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Why Black head coaches lost ground in NFL, and what teams should know when hiring

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20 years ago, Washington attorneys Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Cyrus Mehri produced an influential report titled, “Black Coaches within the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” using civil-rights enforcement strategies to indicate how Black coaches were being treated unfairly.

The 2002 report, now featured at each the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, precipitated the NFL’s adoption of the Rooney Rule one 12 months later.

The hiring rate for Black coaches increased as Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell and Mike Tomlin reached Super Bowls, however the momentum has been lost in recent times. Hiring rates for Black coaches have stalled and even receded. This time, advocates can now not cite superior on-field results when encouraging team owners to contemplate Black candidates.

Call it the Houston Texans effect.

Essentially the most pivotal variable for achievement in the game — quarterback play — has doomed the 15 most recently hired Black head coaches to a combined 194-312-3 (.384) record, helping to deliver the NFL to its current crossroads as five teams seek recent head coaches.

Superior performance for Black head coaches? Not recently. Inferior opportunities? Absolutely, and particularly when one considers how White head coaches from the sizzling-hot Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay tree have found themselves aligned with top quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert) and good ones (Kirk Cousins), fueling their success.

The 32-team league has seen the variety of Black head coaches fall from an underwhelming 6.0 per season from 2015-18 to what it considers an unacceptable 3.3 per season since then, culminating with Brian Flores’ discrimination lawsuit following his firing from the Miami Dolphins last 12 months.

With the 2023 hiring cycle ramping up, a correct accounting is timely.

It’s all in regards to the quarterback

The league focuses on hiring since it’s the one variable it could actually regulate, but a number one reason the NFL did not sustain its overall numbers of Black head coaches has been hiding in plain sight.

Hiring DateBlack HCOther HC

2003-2010

.510 (10 HC)

.497 (40 HC)

2011-2022

.384 (15 HC)

.498 (72 HC)

The 15 Black head coaches hired since 2011 have combined to win only 38 percent (194-312-3) of their games while disproportionately paired with lesser quarterbacks, stopping them from having the endurance required to keep up and grow the NFL’s total variety of Black head coaches.

Last 15 Black HCs Hired (2011-22)

HC (Team)Primary QBWIn %

Jim Caldwell (DET)

.563

Mike McDaniel (MIA)

.529

Anthony Lynn (LAC)

.516

Hue Jackson (LV)

.500

Brian Flores (MIA)

.490

Todd Bowles (TB)

.471

Leslie Frazier (MIN)

.385

Todd Bowles (NYJ)

.375

Vance Joseph (DEN)

.344

Lovie Smith (TB)

.250

David Culley (HOU)

.235

Lovie Smith (HOU)

.206

Steve Wilks (AZ)

.188

Romeo Crennel (KC)

.125

Hue Jackson (CLE)

.088

Totals

194-312-3 (.384)

Quarterbacks are key drivers of success over time for each coach. Bill Belichick’s winning percentage with Tom Brady (.774) and without Brady (.476) is a famous example.

For whatever reason, the 15 most recently hired Black head coaches generally did not land with quarterbacks ok to drive success over time. Caldwell with the Detroit Lions and Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers are the one coaches from this group to supply winning records across tenures lasting greater than a single season. They’d Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers, established upper-tier veteran quarterbacks.

Leslie Frazier won 39 percent of his games because the Minnesota Vikings’ coach with Christian Ponder as his primary quarterback. Vance Joseph won 34 percent because the Denver Broncos’ coach with Case Keenum as his primary quarterback.

David Culley and Lovie Smith were each one-and-done with Davis Mills as their primary quarterback for the Texans. Steve Wilks (with Josh Rosen in Arizona), Romeo Crennel (with Matt Cassel in Kansas City) and Hue Jackson (with DeShone Kizer and plenty of others in Cleveland) won lower than 25 percent of their games in largely hopeless situations.

Bowles’ 8-9 record with Brady this season stands out, but he took over from Bruce Arians after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had peaked. Since the transition was made in March, Bowles was not in position to tweak the coaching staff or make other changes that may need been set in motion earlier within the offseason if he had taken over in January, as most head coaches do.

Top QBs are watering the McVay/Shanahan tree

The trend in recent times has been for teams to focus on assistants from the Shanahan/McVay coaching trees. White coaches hired from McVay’s staffs have enjoyed built-in benefits that would create unrealistic expectations for team owners looking for coaches in the long run.

Matt LaFleur, who worked with Shanahan in Washington and under McVay on the Rams, landed in Green Bay with Rodgers. LaFleur has a 48-17 record (.723) with the long run Hall of Fame quarterback within the lineup, in comparison with 0-1 when Rodgers didn’t play.

Zac Taylor, a McVay protégé, struggled early in his tenure with Cincinnati and was rewarded with the No. 1 pick just as Burrow, considered a generational prospect by some, was entering the draft. Taylor is 24-17-1 (.583) when Burrow starts and 4-19 (.174) with other quarterbacks.

Kevin O’Connell, who also worked under McVay, landed in Minnesota with the solid-if-unspectacular Cousins and went 13-4 in his first season. His Vikings set an NFL record for many victories in one-score games, which can make Minnesota a candidate for regression in 2023.

