minority candidate for any coordinator job. Teams must now also interview one external minority candidate for senior football operations and general manager jobs, while teams and the league office must include minorities and/or female applicants for senior-level positions, including club president jobs.

The league can implement all of the initiatives it wants to improve its diversity hiring practices. But unless NFL owners can 1) acknowledge their own myopia, 2) commit to altering their approach to organizational hires and 3) widen their talent search beyond who they know and friends of friends, the NFL lip service won’t yield substantive change on the color front.

The league shouldn’t have to force teams to interview or hire a Black coach or executive. But Black candidates should also have assurance that a level playing field does exist in the NFL and that they’re not simply a box being checked.

Days after the Houston Texans fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien, the Falcons parted ways with Dimitroff and Quinn. As a result, there are currently four vacancies — and there could be a few more if the New York Jets and Detroit Lions part ways with their disappointing head coaches this season. But will the newly implemented Rooney Rule force noticeable changes in how teams conduct business behind the scenes? Few Black coaches and personnel executives believe so. And they’re justified.

In recent years, we’ve seen owners turn a blind eye to glaring underachievement (See: Matt Patricia), blatant roster mismanagement (See: O’Brien), misguided personnel moves (See: O’Brien, again) and the undeniable regression of franchise quarterbacks and entire offenses (See: Adam Gase). Yet, the same benefit of the doubt and patience is rarely afforded to Black coaches (See: Steve Wilks, who was fired after one year because the Arizona Cardinals wanted to hire Kliff Kingsbury).

We’ve seen white coaches such as Kingsbury and Matt Rhule make the jump from the college ranks to the pros because organizations are willing to take a gamble on a coach who’s deemed fresh, new and innovative. Yet Black college offensive playcallers and head coaches such as Tony Elliott (Clemson’s offensive coordinator) and Michael Locksley (the former Alabama offensive coordinator who became Maryland’s head coach in December 2018) have yet to field calls for interviews.

We’ve seen white coaches who had no previous head-coaching experience (See: Matt LaFleur) or even coordinator experience (See: Zac Taylor) get hired for NFL head-coaching jobs.

We’ve seen white coaches such as Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy advance to the head-coaching ranks without previous playcaller experience, and Sean McVay be heralded as an offensive savant despite having fewer than 10 years of coaching experience in college and the NFL combined. Yet teams such as the Jets and Cleveland Browns believed Eric Bieniemy — the current offensive coordinator for the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs — didn’t have enough experience as a playcaller to be successful as their head coach.

The Jets, instead, hired Gase last year. The Browns? They hired Freddie Kitchens … and then fired him at the end of the season.

We’ve seen the same white candidates get mentioned year after year for head-coaching and general manager vacancies (See: Josh McDaniels, Nick Caserio, Trent Kirchner, Scott Fitterer, George Paton and John DeFilippo). And every offseason, there is a white offensive college coach who’s rumored to join the NFL ranks (See: Kingsbury, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and now Clemson’s Dabo Swinney).

We’ve seen established Black coaches, such as Jim Caldwell, jettisoned for an unproven commodity. And, in Detroit, the returns on Patricia — a 10-25-1 record — have been beyond disappointing.

We’ve also seen that experienced Black coaches and executives rarely get second chances to prove themselves after they’ve been fired, despite past success (See: Leslie Frazier, Reggie McKenzie and Jerry Reese).

And, in the case of the Falcons, it appears Morris will have to win more games as an interim head coach than Quinn did in each of the past three seasons.

(In case you’re wondering: No team has reached the playoffs after starting 0-5. Since the merger, the 101 teams that started 0-5 have an average finish of 4-12, according to ESPN Stats & Information.)

McKay, a member of the NFL competition committee, said Atlanta intends to “exceed” the new Rooney Rule stipulations, adding: “We hope there is some intentionality this year by teams in the interviewing process and there certainly will be on our part.”

Blank then offered this: “We’ll certainly create a level playing field, as best we can.”

But it shouldn’t be difficult to create a level playing field if the objective is to create a level playing field. How can any team profess it’s doing its due diligence to find the best candidates when the powers that be are unaware of the vast Black talent pool that already exists?

There’s no reason Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Cleveland), Marvin Allen (Miami), Morocco Brown (Indianapolis), Ran Carthon (San Francisco), Martin Mayhew (San Francisco), Terry Fontenot (New Orleans), Khai Harley (New Orleans), Quentin Harris (Arizona), Brandon Hunt (Pittsburgh), Dwayne Joseph (Las Vegas), Champ Kelly (Chicago), Will McClay (Dallas), Ryan Poles (Kansas City) and Louis Riddick (former personnel executive-turned ESPN analyst) shouldn’t already be on owners’ lists for front-office vacancies.

There’s no reason Teryl Austin, Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, Caldwell, George Edwards, Elliott, James Franklin, Frazier, Chris Horton, Locksley, Pep Hamilton, Byron Leftwich, Marvin Lewis, Kris Richard, Robert Saleh, David Shaw and Duce Staley shouldn’t already be on owners’ lists for prospective coaching opportunities.

There’s no reason current general managers and head coaches can’t take a page from Bruce Arians’ book and actively — and purposefully — highlight the coaches and executives of color who are good at what they do and advocate for their advancement publicly and behind closed doors.

Some Black candidates will end up turning down interview requests from teams this offseason. And some wish list candidates of color may not be available for some of the wayward franchises who will need resurrecting by season’s end. But nevertheless, organizations have an opportunity to change the hiring trend by expanding their view of the talent pool.

There are several deserving Black candidates hidden in plain sight.

And if NFL teams still can’t seem to find them, it’s because they don’t want to look.

Kimberley A. Martin covers the NFL for ESPN.