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Why hiring trend has been crushing for NFL’s black coaches

Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard, however, is not stressed

LOS ANGELES — NFL owners are batting 1.000 in filling head-coaching positions so far: seven openings, seven white guys picked. Of course, that’s not the type of perfection commissioner Roger Goodell wants.

The Miami Dolphins have the only remaining job vacancy that’s not linked to a Caucasian, and three candidates of color are believed to be high on their list: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores and Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard. Reportedly, Flores is the Dolphins’ top target. If Miami bucks the trend this hiring cycle, the NFL would finish the season with only four minority head coaches, including three who are black, down from eight at the start. The league has 32 teams.

Despite recently persuading owners to strengthen the Rooney Rule, which mandates that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for each head coach and general manager opening, Goodell will lead a league that has its fewest head coaches of color since the 2013 season. For a commissioner who has stressed his desire to increase diversity in the NFL’s head-coaching ranks, things are trending in the wrong direction for him. And especially for assistant coaches of color.

Just like Bieniemy and Flores, Richard has proven he’s ready for his shot.

He played a major role in the Cowboys’ strong season, which ended Saturday night as the Los Angeles Rams maintained control throughout a 30-22 victory during the NFC divisional round. After the loss, Richard reaffirmed he’s eager to become a head coach one day.

“I’ve been preparing for a really long time, if not my whole entire life,” Richard said while standing outside the locker rooms at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “I’ve been a football junkie ever since I could remember.”

After Miami makes its pick, however, Richard and the Dolphins’ other minority candidates could be left without seats in the NFL’s annual version of musical chairs. John Wooten, who leads the group that oversees compliance of the Rooney Rule, never envisioned the possibility of that outcome. In fact, Wooten hadn’t been as optimistic about an upcoming hiring cycle in a long time.

Although obviously disappointed that five African-American head coaches were fired this season, Wooten was nonetheless encouraged about the future because of the talent in the coaching pipeline. Flores, the Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator, developed a great reputation while being mentored by Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest head coach in sports history. The league’s only black offensive coordinator, Bieniemy has played a major role in the development of second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’s on a short list for the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award. The Cowboys credit Richard with jump-starting their defense, which provided the foundation for an NFC East title and a playoff win. Additionally, former head coach Jim Caldwell, who has coached in multiple Super Bowls as both a head coach and an assistant and has been widely praised for his work with quarterbacks, is determined to get back in the game after the Detroit Lions fired him following two consecutive winning seasons.

The truth is, Wooten figured all of them would be running their own shops next season.

“Where we’re at right now … it’s surprising and somewhat shocking,” Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said on the phone Saturday. “The way people moved, we thought that we had at least three, if not four, guys in the slot to move in. We thought we were in really good shape.

“With Jim Caldwell, Eric Bieniemy, Kris Richard and Brian Flores, we know we have the right people. We thought we were in excellent condition with them. And everything that we got back from them [the teams] about their interviews … the critiques of their interviews were outstanding. And yet, as we can see, it hasn’t played out as we thought it would.”

Which is why Wooten and other proponents of diversity in the NFL are at a loss to even propose a path forward.

The fact is, Goodell truly operated in good faith to strengthen the Rooney Rule, people involved in the process told The Undefeated, and he has strongly encouraged owners to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the rule. Goodell, though, is merely an employee of the owners, albeit a powerful one. Foremost, Goodell understands his constituency. He knows he can go only so far before many owners would revolt against hiring guidelines they deem as being restrictive.

The Rooney Rule has always been a state-of-mind rule, and too many owners still have wrongheaded thoughts about hiring head coaches. Based on who’s being hired, owners currently seem fixated on finding the next Sean McVay.

To be sure, the young Rams head coach is a rock star. In only two seasons, McVay, 32, has led the Rams to two NFC West division titles and has a sparkling regular-season record of 24-8. McVay also has been the perfect guide for two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Jared Goff, a former No. 1 overall draft pick whom some league observers had unfairly labeled as a bust after his rookie season.

The NFL is a copycat league, and teams this cycle are following the Rams. The Green Bay Packers hired Matt LaFleur, McVay’s former offensive coordinator. After the Rams’ season ends, the Cincinnati Bengals reportedly plan to offer their job to Zac Taylor, McVay’s current quarterbacks coach. In the most demoralizing decision for African-American assistants, the Arizona Cardinals hired failed former college head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who can best be described as slightly McVay-like. In six seasons at Texas Tech, his alma mater, Kingsbury went 35-40, never won more than eight games in a season and never had a team ranked in the final polls.

It’s crushing, several black assistants told me, that someone with such an unimpressive résumé could ascend to the top of their business merely because his background is on offense and the struggling Cardinals hope to replicate the quick turnaround the Rams experienced under McVay. Just because a coach is young, white and knows something about the art of playing quarterback doesn’t necessarily mean he’s head-coaching timber.

None of this is meant as a criticism of McVay. I got to know McVay well when he was a fast-rising assistant with the Washington Redskins, and he’s definitely the real deal. It’s just that it was already tough enough for black assistants to break through and become head coaches because owners prefer to pick from the offensive side of the ball, where most of the high-ranking assistants are white, to fill top openings. The current McVay obsession means that even more black assistants will be left outside the door.

In an overwhelmingly African-American league, in which almost 70 percent of the players are black, it’s becoming increasingly clear to black assistants that there’s little place for them at the highest rung of the ladder. That’s an awful message to send to future coaches, many of whom are current players, and African-American fans who already are giving the league a collective side-eye because of its treatment of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The lack of opportunities for black assistants threatens to undercut the league’s credibility elsewhere, including in its unprecedented social justice partnership with players. It’s just bad business, a fact of which Goodell is well-aware.

The Cowboys’ Richard, for one, remains undeterred.

“I’m not stressed out about it at all,” he said. “We all recognize the truth of it. … The second that you get frustrated, the second that you allow it to get to you, then you’re not staying true to who you are. Now, you’re only giving people a portion of yourself because you’re guarded or you’ve got a hardened heart.

“That’s not the case. That can never, ever be the case. What is this [coaching] about? It’s about building men. It’s about giving your best to the next man in order for them to grow and be successful. You can’t do that if you’re frustrated and worried about who’s hiring and who’s firing.”

Sometime soon, the Dolphins will pick their next head coach, and perhaps Flores or Bieniemy or Richard will have the opportunity to start a different trend. Granted, going 1-for-8 would still be an awful percentage. While striving to make the long, hard climb to equality, though, even one more foothold is better than nothing.

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