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Miami’s firing of Brian Flores is latest blow to NFL’s poor record of inclusive hiring

Given the fact he was among the NFL’s small group of head coaches of color, his ouster was a downright bombshell

Let’s start with what’s obvious regarding the Miami Dolphins’ shocking firing Monday of head coach Brian Flores: Team owner Stephen M. Ross chose general manager Chris Grier over Flores.

There were rumblings that the team’s top football executive and its on-field leader were often at loggerheads behind closed doors, which wasn’t surprising when the Dolphins were mired in a long losing streak. The chatter quieted down while the club experienced an unprecedented turnaround (Miami this season became the first franchise in NFL history to have both losing and winning streaks of seven games), climbed back into playoff contention and finished with a winning record. 

Even if this were mainly a story about the Dolphins’ Miami Gardens, Florida, headquarters being too small for both Grier and Flores, it still would be significant news. Palace intrigue within NFL clubs is always juicy stuff.

But given the fact that Flores, who is Afro Latino, was among the NFL’s small group of head coaches of color, that the league is struggling to improve its abysmal record in inclusive hiring, and that Flores had outperformed many of his Dolphins predecessors … well, his ouster was a downright Black Monday bombshell.

Speaking with reporters shortly after he fired Flores, Ross alluded to behind-the-scenes issues within his franchise, saying: “An organization can only function if it’s collaborative and it works well together. I don’t think that we were really working well as an organization … to really win consistently at the NFL level.”

After three seasons, Ross determined he couldn’t move forward with both Flores and Grier, so he picked a side. And Ross will have to live with the consequences of his decision. As the team’s owner, that’s his prerogative.

However, here’s the bigger problem for the NFL: Flores’ dismissal leaves the league with only two Black head coaches. In an overwhelmingly Black league — there was a record-high of 69.7% African American players during the 2016 season — the firing again puts the spotlight on the embarrassing lack of inclusion at the club level.

Although teams traditionally cut ties with head coaches and otherwise shake up their football operations on the Monday following the conclusion of the regular season, the possibility of Flores being cut loose by the Dolphins was not on anyone’s radar, said N. Jeremi Duru, a longtime observer of the NFL’s hiring practices in football and business operations. And Flores being removed from the board was a major setback for Black coaches in a hiring cycle that’s only getting started. 

“I’m astounded. I’m just astounded by this,” said Duru, a professor of sports law at American University and author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL

“Just a week or two ago, people were talking about Flores as a coach of the year candidate, and potentially the leading candidate. Yes, they started the year very poorly. But they turned it around. They went on an extraordinary, historic run. That’s why when you look at this … it’s just deeply surprising. This is a hard termination to understand. It’s just really difficult.”

Under Flores, the Dolphins went 9-8 this season. Last season, they went 10-6. Prior to Flores having consecutive winning seasons, Dave Wannstedt was the last Miami head coach to do it — during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Based on wins and losses, the most important metric by which head coaches are measured, the Dolphins made significant progress. With Flores out in Miami, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and David Culley of the Houston Texans are the NFL’s only Black head coaches. Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team is Latino.

The NFL has 32 teams.  

Of the seven openings for head coaches at the beginning of the 2020-21 cycle, one was filled by a Black man. Over the previous four cycles, there have been 27 openings. During that span, three Black men became head coaches. The league has never had more than eight Black head coaches in any season. Regardless of how many positions eventually open up this cycle, progress continues to remain elusive. 

Count Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, among those stunned by the Dolphins’ move.

“It is disappointing that a change was made in Miami,” said Graves, who leads the independent group that advises the league on diversity matters. “The challenge we always face in trying to build upon gains [in inclusive hiring] is that there’s always the possibility of losses.” 

Flores and Grier teamed up in Miami in February 2019. At a news conference to announce Flores’ hiring, Grier, at the time the NFL’s only African American general manager, introduced Flores, the only minority to become an NFL head coach during that cycle. Formerly the New England Patriots’ defensive playcaller, Flores is a longtime protégé of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has a record six Super Bowl titles. Flores, the Dolphins’ first head coach of color, arrived in Miami as Grier began his first offseason with total control of the club’s entire football operation, making him the league’s lone Black personnel boss.

After the Dolphins finished 5-11 in 2019, the Grier-Flores partnership appeared to be paying off for Ross and the team’s long-suffering fans. Flores, though, came under criticism for his handling of young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft, and turnover on his coaching staff. In three seasons, Flores employed four offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators and four offensive line coaches.

Staff continuity was not among Flores’ strengths. But Flores, two league sources said, would likely have continued to occupy the Dolphins’ head-coaching office if Ross still believed Flores and Grier could make it work together.

In picking Grier — who’s now one of five Black general managers (the NFL has never had more than seven) — over Flores, Ross is counting on Grier to recommend a strong candidate to replace Flores and keep the organization moving forward.

As for Flores, there’s no sugarcoating it: Ross’ stunner is likely to stir questions among many owners about whether Flores can work well with others in an organizational structure. But this much is not in question: Flores can flat-out coach, which he has proven.

Now, will he get another opportunity in this cycle to do it at the highest level? 

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.