Can Black coordinators turn their success in the NFL playoffs into head-coaching jobs? Several candidates are being considered for head coaching positions. Will any of them get top coaching jobs after the season?
Leslie Frazier, the defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, made all the proper moves during the first round of the NFL playoffs. Los Angeles Rams defensive play-caller Raheem Morris, not to be outdone, created an equally brilliant game plan. Then there’s DeMeco Ryans of the San Francisco 49ers, a young defensive whiz who definitely kept up with his more experienced counterparts.
It was tough to choose who shone brightest during the first week of the postseason because there were so many fantastic performances by Black coordinators.
And they’re not finished yet.
Nine African American coordinators will be in the limelight again in the divisional round as the league’s biggest event (Super Bowl LVI) approaches. They are in charge of offense, defense, and special teams for the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in all three phases of the game. Empowering these skilled, established coaches has benefited the NFL’s final eight clubs tremendously.
But here’s the question: Will any of these intelligent, competent, and dedicated Black men be given opportunities to improve their careers during this hiring cycle, as some of their white colleagues will undoubtedly be?
It’s a legitimate question, given the NFL’s recent and long-term history.
The NFL’s angry African American assistant coaches took numerous stomach blows at the start of this cycle because the league’s most powerful league has a dismal record on inclusive hiring at the club level. After the firings of Brian Flores and David Culley by the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans, the NFL now has only one more, Blackhead coach, in its 102nd season than it did in its first: one. Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers is an outlier in a 32-team league dominated by African-American players.
With eight clubs looking for head coaches, commissioner’s office officials, and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an independent group that advises the league on diversity and inclusion issues, have been working behind the scenes to ensure that qualified candidates of color are heavily considered for all of the openings. If franchisees are interested, there are a lot of wonderful options to select from.
They only have to look at the teams that are still in the game, according to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s main lieutenant in the ongoing battle to level the playing field, Vincent, feels that all of the coordinators still on the job are head-coaching wood.
“These coordinators’ units are dominating the field of play,” Vincent stated in a text message to The Undefeated, “but the lack of fair live exposure [to interview for head-coaching roles] is obvious in compared to their [white] counterparts.” “These coordinators have demonstrated long-term success, as their teams continue to compete among the best in the league. They have proved their strategic and tactical acumen, genius, and ability to creatively innovate over time.
“Trust is one of the most important factors to consider when hiring a head coach. The consistency of long-term performance, which this class of coordinators has demonstrated season after season, is a strong indicator of trust. This set of coordinators… [has regularly demonstrated] their ability to… lead a diverse group of people. They have fine-tuned relationship-management skills, as well as exceptional situational awareness and time management in high-pressure situations.”
To recap, these dudes are killing it.
Let’s take a look at Frazier first.
After directing a defense that held opponents to league-low averages of 272.8 total yards, 163.0 passing yards, and 17.0 points during the regular season, Frazier was instrumental in the team’s 47-17 win over New England in the AFC wild-card round. At halftime, the Bills had a dominant 27-3 lead over the Patriots, who had been clearly several strides ahead of them since the opening kick.
Frazier has helped the Bills reach four postseason invitations and won consecutive AFC East division titles in five seasons under head coach Sean McDermott. Frazier, widely regarded as one of the top defensive minds in the game, guided the Minnesota Vikings to one postseason berth in three seasons as their head coach, beginning in 2011. According to reports, the Chicago Bears will interview Frazier, who played cornerback for the team for five seasons in the 1980s, as early as Friday for their top position.
Morris, the Rams’ defensive coordinator, was in a similar groove in the NFC.
In the last wild-card game, the Rams defeated the Arizona Cardinals 34-11. The Rams led 21-0 at halftime, making things difficult for Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, who was playing in his first playoff game. Morris’ first season as the team’s defensive coordinator, the defense allowed 103.2 rushing yards per game, ranking sixth in the league.
Morris was the league’s youngest head coach when the Buccaneers hired him at the age of 32 in 2009. Morris, who was an interim head coach with the Atlanta Falcons last season, has reportedly asked the Vikings for permission to interview him. Morris could face competition for Minnesota’s top post from Ryans and other African American assistants.
|Black coordinators in divisional round|
|Keith Armstrong||Buccaneers, special teams|
|Eric Bieniemy||Chiefs, offense|
|Todd Bowles||Buccaneers, defense|
|Maurice Drayton||Packers, special teams|
|Leslie Frazier||Bills, defense|
|Richard Hightower||49ers, special teams|
|Byron Leftwich||Buccaneers, offense|
|Raheem Morris||Rams, defense|
|DeMeco Ryans||49ers, defense|
Minnesota reportedly interviewed Ryans, the league’s second-youngest defensive coordinator at 37 years old, on Wednesday. After seeing visiting San Francisco overcome Dallas in an NFC first-round game, the Vikings knew they had to interview Ryans.
The 49ers’ defense was superb from start to end against the Cowboys. During the regular season, the first-year defensive coordinator led a squad that ranked in the top 10 in total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, and scoring. Kyle Shanahan, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, moved fast to replace defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who was appointed as the head coach of the New York Jets, promoting Ryans from his role as linebackers coach.
Throughout his football career, Ryans have been a rock star. The Texans selected Ryans out of Alabama, where he was the 2005 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American linebacker, with the first selection of the second round in the 2006 NFL draft. He also did not disappoint as an NFL player.
Ryans was a first-team All-Pro a season after being named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ryans quickly rose through the ranks as a coach under Shanahan, starting as a defensive quality control assistant in 2017. He’s now in the process of interviewing for the position of head coach.
That’s what the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s executive director, Rod Graves, wishes to see.
“What’s promising this time is that… there have been requests to speak with a significant number of candidates of diversity,” he said. “With the number of inquiries we’ve received so far, we’re hoping to interview more applicants of diversity, which is exactly what we want.” It was upsetting to see a number of coordinators make it deep into the playoffs last season without receiving the recognition they earned.”
Eric Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, can vouch for this.
Despite Kansas City’s success over the last four seasons with Bieniemy as offensive coordinator (the two-time defending AFC champion hosts Buffalo in the divisional round on Sunday), Bieniemy hasn’t progressed to the next level like his two white predecessors in the position — Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy — did under head coach Andy Reid.
Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich are both familiar with the situation.
Bowles and Leftwich were the offensive and defensive coordinators for Tampa Bay under head coach Bruce Arians, and they helped the team overcome Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. Despite the fact that there were seven head-coaching opportunities in the previous cycle — and Bieniemy, Bowles, and Leftwich had all performed admirably – just one Black assistant was hired (Culley, whom Houston fired after only one season).
Bowles, who was the Jets’ head coach for four seasons beginning in 2015, is expected to interview with the Vikings on Friday and the Bears on Saturday while preparing to help the Buccaneers host the Rams in an NFC divisional game on Sunday. Before the Buccaneers face the Rams, Leftwich is anticipated to interview with the Bears as well.
N. Jeremi Duru, an American University law professor and veteran observer of the NFL’s hiring practices, agrees that Black coordinators whose teams are still in the playoffs are attracting more interest from franchises looking for new head coaches than in previous seasons. But, as in any tournament, the most important factor is who finishes first, according to Duru.
“There are coordinators in the playoffs who fit the bill no matter what you’re looking for to create your team’s identity under a new head coach,” said Duru, author of Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule.
“The tacticians, those offense, defense, and special teams designers… they’re right there.” “They’re on their way.”
Many have been for far too long, as business owners continue to see employment as a black-and-white situation.
Jason Reid is The Undefeated’s senior NFL reporter. He enjoys sports, particularly those involving his son and daughter.