NFL coaching hires showed fairness, encouraging results

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It was the most legitimate hiring process the NFL has had maybe ever. As eight franchises jostled to find new head coaches, there was no procedural buffoonery, no blatant rule circumvention, no hasty and ill-fitting decision.

For once, these billionaire toys functioned like serious organizations. Unfair practices usually mar the carousel, but most of the cries of injustice were about Bill Belichick, the dour conductor of the New England Patriots’ six-championship dynasty who didn’t get a job after a 29-38 record over the past four seasons. The rest were about a Belichick protégé, Mike Vrabel, a coach who hit the market after two losing seasons and friction with Tennessee Titans General Manager Ran Carthon.

In other words, nothing unfair occurred.

Capitulation to Belichick-ian behavior is unmistakably passé now.

With one quarter of the league’s 32 coaching jobs open, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, and the 2024 hiring period ended with encouraging results. Of the eight hires, half are men of color: three Black coaches (Raheem Morris, Antonio Pierce and Jerod Mayo) and one Mexican American (Dave Canales). But the pursuit of enhanced diversity isn’t limited to race, ethnicity and gender. It’s about minimizing groupthink and expanding copycat minds so there’s a place for new people with fresh ideas — no matter their identity — to be leaders in a game that tends to get stale easily despite its immense popularity.

Five of the eight new coaches have defensive backgrounds, challenging the breathless notion that teams are now better off being steered by offensive gurus. The youth movement continued with six of those coaches under 50, including three who have yet to celebrate their 40th birthdays. And a few surprise hires, such as the Titans picking Brian Callahan and the Carolina Panthers turning to Canales, hinted at teams thinking more about fit and organizational alignment than familiar names who probably won’t win much more than a news conference.

At least half of these coaches are destined to fail, but that’s simply the unfortunate nature of the sport. Even if that happens, it doesn’t diminish the value of an equitable and open-minded process.

The point is opportunity. It always has been. Aspiring head coaches want general managers, presidents and owners to actually study their league. Once you take out assumptions, conduct real interviews and act with intentionality about researching overlooked talent, you’re no longer a detriment to inclusion.

NFL head coaching hiring cycle shows signs of diversity improvement

It only took the NFL more than a century of systemic racism, generations of traumatized coaches, multiple Rooney Rule enhancements, draft pick compensation for developing minority coaches and executives, multiple other policies, a Brian Flores-led racial discrimination lawsuit and intense public scrutiny to make a purposeful move in the right direction. There is no single factor that contributed to the sport nearly doubling its minority representation in one hiring period, raising the head count to a record nine head coaches of color next season. And that’s the most positive sign.

Morris, formerly an assistant and interim coach with the Atlanta Falcons, has had a good relationship with the franchise and owner Arthur Blank. Pierce went 5-4 as the Las Vegas Raiders’ interim coach, fixing some of the mess Josh McDaniels made, and owner Mark Davis couldn’t again pass over a successful interim after ditching Rich Bisaccia three years ago to make the mistake with McDaniels. In New England, owner Robert Kraft honored a coach-in-waiting agreement with Mayo and quickly elevated him to succeed Belichick. Despite the Patriots’ struggles since parting with Tom Brady, Kraft was adamant about maintaining the organizational culture. He just didn’t want Belichick as the primary steward anymore.

Canales was the pick in Carolina partly because he worked with new general manager Dan Morgan in Seattle. Organic relationships and networking still mean the most.

But without a policy cocktail to make teams pause and think differently, the race to get any coach with a reputation would continue to be a problem. In this cycle, some teams interviewed as many as 15 candidates. The Rooney Rule now requires franchises to do in-person interviews with at least two minority or female coaches from outside the organization for a head coach or GM job. They also must interview two such candidates for all coordinator positions.

It’s much harder now to lock in on one candidate and conduct disingenuous interviews with the others. Front offices used to scout undrafted free agents better than they researched potential coaches. The eight teams with new leaders also came away with a deeper understanding of the entire pipeline.

Every year at this time, they brace for judgment at NFL headquarters in midtown Manhattan. For all the strategies that league employees have devised to foster diversity, they know perception comes down to this high-profile problem. Racial equity is the longest game they will ever play, and the NFL has been trailing progress forever, which feeds the impulse to watch the scoreboard.

Most years, they’re left to react to failure. Sometimes, they’re resolute. Sometimes, they’re exasperated. Sometimes, they’re in denial or defensive or as angry at their billionaire bosses as they can safely be. Mostly, though, they’re somber. Until it proves otherwise, the most powerful league in America does not want to solve the saddest example of institutional sports bias, and diversity advocates within the NFL somehow bear a greater burden than the decision-makers who don’t have to answer to them — or seemingly anyone else.

“This kind of work is tough, and I have gotten very emotional over this,” Jonathan Beane, the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, admitted once during an interview. “We put a lot of emotion, sweat and tears into it. It’s very personal to us. A lot of people are depending on us.”

For once, Beane can relax, if only for the briefest moment. Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, can see evidence that reinforces the importance of his passion, ideas and audacity. They’re just two of many in the league office trying to make a decentralized cluster of 32 competing teams commit to a shared value.

It’s possible to dream again. In a year, the story could be much different if several marquee franchises with uncertain futures are in the market for coaches at a time when Belichick, Vrabel, Pete Carroll and hyped offensive coordinators Ben Johnson and Bobby Slowik are again available.

But for now, in the afterglow DeMeco Ryans’s stunning debut with the Houston Texans, teams are flirting with diversity. It feels like a moment. If not, it’s an opportunity, at least. Success alone won’t defeat bias, but it is a potent weapon.

This wave of coaches must make their statement. As the profession starts to change, this is their chance to be tastemakers.

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