A 3rd McVay protégé, Brandon Staley, became the Chargers’ head coach right after the team transitioned from Rivers to a different star quarterback in Herbert. Staley’s 19-15 mark with Herbert meets rough expectations, as Vegas oddsmakers projected 20 victories for the Chargers over the past two seasons.

NFL team owners looking to search out successful coaches might naturally see this group succeeding and judge hiring others from the identical tree is the method to go. Yet, for all anyone knows, LaFleur’s record without Rodgers could easily resemble Taylor’s 4-19 mark without Burrow.

These are transcendent truths.

Caldwell over his profession has a 24-8 (.750) mark with Peyton Manning, in comparison with 36-28 (.563) with Stafford and 0-8 with Curtis Painter.

Jackson went 8-7 for the Raiders when Carson Palmer and Jason Campbell were his starting quarterbacks. He was 0-23 in Cleveland with DeShone Kizer and Cody Kessler within the lineup.

Wilks’ ability to post a 6-6 record with Carolina on an interim basis this season stands out because Sam Darnold (4-2), P.J. Walker (2-3) and Baker Mayfield (0-1) were his starters. Wilks had gone 3-10 in Arizona with Rosen and 0-3 there with Sam Bradford.

Hiring rates aren’t all that matters

The NFL has acknowledged its minority hiring problem, specifically its Black hiring problem, within the pursuit of head coaches.

“Now we have to do a greater job,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said after the 2022 hiring cycle closed.

Black head coaches accounted for eight percent of hires (3 of 47) within the five years before the NFL’s 2003 adoption of the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview a minimum of one non-White candidate before making a hire. The speed has increased to 18 percent of hires since then (25 of 137). Even with a downtick in the speed recently, the rolling five-year average hiring rate has remained inside a comparatively tight band.

Between 35 and 40 percent of assistant coaches have been Black in recent seasons. The share of Black coordinators increased from between 15 and 20 percent in recent seasons to nearer 30 percent in 2022, driven by a rise in Black defensive coordinators. The league in 2022 began requiring teams to employ a minimum of one Black offensive assistant. The urgency will not be accidental.

The overall variety of Black head coaches declined from seven in 2017 and 2018 to 3 in 2019, 2020 and 2021 after Jackson, Wilks, Bowles, Joseph and Marvin Lewis were fired concurrently. Alarm bells sounded because the numbers fell and because the Las Vegas Raiders skirted the spirit of the Rooney Rule by hiring Jon Gruden without an open process.

The NFL now requires teams to interview a minimum of two non-White candidates before hiring head coaches. Teams must document interview duration and all personnel who participated. In-person interviews with candidates from other teams now must wait until after the wild-card playoff round. Distant interviews don’t satisfy the Rooney Rule. These measures slow a process that has sometimes produced hasty, prearranged hires.

Closing thoughts

Though having only 15 Black head coaches hired from 87 total hires (17 percent) since 2011 contributed to the present low numbers, pairing most of those coaches with ineffective quarterbacks turned the issue right into a crisis.

There’s little reason to expect the trend to proceed, unless the worst organizations hire Black coaches disproportionately, because the case seems to have been with the Texans recently.

The ten Black head coaches hired from the Rooney Rule’s 2003 adoption through 2010 won about half their games (488-468, .510), consistent with what we might expect the record to be for any randomly chosen group of coaches.

Previous 10 Black HCs Hired (2003-10)

HC (Team)Primary QBWin %

Mike Tomlin (PIT)

.636

Lovie Smith (CHI)

.563

Jim Caldwell (IND)

.542

Marvin Lewis (CIN)

.518

Mike Singletary (SF)

.419

Romeo Crennel (CLE)

.375

Raheem Morris (TB)

.354

Dennis Green (AZ)

.333

Herm Edwards (NYJ)

.313

Art Shell (LV)

.125

Totals

.510 (488-468)

The Rooney Rule in its original 2003 form helped to drive moderate increases. Strengthening the rule has not produced a direct spike, however it still might encourage gains in the long run. And if the subsequent wave of Black coaches fares higher on the quarterback front, the league could see the variety of Black head coaches approach and possibly exceed previous high-water marks.

The five teams with head coaching vacancies at present — Denver, Indianapolis, Houston, Arizona and Carolina — will provide some clues as to what the immediate future might hold.

2003-2022 NFL Head Coaches

SeasonBlack HCAll Other% Black

2003

3

29

9%

2004

5

27

16%

2005

6

26

19%

2006

7

25

22%

2007

6

26

19%

2008

6

26

19%

2009

6

26

19%

2010

6

26

19%

2011

7

25

22%

2012

5

27

16%

2013

3

29

9%

2014

4

28

13%

2015

5

27

16%

2016

5

27

16%

2017

7

23

22%

2018

7

25

22%

2019

3

29

9%

2020

3

29

9%

2021

3

29

9%

2022

4

28

13%

Total

108

622

17%

(Top photo of Steve Wilks: Eakin Howard / Getty Images)

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