The N.F.L. Has Gotten Nowhere on Its Race Problem

On Thursday, the Houston Texans, an N.F.L. franchise worth $3.7 billion in 2021, announced that it had interviewed Josh McCown for the role of head coach. The Texans fired their previous head coach, David Culley, on Jan. 13, after just one season. (The Texans finished 4-13.)

It’s odd to me that the Texans interviewed Josh McCown, because he doesn’t have any experience as an N.F.L. head coach. Or as an N.F.L. assistant coach. Or as a coach of any kind at the professional or college level. (He has, however, coached high school football.) Josh McCown is currently an N.F.L. quarterback. In fact, both the New York Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars were interested in adding him to their rosters as recently as October to serve as a backup QB.

It’s not uncommon for former players to become N.F.L. head coaches. As of right now, there are seven such coaches, including Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans and Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals.

But no one goes straight from the field to the top job. “I don’t believe there’s anyone in recent memory who would have transitioned from being a player into becoming an N.F.L. head coach without any coaching experience before,” Bill Barnwell, a staff writer at ESPN.com, told me.

But McCown has had not just one interview for the head coaching job with the Texans, but two — the Texans talked to him about the position last year, according to the Houston Chronicle reporter John McClain. And the sportswriter and television host Mike Florio reported that the Texans are so enthusiastic about hiring McCown that they are hoping another team interviews him for an open head coaching position to legitimize their choice. (Florio also called the potential hiring “crazy.”)

David Culley, on the other hand, was an N.F.L. assistant coach for 27 years before he finally got the chance to serve as a head coach in the league. He coached in Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Baltimore. As the Texans head coach, he was given a very, very bad team that had lost almost all of its stars in trades, and he did a manful job of winning four games. (Successful N.F.L. coaches have often had bad first seasons, and, I must repeat, the Houston Texans were hot garbage.) But he has now joined a depressing club — the 18th N.F.L. head coach since 1994 to get fired after one year on the job.

David Culley is also Black. He was one of three Black head coaches in the N.F.L. in 2021. With his firing and with the sacking of the Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, there is now one Black head coach left in the N.F.L., the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin. Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of N.F.L. players are Black.

Owners seem to have less patience with nonwhite N.F.L. coaches. In 2019, the sports website The Undefeated published results from a study that found that from 2009 to 2018 nonwhite head coaches averaged much shorter tenures than their white counterparts and were less likely to land a second head coaching position after getting fired. As Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr put it, they get “​​half the runway of their white counterparts, requiring gargantuan expectations to succeed in impossible scenarios.”

The league has been confronted with these criticisms for decades. In 2002, the famed attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. released a damning report entitled “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities.” It showed that over a 15-year period, Black N.F.L. coaches averaged more wins than their white counterparts and yet had harder times getting hired and were more likely to get fired. Cochran then threatened to sue the N.F.L. if it did not change its hiring practices.

The N.F.L. did what any large corporation would do in response to news it didn’t particularly like: It created a committee to study the issue, offering the appearance of action to a public that was increasingly demanding it. Headed by Dan Rooney, then the owner and president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the group released a set of recommendations, including the so-called “Rooney Rule,” which was adopted by the team owners: “Any club seeking to hire a head coach will interview one or more minority applicants for that position.”

And yet, in the 19 years since the rule was adopted, we’ve gotten nowhere. There were three Black head coaches in 2003. Today, there are three minority head coaches, one of whom is Black.

The good news is that in 2022, there are a number of Black N.F.L. assistant coaches and coordinators with the potential to get one of the eight head coaching positions that are currently open. Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is talking to the Bears, and New England Patriots assistant coach Jerod Mayo interviewed with the Denver Broncos earlier this week. Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores is a candidate for multiple jobs (including that Texans position).

The bad news is that, historically, great Black assistant coaches and coordinators haven’t gotten hired as head coaches, a phenomenon that USA Today’s Doug Farrar said amounted to a “glass ceiling.” Former N.F.L. cornerback Domonique Foxworth noted on Twitter that even with that impressive bench, a lot of teams have gone outside the N.F.L. to hire new (white) head coaches.

The N.F.L. is failing as the N.B.A. reaches new highs in its number of Black head coaches — 14 in 2021-22 out of 30. But when I spoke to Dan Devine, who covers the N.B.A. for The Ringer, he told me, “The improvement in the N.B.A. is a very recent development: Eight of the 14 Black head coaches in the league have been hired/elevated since March. It wasn’t so long ago that we were having very similar conversations on this side of the street, too.”

Devine attributes the N.B.A.’s success to the number of Black assistant coaches who were available for hiring and to outspoken players like Jaylen Brown, who told leadership at the Boston Celtics in 2021 that he wanted Black coaches to have a “seat at the table.”

If Josh McCown ends up with the top job in Houston, perhaps he’ll be a coaching prodigy who will lead the Texans into a decade of glory. The Cincinnati Bengals just won their first playoff game in more than 30 years; at this point, anything could happen.

But I keep thinking about how David Culley got pushed out the door in spite of his nearly 30 years of experience coaching in the N.F.L. And how the former Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who’s Black, got fired after getting a historically moribund team to the playoffs twice in four years and going 9-7 in his final season. (He was replaced by a white guy who had never been a head coach before and who turned out to be way worse at the job.) And how a league that allows “social justice messaging” on players’ helmets still can’t figure out how to hire enough Black coaches.

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