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Black offensive assistants encounter roadblocks to becoming NFL head coaches

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Two Sundays ago, nearly an hour after completing a dubious debut as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell waited outside the visitors' locker room at M&T Bank Stadium, hoping to get a few words with Peyton Manning.

When the Denver Broncos' future Hall of Fame quarterback learned that Caldwell, his close friend from their decade together with the Indianapolis Colts, was in the hallway, he had a team official escort the 57-year-old coach into a small, adjacent room, where the two men spoke for nearly 15 minutes.

Afterward, as he walked to the team bus outside the stadium, Manning talked about the awkward position into which Caldwell had been placed. After Baltimore suffered consecutive defeats to slip to 9-4, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired, reportedly at the urging of owner Steve Bisciotti. And though Cameron's replacement had been the head coach of the Colts' 2009 team that lost to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Caldwell had never called plays on any level.

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Jim Caldwell jogs on the field before the start of the Ravens game against the Broncos. (Getty Images)

"That is not easy to do," Manning said, referring to Caldwell's Week 14 job change. "Jim's the most loyal coach I've ever met. I can assure you that is not the [ideal] position … he and Cam are very tight.

"He's a great football coach. I guarantee you, when some of these head jobs come open this year, Jim Caldwell ought to be a head coach, in my opinion."

In the meantime, as the Ravens (10-5) prepare for a fifth consecutive postseason appearance under coach John Harbaugh, Caldwell is a man bucking a troublesome trend: He is the lone minority to serve as an offensive play-caller for an NFL team.

Though there has been tremendous progress during the 21st century in terms of diversification of job opportunities traditionally dominated by Caucasians, the offensive guru pool is almost exclusively white.

While five of the league's 32 head coaches are African-American, and the Panthers' Ron Rivera is Hispanic, all six of those men come from primarily defensive backgrounds. And though the number of African-American starting quarterbacks is roughly the same (currently: Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick and Josh Freeman), only Caldwell is truly running an NFL offense.

"We are very, very conscious of this issue, and it's something that needs to be addressed," said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization charged with promoting equality of job opportunity in NFL coaching and front office staffs. "We have alluded to it and spoken to it directly, and we feel our only course of action is to push more people up the pipeline."

Complicating matters for Wooten and the legions of aspiring minority offensive coordinators is that the pipeline is also disproportionately dry.

"Really, the reason why there aren't a lot of guys calling plays is that you have to have people ascending to quarterbacks coach and jobs that lead to coordinator positions. And that's simply not happening," said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "There are a lot of good coaches who aren't getting those opportunities."

Right now, the NFL's only other African-American offensive coordinator is the Buffalo Bills' Curtis Modkins, who doubles as the team's running backs coach. However, Bills coach Chan Gailey is the team's de facto offensive coordinator and primary play-caller. Only two African-Americans, the Houston Texans' Karl Dorrell and the Minnesota Vikings' Craig Johnson, are quarterbacks coaches, the position-coach job which most frequently leads to offensive-coordinator opportunities.

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"This is the biggest travesty that's taking place in this league, and every black coach is well aware of it," said one anonymous African-American assistant for an AFC team. "They don't promote you from running backs coach or receivers coach to offensive coordinator. When guys do get coordinator titles, they have to be position coaches at the same time, and they don't get paid as much as other coordinators, because they're not the play-callers. And in a lot of cases, guys believe they're really there for locker-room reasons, to 'take care of' the minority players."

Though the rare minority assistant has broken through to become his team's primary play-caller in recent years, most notably current Bengals assistant and recent Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson, most have been stonewalled by a system that has some glass-ceiling characteristics.

Clarence Shelmon, the San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator for the previous five seasons, announced his retirement last January, apparently frustrated by the lack of advancement. A longtime NFL running backs coach who was promoted to coordinator after helping to produce LaDainian Tomlinson's record-setting 2006 season in San Diego, Shelmon had no play-calling responsibilities because those duties were handled by Chargers coach Norv Turner, who is known for his prowess in that area.

However, despite the Chargers' success early in Turner's tenure, no NFL team felt compelled to offer Shelmon a chance to assume that role. Shelmon did not return voice and text messages seeking comment.

"He decided to go home, and I don't blame him," Wooten said of Shelmon. "There comes a time when you just have to throw up your hands and go home."

Another veteran coach who has seemingly been victimized by the system is Atlanta Falcons wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who also declined comment. Robiskie, an offensive coordinator with the Raiders from 1989-1992, was twice installed as an interim coach for teams in the midst of lost seasons: The 2000 Washington Redskins, for whom he coached the final three games after Turner was fired, and the 2004 Cleveland Browns, for whom he coached the last five games after having served as Butch Davis' offensive coordinator.

Following that season, Romeo Crennel was hired to replace Davis and Robiskie remained as the Browns' wide receivers coach, a post he has since held for Cleveland, the Miami Dolphins and Falcons.

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Terry Robiskie with Falcons WR Julio Jones. (USA Today Sports Images)

"Look at what Terry Robiskie has brought to the game," Lewis said. "He understands offense, and he gets guys to respond. His receivers will knock your [expletive] off. [Mohamed] Massoquoi's best years, Braylon Edwards' best years, were with him in Cleveland."

To Lewis, it makes little sense that receivers and running backs coaches aren't regarded as viable candidates to ascend to play-callers by more of his peers. Having served as a minority-coaching intern under the Bill Walsh-coached San Francisco 49ers in the '80s, Lewis developed an appreciation for the way the late Hall of Fame mentor integrated his position coaches into the strategic fabric of the offense.

