Are Vance Joseph and Anthony Lynn a sign of change in the NFL?
The new Broncos and Chargers leaders are a huge uptick in the number of black NFL head coaches
After the Buffalo Bills fired Rex Ryan in late December 2016 with one game left to play, the team gathered for the first time under his replacement: interim head coach Anthony Lynn. A running backs coach at the beginning the 2016 season, Lynn, who’s African-American, experienced a truly meteoric rise — promoted twice during the season. As the longtime assistant addressed the group at Buffalo’s training complex, he appeared at ease despite the new role.
Lynn talked about the need to remain focused during these trying times. He talked about what he expected from the players. He talked about demanding more of himself. In other words, he talked like a head coach. And in the week since that meeting, Lynn backed up his words. His seriousness and preparedness during practice was evident. With Lynn in charge, the Bills went out professionally. It was a small sample size, but he showed a whole lot.
“It was only one week, but you could definitely see the qualities that you would want in a head coach,” Bills All-Pro linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “We’ve had qualified African-American coaches like Anthony Lynn in this league for a long time. All they need are chances.”
Last week, Lynn got one. A day after the Denver Broncos signed former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, 44, for their top job, Lynn, 48, was hired to run the Los Angeles Chargers. Two days, two new African-American head coaches. In terms of inclusive hiring, it was the NFL’s best 24-hour period in a long, long time. The past few seasons, the league has come under increased criticism for its lack of progress in the important area. It seemed that after the retirement of Tony Dungy as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, owners were somehow again reluctant to hire minority candidates from outside the traditional coaching trees. And the dearth of minority coordinators, particularly on offense, proved to be another impediment for minorities trying to move up. The number of minority head coaches peaked at eight in 2011. By 2013, there were only four head coaches of color. To start this season, there were six. Now, with Joseph and Lynn in place, the total has risen to eight again, including seven African-American bosses. On the eve of the conference championship games, many who have long monitored the league’s hiring efforts hope that the Lynn and Joseph moves may signal the beginning of a new, improved era for minority coaches. This much, though, is certain: What happened last week sure doesn’t hurt.
The Bills’ Alexander echoed the feelings of black players across the league, who viewed the hires as being “huge, because you want qualified guys to be in position to where they’re getting the same opportunities as everyone else gets to move up. As players, we definitely talk about things you hear. You always hear about things being manipulated in a sense, and coaches who should get opportunities not getting them. But these guys deserved them and got them. That’s what you want. And that’s really all you can ask for.”
The NFL’s Rooney Rule – named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee – mandates that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coaches, general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions. In a workplace where most players are African-American, the rule, undoubtedly, has helped improve the league’s hiring culture. However, not every black assistant worked under Dungy, the Hall of Fame head coach who mentored the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell of the Detroit Lions, among many others, or are offensive coordinators who have worked extensively with quarterbacks. It seemed those were the unwritten prerequisites for black assistants to even be included on the interview circuit. In a change, Joseph and Lynn aren’t from either mold.
Joseph rose through the ranks on defense. A former college quarterback and running back, he was converted to a defensive back in the NFL. Following his playing days, he steadily developed a strong reputation as a defensive backs coach. Joseph was a defensive coordinator for only one season with the Miami Dolphins before John Elway chose him to take control of the Broncos. Primarily a running backs coach in his career, Lynn, who’s considered razor-sharp, didn’t even have a full season as an offensive coordinator. During the Bills’ first in-season staff shakeup in September 2016, Ryan promoted the former college and NFL running back to the position. After club ownership tabbed Lynn to get the team through the season’s final week, he was considered the front-runner for the permanent position. Although Lynn didn’t stick in Buffalo, the Chargers quickly made him their first African-American head coach. Steve Jackson isn’t surprised that Joseph and Lynn were hired to run their own shops. A longtime secondary coach, Jackson knows both men well. Like many black assistants, Jackson was buoyed by the news that the two hard workers finally reached the top.
“This is the first time in my coaching career that the guys who got hired are actually my colleagues,” said Jackson, who now coaches the Tennessee Titans’ defensive backs. “Not upper-echelon guys like Tony Dungy and Dennis Green. These are guys, and I say this with total respect, who are just regular, hard-working guys.
“For them to get these opportunities, yeah, you better believe there are a lot of guys just like me who are encouraged about that. For the longest time now, you looked up and it seemed that everyone had to come from one line, or they wouldn’t be considered. But these guys don’t come from one line. V.J. and Anthony coached positions, worked and got the opportunities.”
Their ascent is also promising for another reason: Joseph and Lynn are new guys on the block. As my colleague Mike Sando wrote in his superbly reported piece on major problems with the NFL’s hiring process, owners wouldn’t take chances on minorities who had not previously served as head coaches. Breaking through as first-timers, Joseph and Lynn have already helped the cause, Jeremi Duru said. Duru wrote the book on the Rooney Rule. In Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, Duru masterfully details the history of the process that resulted in the rule. The impact of both Joseph and Lynn getting jobs in this hiring cycle should not be underestimated.
“It’s an indication that we’re on the right track,” said Duru, a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law. “For a couple of years, people have been concerned, and rightfully so, that among the African-Americans getting jobs, they tended to be African-Americans who previously had jobs, other than [the New York Jets’] Todd Bowles. To see these two guys, who are both first-time head coaches, get jobs within 24 hours, and in doing so bringing the total number up to eight, tying the all-time high, is hugely important and kind of symbolic of where we are.
“We’re in a real strong place with a solid pipeline now. These guys are not coming from the traditional repository along the traditional path of QB coach and offensive coordinator. Maybe we’re breaking out of some of those systemic patterns that have kind of held African-American coaches out of the head coaching position. And I expect another good year next year, in terms of equal-opportunity hiring. There are just so many storylines that feed into the success here. Both for Joseph and Lynn individually, and, potentially, in the bigger picture.”
In the run-up to the Bills’ final game of the 2016 season, Lynn provided a glimpse of what the Chargers can expect next season. Although he’s a guy who’s all about planning, Lynn also is flexible enough to adjust when necessary. Anyone who has held three jobs on a staff in one season must be able to shift gears quickly. With the Chargers moving from San Diego to Los Angeles for the 2017 season, Lynn figures to be stretched thin during the transition process, “but it won’t be a problem for him because he just always does what he has to do to make it work,” Jackson said. “He’s a Texas guy just like me. We’ve played against each other, coached against each other. And trust me: He’s always ready.”
Alexander hears that. He came away highly impressed with how Lynn handled his business in Buffalo. “Just that first meeting. The way he commanded the room told you a lot,” said Alexander, who finished third in the NFL with 12½ sacks. “Being direct, having a vision, having a plan, being organized … you could definitely see it. Players know when coaches [are clueless]. You could tell he knows what he’s doing.
“Being on defense, you don’t really deal with the offensive coaches. But when you talked to the guys on offense, they all loved him. They loved how he ran the offense. Obviously, coaches on that side liked him as well. He allowed them to do their jobs. He trusted them to do their jobs. If he mimics that, if he just did what he did that last week in Buffalo now that he’s running a whole organization without that interim title, he’ll have great success.”
The belief in Miami is that Joseph will thrive, too. The Dolphins figured Joseph would be a short-timer in South Florida. He’s just that talented. A straight-shooter, Joseph is as good as it gets at building relationships. As a result, players respect him. In the NFL, that’s huge. Just ask veteran cornerback Byron Maxwell. Earlier this season, Joseph benched Maxwell for poor play. But Maxwell didn’t sulk or blast Joseph in the media. He stayed on the grind, got back in the game and had a good year. He’ll ride with Joseph anywhere.
“V.J. brought great leadership and taught us the intangibles of being a leader, what all of that entails and how you have to bring it every day with the guys looking at you,” Maxwell said. “He knows how to talk to you. He knows how to communicate to guys in the generation. He’s a leader of men.”
Miami advanced to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season. Joseph had a big part in ending the drought. “V.J. put a premium on guys doing their jobs and understanding the plays we’re running and why you’re doing it,” safety Michael Thomas said. “That really helped change our culture. He brought to us that mentality of just knowing and understanding that you have to do what it takes to win.”
Joseph is also someone who understands that the most successful coaches have powerful allies in the locker room. It didn’t take Joseph long to realize that All-Pro defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh isn’t only one of the league’s most dominant defensive players – he’s also one of the sharpest. Joseph sought Suh’s input on strategy. By getting Suh involved in the process of formulating game plans, Joseph helped improve the Dolphins’ defense. Along the way, he also got tight with the right dude.
“I learned a lot from him. He’s an excellent coach,” Suh said. “They [the Broncos] are getting an elite guy who understands defense and understands how things work together, working with a lot of different pieces and puzzles. We probably had a new lineup every single week this past season. He’s a guy who knows how to adjust and adapt.
“He’s a great people person. He’s great at dealing with a lot of different personalities. I had a great relationship with him and look forward to continuing that relationship. There is no question that those players are going to definitely be happy with the way that he runs things and with the way he likes things set up.”
To hear many around the game tell it, the Broncos and Chargers couldn’t have picked better leaders. The fact that Joseph and Lynn also happen to be African-Americans and first-time head coaches is only part of the story. But for all of the black assistants who toil behind them and aspire to one day reach their level, those are undoubtedly the most important parts.