Down goes Hue Jackson and diversity in the NFL
With Jackson out in Cleveland, it’s another major blow to coaches of color
Then there were seven. After the Cleveland Browns fired Hue Jackson on Monday, the NFL has only seven head coaches of color remaining. That’s out of 32 positions, which is bad news for a league that supposedly has strived to increase the number of minorities in its key decision-making positions from the field to the front office.
At the start of the 2017 season, Jackson was among eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 as the most the NFL has had in any season, including seven African-Americans. Since last season, however, the number has trended in the wrong direction.
Don’t be surprised if it drops again soon.
By any metric, Jackson, who was in his third season and is the first head coach to be fired in 2018, failed in Cleveland. His first two seasons were almost as bad as it gets: 1-15 and 0-16. That’s a 1-31 stretch. The 2017 Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only NFL teams to go winless during a 16-game regular season.
Despite the excitement in northern Ohio about the impressive start of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, and the Browns’ clear improvement this season at 2-5-1 (as low as they were, even incremental progress is worth trumpeting), team ownership still cut ties with Jackson. Cleveland’s current three-game losing streak and growing tension within the team’s facility because of the toxic relationship between Jackson and first-year Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was also ousted Monday, was too much for Jackson to overcome.
Here’s the thing: No credible argument can be made against the firing of Jackson, especially with Mayfield’s development being priority No. 1 for the franchise. The Browns couldn’t have their head coach and offensive coordinator essentially being at war and be truly committed to putting Mayfield in a supportive environment to grow.
But here’s the problem: In an overwhelmingly African-American league in which almost 70 percent of the players are black, it’s simply unacceptable that so few black people are head coaches. Many African-American assistant coaches and former assistants were upset that Jackson didn’t get more time because of what the move meant for both Jackson individually and black coaches as a whole.
Rock Cartwright is among those who hoped Jackson would stick for a long stretch in the Buckeye State.
A former NFL running back and special-teams standout, Cartwright was part of Jackson’s Browns staff for two seasons, serving as an offensive quality control coach and assistant running backs coach. The firing of Jackson was a blow to all black coaches, Cartwright said.
“As far as black coaches, I feel the leash is always shorter,” he said on the phone. “I was with Hue the first two years [in Cleveland] and we didn’t have the players we needed to win football games, so I would not judge him on those two years.
“Now, I know they had some stuff going on in-house between him and Haley. I guess they just wanted to start all over. I get that. But it’s still tough because there just aren’t that many [black head coaches]. When even one guy loses a job, you definitely know it’s a loss for everyone who’s trying to get there.”
Throughout his career, Jackson has served as a mentor to younger black coaches. He has been committed to helping more African-Americans gain a foothold in the NFL.
“I love Hue as a person. He gave me an opportunity to coach, and a lot of other guys will tell you that same thing,” Cartwright said. “Not everybody tries to help guys like Hue has.”
Among head coaches of color, Jackson, who previously coached the Oakland Raiders in 2011, was also something of a rarity because he ascended through the NFL ranks on offense.
During an era in which owners prefer to pick from that side of the ball to fill top openings, there aren’t enough candidates of color on offense. Commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged the league needs to redouble its efforts to improve that pipeline.
Former NFL quarterback Jason Campbell worked under Jackson with the Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals. “Jackson has a good offensive mind. As long as Hue has a good nucleus, he will put guys in position to succeed,” Campbell wrote in a text message. “You just don’t see a lot of guys like Hue on offense. You don’t see a lot of [black quarterback coaches] and OCs [offensive coordinators]. So when you lose a guy like Hue, it definitely makes a difference. There are so few guys out there.”
At the midway point of the regular season, it appears several of the other African-American head coaches are on shaky footing.
Todd Bowles of the New York Jets and Vance Joseph of the Denver Broncos lead struggling teams. By the end of the season, they may also be boxing up their offices. Although Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals is in his first season, the team has often performed so abysmally that his long-term standing with the franchise seems at least open to debate.
Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals all lead teams in playoff contention. Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers, the league’s other head coach of color, seemingly continues to be in a strong position with his team in the playoff hunt again.
During his nine seasons as an NFL passer, Campbell encountered many African-American assistants who he thought would make strong head coaches, “but you have to get the opportunity … and a lot of guys still aren’t getting that chance.”
Jackson has had two chances. It’s highly doubtful he’ll ever get another.