With the NFL’s Houston Texans, Black coaches have had no chance
The franchise firing David Culley and Lovie Smith in consecutive seasons shows Black coaches should welcome its offers at their own peril
Black NFL coaches who aspire to reach the top of their field should beware of Houston Texans officials bearing gifts.
Clearly, it could be a trap.
Because if the Texans aren’t systematically attempting to set back the league’s Black coaches, they’re sure doing a great job of acting like it. One could deduce nothing less after the Texans on Sunday fired head coach Lovie Smith following his only season as the franchise’s top coach – the second Black head coach they’ve sacked in his first year in as many seasons.
Briefly, Smith held the top rung on the club’s coaching staff after the Texans formerly embraced David Culley for a New York Minute. In Houston, Black head coaches have about as much of a chance of enjoying longevity as any secondary Black character in a war movie: From the opening scene, it’s clear who’s going down first.
The Texans cut ties with Smith after the team completed a 3-13-1 season, which landed them the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Reportedly, in an effort to plead for a second season to lead this dumpster fire of a franchise, Smith met recently with team chairman and CEO Cal McNair, presenting his case for staying the course.
Smith fared as well with that one as Culley did.
After inheriting a weak roster constructed by Texans general manager Nick Caserio, Culley went 4-13, which was predictable. In the NFL, if a team lacks a franchise quarterback and talent dispersed throughout each position group, postgame locker room celebrations are often few and far between. With the tools Caserio provided to Culley, Bill Belichick couldn’t have made the X’s and O’s work.
It was just as bad for Smith.
For starters, Caserio, who in two years as Houston’s GM has proven he’s about as skilled in that position as Kevin McCarthy is at counting votes, remains in charge of the team’s football operation. Under Caserio’s leadership, the Texans are 6-26-1. And he still has his job? OK.
Look, from the moment both Culley and Smith were hired, it was clear that the McNair family viewed them, essentially, as a middle school principal would substitute teachers: they’re short-timers. But it’s just downright unfair to fire two head coaches after giving each only one season to establish their programs.
Just ask Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks, another Black man who barely had time to finish a cup of coffee while occupying a head coach’s office with a multiyear contract.
For years, Wilks rose steadily through the league’s ranks. In 2017, while formerly serving as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, he emerged as a top coaching candidate. The next year while at the Cardinals’ helm, Wilks went 3-13 and was terminated.
Clearly, the Cardinals fared poorly under Wilks. There’s no credible argument to offer in opposition to that characterization. The same goes for Culley and Smith during their short stints with the Texans.
The problem is, one season isn’t enough time for a coach to implement his vision and establish the culture he wants, especially when things are unsettled at quarterback – the most important position in the sport. In the NFL, trying to win without a top QB is like trying to drive a car that has no gas. Good luck getting anywhere.
When one reflects on what happened to Wilks, Culley and Smith, the phrase “they did them dirty” comes to mind.
Of course, when it comes to Black coaches in the NFL, that’s common refrain among Black NFL employees.
Now that Smith has been taken off the field, the NFL has only two Black head coaches: Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This always bears repeating: The NFL has 32 teams, and players who identify as either Black or African American account for 57.5% of NFL rosters. That number has been as high 70%.
Steelers assistant coach Brian Flores, Wilks and another coach have filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. They allege that professional sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices. The numbers indicate something isn’t adding up.
In the previous 37 openings for NFL head coaches, only five Black men were hired to fill positions. During the league’s most recent hiring cycle, white coaches were chosen for seven of the nine openings (Bowles’ promotion in Tampa Bay from defensive coordinator to head coach occurred after the cycle was believed to have been completed).
Representation matters. And in the NFL’s head coaching ranks, it’s just not there.
The NFL knows it, too. That’s why, in a wide-ranging effort to address its inclusive hiring crisis, the league this season implemented the first hiring mandate in its history. The commissioner’s office required all 32 teams to hire a minority offensive assistant coach for the 2022-23 season.
Generally, assistants on offense – and especially those who work closely with quarterbacks – are the most sought-after candidates to fill openings for head coaches. The hope, high-ranking NFL officials say, is that fellows in the program will continue to climb the coaching ladder and, eventually, enter the hiring pipeline for top-rung positions as NFL offensive coordinators and head coaches.
All of that is great in theory. But it does nothing to change the numbers on the ground today or in the foreseeable future.
On a positive note, for Culley and Smith, at least they’re getting paid: Both signed four-year contracts with the team.
But Black coaches don’t want to be paid to sit at home. They want the same opportunities their white counterparts receive to compete and prove their worth. Compared with their white counterparts, Black NFL coaches receive few opportunities to lead teams. That’s why many believe they can’t reject any head coaching job offer, regardless of how bad it appears on paper.
Despite the obvious risks, Culley and Smith opened their doors to the Texans. At this point, however, the overwhelming evidence suggests that any other Black coach who welcomes an offer from the franchise would do so at one’s own peril. That’s the same thing the Trojans learned the hard way with the Greeks.