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This fresh blast of diversity focus from the NFL reminds me of the draft.
Give it three years, then judge the merits.
The past three hiring cycles for NFL head coaches have surely signaled distress. Of 20 job openings over three years, just three were filled by minorities in a league where more than 70% of the players are African-Americans.
What a sorry message: You can run, catch, throw and tackle, but we’re not feeling your ability to lead and strategize.
Too often, seemingly qualified minority candidates have been bypassed for coaches with much lighter hue and resumes. And the pattern for GMs and other high-level positions is just as disturbing. That’s why this Groundhog Day discussion still persists in NFL101.
The NFL this week expanded the Rooney Rule to increase the number of minority head coach candidates required to be interviewed. Team owners voted to remove a barrier that prevented some assistant coaches from pursuing coordinator jobs elsewhere. And the league will keep brainstorming after tabling the controversial resolution that proposes to incentivize making minority hires by providing better draft positioning.
“Our work is not done,” Commissioner Roger Goodell declared during a media conference call on Tuesday that followed a virtual NFL owners meeting.
Goodell insisted that just because the draft currency measure wasn’t voted on doesn’t mean it didn’t have enough support, with 24 owners needing to approve it. He maintained that the proposal spurred more ideas about how to deal with the sticky issue.
As Troy Vincent, the NFL executive for operations put it, “We got people’s attention.”
Including mine. Here’s four suggestions for NFL owners and other power-brokers to chew on:
• Scrap the idea of draft pick incentives. I loved how Tony Dungy, a walking moral compass for the NFL, put it in plain English. “I’ve never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing,” Dungy, the Hall of Famer who was the first African-American coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl crown, told Pro Football Talk.
Besides, if, say, Eric Bieniemy or Leslie Frazier land a head coaching job, or if Martin Mayhew or Reggie McKenzie get another crack at a GM slot in the next hiring cycle under an “incentive plan,” think of the unfair stigma that might be stamped on their foreheads and how that might affect the respect they would be due in new positions. Then consider the extra advantage that better draft currency might create in a league that prides itself on competitive balance.
I like the aggressive spirit of this proposal. It feels like a reversal of the “Black Tax” that minorities can feel subjected to because of bigotry. And for years, some worthy minority coaches have paid some serious taxes. But there’s also something to be said for the dignity of winning without receiving any draft perks based on the color of their skin. I mean, the idea is to be judged for opportunities without regard to race.
• Enforce the Rooney Rule like you mean it. As much as Goodell trumpets his desire for progress with these diversity issues — and his application at league headquarters provides a splendid example of how this should look — let’s not forget that the Commissioner had a chance to make his strongest statement about the Rooney Rule after looking into the Raiders’ process for hiring Jon Gruden in 2018. And he fumbled. That’s not to say that Gruden, for years an enticing candidate to bolt from the “Monday Night Football” booth, wasn’t a great fit for a Raiders redux. But it was the process.
Raiders owner Mark Davis made a mockery of the rule when he didn’t even personally interview Tee Martin, then the offensive coordinator/receivers coach at USC, for the opening. McKenzie did the interview. Despite a protest from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, Goodell concluded there was no wrongdoing.
That’s where the NFL can tie draft picks to coaching: by docking teams for sham interviews. Sure, sometimes it can be tough to prove that an interview wasn’t legit. But sometimes, it smacks you between the eyes. Since the Rooney Rule was established in 2003, former Lions GM Matt Millen was the only person disciplined (by former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) for a violation. It’s hard to believe that Millen was the only one who violated the spirit of the rule.
• Make it intentional. That’s how the late, great Bill Walsh once put it to me when discussing why his 49ers staffs during the 1980s led the league in minority coaches. The numbers across the league have increased since then, but Walsh’s sentiments persist. He knew he was providing opportunities and fueling the pipeline, which included establishing the type of fellowship program for minority coaches that, with a measure passed Tuesday, every team in the league now must implement. Walsh wanted to provide incentive for players considering post-playing career options, too. But he also recognized some bottom-line benefits, amplified by renowned diversity authority Richard Lapchick: “Diversity is a business imperative. It makes you better.”
• Think beyond the “prototype” candidate. It’s good that the league is taking steps to bolster the ranks of minority quarterbacks coaches, a position that often leads to coordinator jobs, which so often attract the desires of team owners seeking head coaches. Nothing wrong with a deeper pool.
But the trend of seeking the next Sean McVay — a young coach connected to the QB — needs to be put in check. Hey, McVay’s the man. And he’s not the first head coach to rise in a pass-heavy league because of his impact on the offensive side. Yet I’ll take the next Bill Belichick (until McVay wins six rings).
Some NFL owners need to chill on the preconceived thinking that only one type of head coach candidate is worthy. The successful ones come from across the spectrum. Sean Payton and Andy Reid represent creative offense, while Mike Tomlin ascended from the defensive side — as did Belichick and Pete Carroll. John Harbaugh was a special teams guru. The common denominator is that they are great leaders capable of managing the entire team.
Consider the ultimate prize. Of the last 20 Super Bowls, coaches with defensive backgrounds won 10 (including Belichick’s six) while “offensive” coaches won nine crowns. The other was claimed by the special teams-trained Harbaugh. The losing Super Bowl coaches during that span had a 10-10 split between offense and defense. The most successful minority coaches from this generation – Dungy, Tomlin, Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards, Marvin Lewis – all came from the defensive side. Yet somewhere along the way, the prototype head coach candidate became something else. Even so, two of the defensive-minded exceptions – Buffalo’s Sean McDermott and Miami’s Brian Flores – now happen to be two of the NFL’s rising stars. They’re proof that having an open mind can make all the difference.
An open mind. That’s the diversity issue in a nutshell.