"Bill Walsh was very forward-thinking," Lewis said. "Denny Green was his wide receivers coach, and that was an elite position on the offensive staff, because of the understanding he had to have of adjustments in the passing game. I know on our staff, [receivers coach] James Urban has to be well-versed in route-adjustments, run-blocking responsibilities based on coverage and so many other wrinkles.

"The guy in that role has to be forward-thinking, innovative and think outside the box."

Wooten also cites Walsh, who spearheaded the minority-coaching fellowship program that now bears his name, for understanding the need to increase the pool of aspiring coaches by exposing them to the duties assumed by coordinators and head coaches.

"The whole thing we have to do in terms of building this pipeline is make teams more conscious of the fact that [position coaches] want to get involved," Wooten said. "I tell these running backs, receivers and quarterbacks coaches, 'Go to the head coach and general manager and tell them you want this as an opportunity to learn.' You learn by being in gameplan meetings, when plays are being installed. You listen and learn."

Yet it still requires a head coach being willing to give an opportunity to an untested position coach, something that isn't always as easy as it sounds. For Jackson, who was given some play-calling responsibility while working for the Redskins (as Steve Spurrier's offensive coordinator in 2003) and Falcons (as Bobby Petrino's offensive coordinator in 2007), another breakthrough came in 2008, when Harbaugh hired him as the Ravens' quarterbacks coach.

After two years in Baltimore earned him positive reviews, Jackson attracted the attention of Raiders owner Al Davis, the man who hired the first African-American head coach (Art Shell, in 1989) of the modern era. Davis brought in Jackson as Tom Cable's offensive coordinator, giving him full control on that side of the ball, and the results were striking.

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In the two previous years, the Raiders' offense had finished 29th and 31st, respectively, in the league rankings. Under Jackson in 2010, the Raiders ranked 10th, more than doubling their point total from the previous year. Davis then fired Cable after an 8-8 season and gave Jackson the head-coaching job, and Oakland's offense continued to flourish, ranking ninth at season's end. No team rushed for more yards (4,604) than the Raiders during the 2010-11 seasons.

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Hue Jackson lasted just one season as head coach of the Raiders. (AP)

However, Davis died during the 2011 campaign, and after missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record, Jackson was fired by the late owner's son, Mark. Jackson interviewed for the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator position last January but ultimately returned to Cincinnati, the team for which he'd served as receivers coach from 2004-06, as an assistant secondary and special teams coach.

"He's an invaluable member of my staff," Lewis said of Jackson, who declined to be interviewed. "Not only does he have a great ability to relate to players, but he's so gifted when it comes to looking at and attacking a defense and exploiting its weaknesses. We're seeing it now when he helps us gameplan against opposing offenses, and it pays off."

Wooten said his organization will push Jackson, a recent finalist for the Cal coaching job that went to Sonny Dykes, as a candidate for upcoming NFL vacancies. "We view Hue as a head coach," Wooten said. "We think that's where he belongs."

Another African-American Wooten regarded as a prime NFL head-coaching candidate, David Shaw, recently asked to be taken off the list after signing an extension with Stanford, having taken his alma mater to the Rose Bowl in his second season at the helm. In terms of cultivating minorities with the potential to become play-callers at the NFL level, the college ranks hold a great deal of promise, with Shaw, Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and recently hired Purdue coach Darrell Hazell all having specialized on the offensive side of the ball.

In NFL circles, however, there is still work to be done. Wooten cites Redskins running backs coach Bobby Turner, one of two offense-oriented minorities (along with the Chiefs' Maurice Carthon) to hold "assistant head coach" titles, as a natural candidate for offensive coordinator.

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Turner, who spent 15 years as the Denver Broncos' running backs coach, has reunited with Washington coach Mike Shanahan, whose son, Kyle, is the Redskins' offensive coordinator and play-caller.

"He knows that offense inside and out," Wooten said of Turner. "Look at all those running backs he had in Denver, who weren't necessarily supposed to thrive on the NFL level, and how they performed. Look at what [rookie] Alfred Morris is doing in Washington now. He should be a coordinator, and we truly believe he's ready to be a head coach."

Wooten, however, stops short of recommending that the Rooney Rule, which requires at least one minority to be interviewed for head coaching, general manager or director of football operations posts, be extended to include coordinators.

"I just feel that the head coach has to have the right to select his people," Wooten said. "If they can't see who's the best out there for them, they're gonna perish anyway."

So, for now, Caldwell is carrying the torch for a quiet crusade that nonetheless generates a lot of noise in minority coaching circles. And, following his unit's dismal performance in that 34-17 defeat to the Broncos, he gave that frustrated community something to cheer about last Sunday.

Caldwell, who’d joined the Ravens as quarterbacks coach after being fired in Indy last January, altered his approach before Baltimore gained 533 yards in a 33-14 thrashing of the New York Giants, employing a fast-paced attack that kept the visitors off balance.

"It seemed like they had 13 guys on the field, and then two would run off," New York linebacker Chase Blackburn told the Baltimore Sun afterward. "So we were in a messed-up personnel, especially early. And then we basically had to stay more vanilla at times, because personnel were coming in so late."

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Caldwell also frequently moved quarterback Joe Flacco on rollouts and sprint passes, which neutralized the Giants' pass rush, and attacked the middle more aggressively than Baltimore had in previous games. His head coach, for one, was impressed.

"The main thing to me is that Jim is an excellent football coach," Harbaugh said. "He understands the game and people and he is a very good teacher."

If Caldwell can continue to stimulate the Ravens' attack, and if Baltimore can make some noise during the playoffs, it should bolster his résumé  and, perhaps, create some opportunities for aspiring minority play-callers down the road.

"That would be nice," said the unnamed AFC assistant. "So far, it's been a rough road, for a whole lot of people."

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