The NFL's recent efforts to strengthen its minority hiring practices by bolstering enforcement of its longstanding Rooney Rule have been followed by a firing cycle that has disproportionately affected the league's African-American head coaches, significantly dwindling their ranks.
Five of the eight coaches fired leaguewide since midway through the regular season are African-American. That has left only three minority coaches in the NFL as the carousel spins anew to replace those coaches just fired.
The sport continues to grapple with its minority-hiring issues 16 years after team owners, under the threat of litigation, enacted the Rooney Rule in December 2002. The rule is named for late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the former chairman of the NFL's workplace diversity committee, and it requires each team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. It has been tweaked and strengthened over the years, most recently at the owners' meeting in Dallas nearly three weeks ago.
Leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works closely with the NFL on its minority hiring practices, said Monday they are watching the current firing-and-hiring cycle closely and are not overly alarmed or concerned at this point about the number of African-American coaches being dismissed. But the decreased number of African-American head coaches does reinforce the need for ongoing efforts to ensure that fair opportunities exist for minority coaches, they said.
"We all know it's win or go home," John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a phone interview. "We'll work at it and go on. We'll keep looking at it and push forward for the next opportunities."
Of the minority coaches fired, Hue Jackson was dismissed by the Cleveland Browns during the season. The New York Jets' Todd Bowles, the Denver Broncos' Vance Joseph, the Arizona Cardinals' Steve Wilks and the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis were ousted since Sunday's conclusion of the regular season. The Bengals called Lewis's departure a mutual decision and Lewis said at a news conference that both he and owner Mike Brown believed it was time to part ways after 16 seasons.
"Marvin was a little bit of a different situation," Wooten said. "He probably could have stayed there for another year if he really wanted to. I think maybe he thought it was time to move on."
Wilks just had completed his first season with the Cardinals, who had a record of 3-13. Joseph coached the Broncos for two seasons with a combined record of 11-21.
"It's sort of cyclical," Wooten said. "I'm a little bit surprised at the two young guys, Vance Joseph and Steve Wilks, not because of the color. It's just very difficult to say you're going to come in and win in your first and second year when you're going into a place where things haven't been going well."
"I would say that this is primarily a phenomenon of just how competitive this process is and how short the timelines for teams [to judge coaches] are," Cyrus Mehri, counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said by phone Monday. "We are heartened by the strengthening of the Rooney Rule as we move forward. But there are some challenges in the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach positions. There are simply too few minority coaches in those positions. That's something we need to focus on."
The league did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Fritz Pollard Alliance leaders have said over the years they are focused on ensuring that the interviewing and hiring process is fair, not on attempting to dictate which coaches are hired and fired by teams.
As it became increasingly apparent in recent years that NFL teams, in an offense-first league, were looking primarily at offensive coordinators for prospective promotions to being head coaches, the Fritz Pollard Alliance pointed to the underrepresentation of minority coaches in offensive coordinator jobs and pushed for the Rooney Rule to be extended to coordinator jobs, as it previously was extended to cover key front office positions.
The NFL has not enacted that as a formal rule, although it did agree in December 2016 to apply the Rooney Rule to some coordinator vacancies on an informal basis, without penalties for noncompliance.
The league has toughened the rule in other ways. The NFL announced Dec. 12 that it was tweaking the rule to require a team with a coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate from outside its organization or from the list of candidates compiled by the league's advisory board. That apparently came in response to accusations that some teams, including the Oakland Raiders a year ago, circumvented the rule by interviewing minority candidates not considered legitimate contenders to be hired.
The December changes also require teams to maintain complete records of the interviewing process and dictate that if a franchise's top decision-maker, such as the owner, is involved in the interviewing and hiring process at the outset, that top decision-maker must remain involved through completion of the process. The NFL reiterated its commitment to punishing teams for noncompliance with the Rooney Rule.
The eight current vacancies provide potential opportunities for minority head coaching candidates such as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores and Jim Caldwell, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions. Caldwell was fired by the Lions following a 2016 season in which the team went 9-7. The Lions went 6-10 this season under Caldwell's replacement, Matt Patricia.
Lewis endorsed Jackson, who rejoined the Bengals as an assistant coach following his dismissal in Cleveland, as his possible replacement in Cincinnati. Wooten said he's hopeful that the coaches just fired will be given further chances.
"I wouldn't be surprised if two or three of these guys surface somewhere else," Wooten said.