Football used to be simple. Run the ball. Play defense. Execute those simple tenets and your team had a shot.
The NFL in 2013 isn’t your father’s football, though. Now you win in the NFL with explosive offense. In last week’s divisional round of the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons scored 30 points, which ended up being the lowest output by any of the four winning teams. Overall, last week’s eight playoff teams averaged 35 points. Clearly offense is the way teams are winning now.
To that end, NFL owners are looking for coaches that are well versed in running high-powered offenses. Of the eight head coaching openings this off-season, seven have been filled with coaches with offensive play-calling backgrounds. Chip Kelly was the hottest name in the coaching carousel this off-season, and the former Oregon coach was hired this week by the Philadelphia Eagles mainly because of the way he revolutionized offense in the college game.
If you want a head-coaching gig, your best bet is to be able to coach offense. So where does that leave African-American coaches?
The most common place to find an NFL coach is by looking at top coordinators. With the way the league’s headed, offensive coordinators are the applicants getting the most attention. But there’s currently only one African-American offensive coordinator in the NFL, Jim Caldwell of the Baltimore Ravens. And he only got the position after former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired after Week 13.
The only other African-American offensive coordinator last season was the Buffalo Bill’s Curtis Modkins, who was also the running backs coach. He didn’t actually call the offensive plays though, and he was recently hired by the Detroit Lions to coach their running backs.
The problem is most African-American coaches come from defensive backgrounds. Yahoo! Sports looked at the issue last month, and found that one of the main problems is a similar problem the NFL had pre-Rooney rule; African-Americans just aren’t getting opportunities to be hired for the offensive coordinator position. The story quoted one AFC African-American assistant as saying:
“This is the biggest travesty that’s taking place in this league, and every black coach is well aware of it. They don’t promote you from running backs coach or receivers coach to offensive coordinator. When guys do get coordinator titles, they have to be position coaches at the same time, and they don’t get paid as much as other coordinators, because they’re not the play-callers. And in a lot of cases, guys believe they’re really there for locker-room reasons, to ‘take care of’ the minority players.”
Another issue might be that there aren’t many African-American offensive candidates in the pipeline. The Yahoo! story cites Redskins running backs coach Bobby Turner and former Chiefs running backs coach Maurice Carthon (who this off season was coincidentally replaced by African-American Eric Bieniemy, who was the offensive coordinator for the University of Colorado) as the most viable candidate for coordinator gigs.
NFL owners also look to hire top college coaches every year, and last year there were 15 African-American coaches heading college programs. There’s certainly been progress, as there were only three black head coaches a decade ago, but there’s still plenty of work to do. There’s a total of 125 college head coaching jobs, so 15 isn’t exactly eye opening. There are solid candidates in Stanford’s David Shaw and Louisville’s Charlie Strong, but they both seem content at their current positions.
Many African-American coaches might have a similar problem that recently-fired head coach Lovie Smith is having. By all accounts, Smith was a great head man. He has a career 81-63 record, and guided the Chicago Bears to three division championships, two NFC title games, and a Super Bowl appearance in nine seasons. He’s won a Coach of the Year award, and even though his team missed the playoffs this year, they still went 10-6.
But Smith has a defensive background. And after getting a few interviews, he’s prepared to sit out a season and look for a head coaching job in 2014, due to lack of interest for his services.
Smith is one of the best coaches in the NFL, but because he’s an expert in defense in an offensive-focused game, his head coaching prospects are minimal. If Smith is having trouble getting a job, an African-American coordinator with defensive experience has virtually no chance.
When the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003, it was because there was no other option to get NFL ownership to interview minority candidates. We may not be at that extreme of a point yet, but if African-Americans don’t start getting opportunities to run NFL offenses, we might have the same lack of African-American head coaches that we had a decade ago.
Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace