Can Dolphins’ Brian Flores help change NFL coaching trend?
Miami’s leader, a former defensive coach, is showing promise in first year
NEW YORK — Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is an outlier.
The current trend in the NFL, at least in head coaching searches, is to find a young offensive mind who can scheme his way to lots of points and wins, a la Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay. Last season, eight NFL head coaches were fired — five of them black — and replaced primarily by offensive coaches (positions that tend to be held by white people) with varying degrees of experience.
The New York Jets’ Adam Gase and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians were hired with previous head coaching and offensive coordinator experience. The Cleveland Browns’ Freddie Kitchens and Green Bay Packers’ Matt LaFleur, who worked with McVay in L.A., were offensive coordinators before being hired as head coaches in January. And the Arizona Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury and Cincinnati Bengals’ Zac Taylor were hired with backgrounds as quarterback coaches. Kingsbury was also a head coach at Texas Tech, while Taylor worked on McVay’s staff with the Rams.
Flores and Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio were the only hires in 2019 with defensive resumes. Flores, who devised the New England Patriots’ defensive game plan to defeat McVay’s Rams in last year’s Super Bowl, was also the only permanent minority coach hired during the last coaching cycle.
He’s made quite an impression in his first year as an NFL head coach, despite not fitting the mold of an offensive-minded coach. Some analysts have even said he should be considered for coach of the year.
“I think offense, defense, special teams coach, young, old, I don’t know that any of that matters,” Dolphins veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “I think what matters is clear vision, everybody headed in the same direction and a coach that has the pulse of the team, that knows what’s going on. I don’t think it really matters what age, what side of the ball. There’s just important qualities to have.
“And I think we have a good one.”
Flores, 38, took over a Dolphins team that finished 7-9 last season under Gase, and Miami was clearly looking to rebuild. The Dolphins traded away key starters: quarterback Ryan Tannehill, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and running back Kenyan Drake. But that didn’t stop Flores from scratching out four wins from a team most expected to have the worst record in the league, while creating a winning culture.
After Miami lost its first four games by an average of 34 points, everyone thought the franchise had its eye on the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft and was destined to be the worst team in the NFL. Many people wouldn’t have been surprised if the Dolphins went 0-16.
But a funny thing happened after their bye in Week 5: They started competing. The Dolphins lost a one-point game to the Washington Redskins in Week 6, played the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers tough on the road, and finally got their first two wins of the season in back-to-back weeks against the Jets at home and Indianapolis Colts on the road.
They have played competitive football down the stretch, too, despite setting an NFL record for the most players used in one season. Miami squeaked out two more victories, including a win over Taylor’s 1-14 Bengals in Week 16. The Bengals, Redskins and Detroit Lions all have fewer wins (and arguably more talent) than the Dolphins heading into the final week of the regular season.
With Black Monday around the corner, could Flores’ success this year help reverse the offensive guru trend that is another barrier to diversity?
“I mean, I can’t speak for other teams and what they’re going to do, there’s no way for me to know that,” Flores said after a Week 15 loss to the Giants. “I know this is a leadership position. I think you gotta lead a team of players and coaches. That’s what this is.”
In other words, it’s not only about the scheme or the offensive or defensive philosophy of the head coach, but also whether that individual can lead other professionals.
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn expressed similar thoughts when he appeared on the Bill Rhoden on Sports podcast in February, a month after a disappointing coaching cycle for minority coaches.
“It’s not about being a great play-caller,” Lynn said. “It’s about leading men, getting along with people, bringing things together, having a vision and stamina to carry it out.”
Lynn is in his third year as head coach of the Chargers. He posted a 9-7 record in his first season, was 12-4 last year, but has struggled this year at a 5-10 clip heading into Week 17, in part due to injuries, a declining Philip Rivers and close losses.
But Lynn’s experience climbing up the coaching ranks is instructive. When he was a running backs coach, he was told early in his career that he couldn’t be an offensive coordinator. And only when he finally checked the box of being an offensive coordinator did he get a head coaching job.
“I think that’s the problem right there, is that the criteria for becoming a head coach, the way they’re looking at it right now obviously is not working. You’re firing eight head coaches a year, so why wouldn’t you do something differently?”
Opening up the pool of head coaching candidates is a key issue in the NFL. There are currently only three black head coaches among the 32 teams: Flores, Lynn and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Perry Fewell is the interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers, who fired Ron Rivera earlier this month.) Furthermore, there are currently only two black offensive coordinators in the NFL (Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs and Byron Leftwich of the Buccaneers), plus a lack of minority quarterback coaches and offensive quality control coaches.
The current trend towards hiring offensive-minded, play-caller types is troubling where minority opportunity and diversity is concerned.
Minority coaches in the NFL tend to be on defense or offensive position coaches, such as running back coaches or wide receiver coaches. If the new pipeline to head coaching opportunities goes through coaching positions not inhabited by minorities, that is a problem.
Rod Graves, the former Cardinals general manager and current chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, puts the onus squarely on the NFL.
“I don’t know what the reason is, per se [for the lack of diversity among offensive coaches], but like anything else, diversity has to be an intentional act,” Graves said over the phone. “If you look up one day and you find we haven’t been giving many opportunities to the offensive side to minorities, you have to act on it. I think that teams have failed to do that across the board.”
Despite the lack of minorities in offensive coordinator positions, Graves does not believe that is a valid excuse to deny minority coaches head coaching opportunities.
“The whole notion of there not being a strong pipeline [of minority coaches] is ludicrous,” he said. “There are coaches out there in a number of positions that can step up and certainly be qualified to run an offense, but yet we haven’t looked at these positions: running back coaches, wide receiver coaches, etc. …
“Flores’ skills were well-recognized before he even took the [Dolphins] job,” Graves said. “But, for as much success as he has had and for as much success as he will have, do we need these signs to tell us that there are others who are prepared? If we have to depend on those signs in this day and age, then that’s a sad commentary of where we are.”
Next week, the coaching cycle will begin anew in the NFL. We’ll soon find out whether more defensive coaches and minorities get a shot. The Dolphins, however, appear to have already found their leader.