So much for progress on inclusive hiring in the NFL
In yet another hiring cycle, Black coaches are seeing a clear double standard
Nearing the close of another hiring cycle, NFL owners have failed again.
In a period in which there were initially seven openings for head coaches and now has only two vacancies remaining, no Black coaches have been tabbed to fill any yet. In most categories, going 0 for 5 is an awful look. This one qualifies.
For proponents of inclusive hiring throughout the league, the lack of progress would be concerning during any cycle. That it has occurred following the previous three cycles, however, is downright alarming for the game’s Black assistant coaches, several told The Undefeated in recent interviews. During the previous cycles, there were 20 openings for head coaches. Only one coach of color was hired in each cycle — and one Black coach total.
As of the publication of this column, the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles had not officially completed their coaching searches. Perhaps a fourth-quarter comeback of sorts will occur, enabling the league to claim a net gain in its number of Black head coaches (at the start of the process, the total stood at only two — Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Brian Flores, who is Afro Latino, of the Miami Dolphins; Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team is Latino). Of course, even having two or three Black head coaches in a league with 32 teams isn’t exactly something to thump one’s chest about.
Some will point to the hiring of Robert Saleh, the first Muslim head coach in NFL history, by the New York Jets as a sign of progress on the coaching front. Make no mistake, that move is noteworthy. But let’s be real: The NFL has never been Blacker.
The league’s on-field workforce is more than 70% Black. Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, 29 are Black. Black quarterbacks now set the league’s agenda, and the best among them, Kansas City Chiefs wunderkind Patrick Mahomes, is the new face of the NFL. With that backdrop, the NFL is sending a horrible message to its Black assistant coaches.
And don’t count on both the Texans and Eagles to turn to Black assistants to lead their teams. It’s more likely that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid would punt on fourth down late in a game while running out the clock to complete a victory within his reach.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his top lieutenants had hoped for better — far better — after high-ranking officials from the league office and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity, intensified their efforts around hiring during the offseason. Their belief was that by incentivizing inclusion and focusing on policies that would potentially accelerate the ability of candidates to move through the pipeline, positive change would manifest in improvement as soon as this cycle. So much for that.
What has occurred since the end of the regular season is yet another painful reminder, coaches say, that the league office can only do so much. The NFL’s hiring problem, at its core, is at the ownership level. And it’s as glaring as ever.
What’s most galling to Black coaches is the clear double standard present in the hiring process. While white assistants with little experience as coordinators or even position coaches are fast-tracked for the top-rung jobs, top-notch Black assistants often toil for years waiting for opportunities that never come, regardless of their role in contributing to an organization’s overall success. For Black assistants, the curious case of Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is just about becoming a cautionary tale.
With their victory over the Cleveland Browns in the AFC divisional round Sunday, the Chiefs will become the first AFC team to host three consecutive AFC title games. For that entire period, Bieniemy has been the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. Furthermore, Mahomes, who swears by Bieniemy, is 24-1 in his last 25 starts, including a Super Bowl victory. The Chiefs’ success overall and that individually of the team’s young superstar signal-caller should be a launching pad for Bieniemy to run his own shop. Bieniemy is still waiting for it to happen.
Meanwhile, after only one season as a defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams, Brandon Staley has been hired to take over the Los Angeles Chargers. Staley becomes a head coach not even four years after being hired for his first NFL coaching gig. Until this season, he coached outside linebackers. Granted, the Rams thrived under Staley this season, leading the NFL in many categories. But here’s the thing: Bieniemy has been doing it big with the Chiefs for several years.
Then there’s the Detroit Lions’ coaching vacancy.
Reportedly, the Lions are expected to hire New Orleans Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell, who has never been a coordinator in the NFL. Could Staley and Campbell wind up being successful with the Chargers and Lions, respectively? Absolutely. What their ascent reinforces, though, is the existence of the same double standard on display recently during the sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a crowd of mostly white rioters. The bar is still set much higher for Black assistants.
Some have suggested that Bieniemy isn’t viewed favorably by owners because Reid handles the Chiefs’ primary playcalling duties, that somehow the playcalling role is all that matters in determining whether a prospective head coach will succeed.
Putting aside that wrongheaded thinking for a moment, you know who also had largely the same working relationship with Reid while they served under him on offense with the Chiefs? Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy and former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. Given the opportunities Nagy, Pederson and other white non-primary playcallers have received, the whole playcalling narrative, with regard to Bieniemy’s lack of advancement, simply doesn’t hold water.
Playcalling has become a lot like those illegal Jim Crow-era voting “tests” Black people endured, such as having to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar. It’s just something used to exclude Black assistants from the hiring process.
Another common criticism of Black assistants, albeit one that may be made up of whole cloth, is that they do not interview well. Impressing owners, especially during the initial get-to-know-you sessions, is key in advancing in the process. Besides laying out an X’s-and-O’s vision for success, many owners want coaches who seem capable of inspiring players. Supposedly, another knock on Bieniemy is that he doesn’t command the room.
Look, short of Bieniemy rapping all of his answers to questions, there’s no way he could interview so poorly, relative to his role in the Chiefs’ spectacular success, to still be shut out. It just doesn’t add up.
The other whispers around Bieniemy concern incidents that occurred during his playing days and time as a young coach, though nothing that has been publicly revealed in the past 20 years. By all accounts, Bieniemy has set a positive example while delivering daily for the Chiefs.
The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Urban Meyer, who hasn’t proven anything in the NFL, despite the fact that while coaching at Ohio State, he reportedly knew about spousal abuse allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith before Smith was fired. The school suspended Meyer for three games after an independent investigation determined he failed to uphold the values of the university. None of that stopped Meyer from getting an opportunity at football’s highest level. Or is it that only Black coaches are disqualified because of issues in their past?
The thought process about Black assistants, generally, is warped. In many respects, it’s the same type of flawed, outdated outlook that resulted in Mitch Trubisky being selected ahead of Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft. What’s most harmful, it has stymied the careers of many Black coaches.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace saw himself in Trubisky. Does that mean Pace is a virulent racist? Of course not. Often, people in decision-making lean on their life experiences. Their frame of reference sometimes plays an outsize role in planning. It just so happens that the overwhelming majority of high-level decision-makers in the NFL are white men. There’s no sugarcoating where things stand, and there are no signs of improvement on the horizon.
When it comes to hiring coaches, NFL owners couldn’t make their feelings more clear. All that’s needed now is to hang the sign: Black men need not apply.