Black NFL coaches have never been more poorly represented than they are now

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During and right after the 2018 regular season, five NFL teams fired their Black head coaches. There was Hue Jackson of the Browns, Marvin Lewis of the Bengals, Steve Wilks of the Cardinals, Todd Bowles of the Jets, and Vance Joseph of the Broncos. All five of those coaches were replaced by white candidates — Gregg Williams (interim) and Freddie Kitchens for the Browns, Zac Taylor for the Bengals, Kliff Kingsbury for the Cardinals, Adam Gase (ouch) for the Jets, and Vic Fangio for the Broncos.

That bloodletting left two Black head coaches in the NFL — Mike Tomlin with the Steelers, and Anthony Lynn with the Chargers. Lynn was fired in January, 2021 and replaced by former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley — another white candidate.

Now, after the somewhat surprising firing of former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores on Monday (the former Patriots linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator was hired by Miami in 2019), there are exactly two Black head coaches in the NFL — Tomlin, and David Culley of the Texans. Culley was brought in this season to calmly oversee an absolute disaster of a franchise, and his fate after a 4-13 record remains to be seen. If Culley is fired this week, and no Black coaches are hired to replace the head coaches who got their walking papers this season, that would leave just one Black head coach in the NFL.

And that, at a time when NFL rosters have been primarily Black for decades, and the league is falling all over itself to be portrayed as a positive force for social change, is completely unacceptable.

Why is this even more of a problem than it has ever been before?

White mediocrity leads the way.

(Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com-USA TODAY NETWORK)

That’s not to say that any coach at any level should be hired because he or she is Black; it’s more to say that while the NFL keeps pace with white mediocrity and has always done so, it’s inarguable that on the whole, Black head coaches are held to a higher standard, and given far less oxygen with which to navigate any kind of roster and cultural architecture.

Need proof from this season? Let’s start with Giants head coach Joe Judge, who has been a disaster from start to finish in his two-year tenure. He has a 10-23 record, his playcalling and talent deployment tend to be a joke at the best of times (Exhibit Z right here), and there are reports that Judge’s own players want him out even as ownership holds fast to the idea that Judge is the guy to turn the franchise around. Judge’s Giants lost their last six games, and seven of their final eight

Need more proof? The Panthers hired Matt Rhule two years ago. Rhule has the same 10-23 record Judge has, Carolina lost their last seven games in 2021, and eight of their final nine. Rhule has overseen similarly horrible roster and talent deployment decisions, and if you want to know how clear he is on his own quarterback situation after two full seasons… well, this ain’t good.

Black coaches are held to a higher standard, and are quickly cast aside.

(Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)

Meanwhile, Flores was fired after the Dolphins started 1-7, but won eight of their last nine games, and several young defensive players — including rookies Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland — became stars. First-round receiver Jaylen Waddle broke Anquan Boldin’s rookie record for receptions with 104, and that was with an iffy quarterback situation that, to be honest, Flores didn’t always manage well.

But if you were looking at these three coaches, which one would you want to guide your team? Rhule and Judge still have jobs and organizational control. Flores is now looking for a gig.

The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 2017 in which he finished 9-7 for the second straight season. Why? Because ownership wanted someone who could push the team over the top. Former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was the first choice. Patricia scuttled the franchise with horrid coaching, and he blew up the locker room as quickly as he could. His 13-19-1 record over nearly three seasons, compared to Caldwell’s 36-28 record and two playoff appearances, tells you all you need to know.

Well, almost all you need to know. Caldwell has never been offered another head coaching position. Dan Campbell, who became Detroit’s head coach kn 2021, is constantly praised for improving the culture — and justifiably so — but he finished his first season as a head coach with a 3-13-1 record.

How many Black head coaches do you think would get a splinter of a second chance if they had that record after one season? Culley went 4-13, and he may be retained, but that has much more to do with the fact that the Texans’ head coaching position isn’t exactly the league’s most attractive. Black head coaches have also historically been used as placeholders when things are too bad to go after other coaches that might be preferred by ownership.

The glass ceiling for Black assistants is ever more oppressive.

(Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Eric Bieniemy replaced Matt Nagy as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator after Nagy was hired by the Bears. Nagy was also fired on Monday. Nagy replaced Doug Pederson after Pederson was hired by the Eagles. The Andy Reid tree has been a slam-dunk for head coaching opportunities, but that slam-dunk seems to turn into a brick when Bieniemy is involved, despite Reid and Chiefs players talking up and down about how important Bieniemy is to what the Chiefs do on offense.

Two of Bruce Arians’ most trusted assistants with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, should be in heavy consideration for head coaching jobs. Of course, when you’ve got humpties in the media like this guy mistaking Leftwich for Bowles right after Super Bowl LV, it could be said that we in the media have a lot of work to do, as well.

Per Tim Iannello of Cronkite News, a recent study conducted by Global Sport Matters showed that the percentage of minority offensive and defensive coordinators has dropped precipitously in the last two decades. Black offensive coordinators made up 43% of the league’s overall picture, dropping to 8% at the time of the study. Black defensive coordinators dropped from 37% to 29% over the same period of time.

What’s the primary pipeline for head coach positions at any level of football? You guessed it.

How does the NFL fix this?

(AP Photo/Paul Beaty, File)

There is no simple answer to that question, unless you go with the correct and default response: The NFL doesn’t see a problem here, no matter what it says, and therefore, change will not be coming. The Rooney Rule doesn’t work — if it did, it would have already. Mostly, the Rooney Rule gives Black candidates interview practice for jobs they were never in line to get. Giving teams draft picks for elevating minority candidates is the rough equivalent of putting spackle on a wall that fell down years ago.

People tend to be comfortable with what they know. For people in charge of NFL teams to go out of their ways to break the glass ceiling, they’ll have to do so with intent, and decidedly against the grain. When you add that to the risk-averse preferences most teams take in hiring, it’s a tough nut to crack.

Assuming that ownership of color will automatically skew things in a more progressive direction is far from automatic. Shad Khan, a man of Pakistani-American descent, has owned the Jaguars since December, 2011. Since 2012 the Jaguars have had five head coaches, and all of them have been white: Mike Mularkey, Gus Bradley, Doug Marrone, Urban Meyer, and Darrell Bevell. Meyer was one of the splashiest and worst coaching hires in NFL history.

Owners obviously have every right to hire whoever they want to coach their teams, to their benefit or detriment. But it’s abundantly clear that Black coaching candidates have been woefully under-represented throughout NFL history, and when you consider the world today, that’s never been more true than it is now.

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