Lack of diversity looms over NFL coach/GM hiring cycle

A flurry of hires and anticipated agreements in the last week has already brought the NFL’s annual shopping spree of coaches and general managers nearly to a close. Just two head coaching jobs — in Houston and Philadelphia, both of which got late starts, with the Texans deciding to first hire a GM and the Eagles waiting until after the season to fire Doug Pederson — remain open, and just one GM spot is still up for grabs. With most teams already embarking on their makeovers, it’s not too early to look at the biggest issue that hovered over this cycle and, alas, which is certain to remain whenever the jobs are all filled.

Diverse hiring still needs a lot of work. The NFL spent much of the last year trying to figure out how to improve the chances for minority coaches and personnel executives to ascend to the big jobs. The process — which the Rooney Rule was designed and tweaked to address, by requiring teams to interview minority candidates for key positions — has improved. More diverse candidates have been interviewed for more jobs, and the candidates had such good resumes that we have heard far less suspicion of sham interviews than during previous cycles. But the results remain, at best, mixed, with good news for GMs and more disappointment for coaches; the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates for greater diversity in the NFL, released a statement Monday calling the lack of opportunities for minority candidates “mind-boggling.”

Two of the six GM hires made so far are minorities: Terry Fontenot in Atlanta and Brad Holmes in Detroit. This instantly doubles the number of minority GMs in the NFL, with Jacksonville’s GM still yet to be determined.

The progress for general managers is welcome news around the league for two reasons: General managers often have the ears of owners, and general managers usually get two or three head coaching hires. The turnover cycle is not nearly as frequent for general managers as it is for coaches, and people around the league who monitor minority hiring point to the importance of stability and keeping the influence of someone with a minority background in the decision-making rooms.

Why the breakthrough now? This was considered a very deep bench of top personnel men who were prepared to ascend to the general manager’s chair. And there are more qualified candidates still waiting in the wings.

It is also hard to avoid the feeling that owners think hiring a man of color as the general manager is a less risky investment than hiring one as the head coach. For as much power as is attached to the GM job, it is not a front-facing position, and the sad reality is that many owners still seem to prefer someone who looks like them and their friends to be the face of their franchise. There is still just one team — the Miami Dolphins — with men of color as both GM (Chris Grier) and head coach (Brian Flores).

Robert Saleh, hired by the New York Jets, is the only diverse candidate to land a head-coaching job so far. Saleh feels like a home-run hire (more on that later), but the fact that a big pool of qualified men — Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy most prominently, but also Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, ex-Lions coach Jim Caldwell and Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier — is so far untapped means the NFL still has a significant problem. If Saleh is the only hire in this cycle, the NFL will remain at just four minority coaches (Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Ron Rivera in Washington, Flores and Saleh), and have gained no ground after the firing of Anthony Lynn by the Chargers. The Chargers’ hiring of Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley brings into sharp relief a major hurdle for minority coaches: meteoric rises of young coaches rarely happen for minorities. The recent popularity of young coaches has allowed them to leapfrog seasoned minority coaches, who for years were encouraged to serve as coordinators or to get play-calling experience, only to have the goalposts moved after they did that.

The bottom line is that progress can only be viewed, even by the most hopeful, as incremental this year. NFL officials and coaches are also closely watching coordinator hires as staffs fill up. Will Lynn and former Chargers QB coach Pep Hamilton get coordinator titles, as Dan Quinn (the former Falcons head coach, who became Dallas’ defensive coordinator) and Gus Bradley (the former Chargers defensive coordinator, who landed the same job in Las Vegas) already have? The promotion of DeMeco Ryans to defensive coordinator in San Francisco, where he replaces Saleh, is what the league wants to see more of. Those jobs are important because they are the most direct pipeline to the head jobs for the next cycle.

For now, with the Texans and Eagles continuing their searches, let’s look at the coaching hires that have already been made or are expected this week:

Robert Saleh, New York Jets: The aforementioned home run, Saleh looks to be exactly what the Jets need: a high-energy, upbeat personality who can galvanize the entire building. The Jets’ owner, Christopher Johnson, was clear that he did not want a coach who would concentrate on just one side of the ball, as recent coaches have. He wanted a CEO type who could lead the entire team. Expect the Jets to be more disciplined and technically sound. One of Saleh’s first big hires — Mike LaFleur, brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, as offensive coordinator — suggests he will assemble a good staff to revamp the Jets in conjunction with incumbent GM Joe Douglas overhauling the roster.

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars: The most intriguing hire by far, Meyer is one of the most successful coaches in college football history. Which, of course, makes him a gigantic risk. He has absolutely no NFL experience, and the NFL is littered with college coaches who tried to make the leap and fell flat. Meyer said he will lean on his friend Jimmy Johnson, who became a Hall of Fame NFL coach after making the jump from the college level, for advice, and that will surely help. The other thing that gives him a better chance of success than most: not only do the Jaguars possess the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but they have a bundle of other draft picks and the most cap space in the league. That combination presents Meyer with the closest thing the NFL has to a recruiting class — Meyer can remake a large chunk of the roster in one offseason if he wants. Meyer makes the Jaguars instantly relevant, but keep an eye on the GM job. Meyer needs someone with vast pro personnel experience, which, of course, he lacks.

Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers: The best job available just went to someone who was coaching in Division III five years ago. That doesn’t mean Staley is the wrong choice, but it is certainly the riskiest made so far this year. Conventional wisdom suggested the Chargers should hire an offensive-minded coach to pair with quarterback Justin Herbert, so Staley’s offensive coordinator hire is going to be critical. Staley’s Rams defense was the best in the league this season, and he earned plaudits from players like Jalen Ramsey. But the Chargers are a team with enough talent to win right now, so the only question that matters is whether Staley’s very short resume prepared him for the big job.

Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons: The architect of the Titans’ offense — and Ryan Tannehill’s renaissance — now gets the final best years of Matt Ryan’s career. That is good news for Ryan and even better news for Smith, who has much better raw material to work with in Ryan than he did in Tannehill. Still, 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry is not coming with Smith from Tennessee, so there is a real question about whether the Titans’ offensive output can be duplicated. There is an opening for success, though. Drew Brees is expected to retire, casting the Saints’ future into immediate question. The Carolina Panthers don’t know who their quarterback will be next year, and Tom Brady is signed through 2021 in Tampa. The NFC South is not as daunting as it once seemed.

Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions: Campbell’s hiring hasn’t been announced yet, but it has been in the works for a week. Campbell has never been a coordinator, but what he lacks in experience with Xs and Os, he makes up for in leadership and communication skills, something the Lions needed after some difficult years with Matt Patricia. A former NFL player of 10 seasons, Campbell does have head-coaching experience — when the Miami Dolphins fired Joe Philbin after four games in 2015, Campbell coached the final 12 games, and the Dolphins went 5-7 in that span. He has spent the last five seasons on Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans, and that’s about as good a classroom as a coach could have. Campbell’s lack of play-calling experience will make his coordinator hires important, and he and new GM Brad Holmes will have big decisions to make, especially about quarterback Matthew Stafford’s future. Campbell’s expected hiring feels risky only because he does not have traditional lines on the resume, but teams seem to finally be recognizing that communication and coalition-building are just as important in making a franchise functional. Campbell is poised to become the latest test case.

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