Jones: NFL's next step in improving diversity? Look at the offensive coordinators

Last Update :
Jones: NFL's next step in improving diversity? Look at the offensive coordinators

LAS VEGAS — Another NFL head coach hiring cycle concluded late last week as the Washington Commanders filled the eighth and final vacancy. The results should be encouraging to coaches of color, players of color and anyone else who cares about diversity and inclusion in the NFL.

Four more coaches of color — Raheem Morris (Atlanta Falcons), Dave Canales (Carolina Panthers), Antonio Pierce (Las Vegas Raiders) and Jerod Mayo (New England Patriots) — joined the exclusive head coach fraternity, bringing the number of minorities in those 32 leading roles to a record nine.

Coupled with previous offseason hires that increased the number of NFL general managers of color to eight and team presidents to five, there’s a sense that, at last, America’s most powerful sports league has started to understand the value and importance of diversity.

Imperfections remain, of course. As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Monday during his annual Super Bowl state of the league address, “We still have a lot of work to do. We are not satisfied where we are.”

The hope is that teams will give these new hires ample time and resources to steer their clubs toward improvement. All too often, as history has shown, owners employing minority coaches impatiently pull the plug after one or two seasons without dramatic turnarounds.

That brings us to the most concerning element of this offseason hiring cycle: the lack of patience displayed toward Black offensive coordinators.

For years, Goodell and other officials blamed limited head coach diversity on a lack of offensive coordinator and quarterback coaches of color positioned for promotion. To remedy this problem, the league expanded the Rooney Rule to apply to coordinator openings, and also created additional entry-level offensive coaching positions and educational programs for minorities to help those coaches grow.

The efforts appeared to be working. Last offseason, a record four coaches of color landed offensive coordinator jobs. And while Canales’ work as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator helped him win the Panthers head coach job, the other three — Eric Bieniemy, Brian Johnson and Thomas Brown — have already been fired from their offensive coordinator jobs just a year later.

Johnson, previously Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach, became the scapegoat for the 2023 struggles of offensive architect/head coach Nick Sirianni’s unit.

Brown never had a chance for success in Carolina while offensive coordinator in name only. From the start, former head coach Frank Reich had too many cooks in the kitchen. Quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, Brown and senior offensive assistant Jim Caldwell all shared offensive design duties while Reich handled play-calling off and on while grasping for answers. Double-digit losses and an overall dysfunctional operation eventually got Reich fired after just 11 games.

Bieniemy, long denied a head coaching opportunity despite great success working alongside Andy Reid on the Kansas City Chiefs, left the champs for Washington to prove he could run his own offense. He had the unproven Sam Howell leading the league in passing halfway through the season. But Washington’s offensive line struggled greatly, the result of years of poor talent identification in the draft and free agency. Once foes pinpointed Washington’s weaknesses and sent steady streams of pressure, Howell and the unit regressed.

Washington’s players also didn’t share the respect for Bieniemy that he commanded in Kansas City while backed by Reid. Whether threatened or just obtuse, Ron Rivera publicly stated that players found Bieniemy too demanding, rather than handling the problem in-house and supporting his coordinator. Rivera eventually was fired, and his replacement, Dan Quinn, announced Monday that Bieniemy would not return.

Bieniemy and Brown’s jobs became casualties of head coach firings. But both also took the jobs, settling for less-than-ideal situations, just to get a chance to prove themselves. The dysfunction around them led to their downfalls. Johnson appeared to be on a healthy developmental career path, working under Sirianni and Shane Steichen for two seasons and helping Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts develop into an MVP candidate. But the development ended when Sirianni needed a fall guy.

Now, the NFL has zero offensive coordinators of color.

Brown interviewed for the Tennessee Titans head coaching job but ultimately had to settle for pass-game coordinator (essentially an assistant offensive coordinator job) with the Chicago Bears. Johnson joined Washington’s staff in an unspecified assistant role under offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. Bieniemy is unemployed, even though he, like Johnson and Brown, was viewed at season’s start as a potential future head coach. (Fired White coordinators Luke Getsy, Alex Van Pelt and Ken Dorsey all promptly found work as offensive coordinators with other teams.)

Will Bieniemy, Brown and Johnson be hired as coordinators again next year? Or will one season of misfortune cause them to fall off the NFL coaching map, just like other Black coordinators like Pep Hamilton and Byron Leftwich, to name just two.

Brian Johnson, right, lasted just one season as offensive coordinator to Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Goodell on Monday bristled at the notion that the league’s racial equality problem remains very real for offensive coordinators. He expressed hope that, with time, offensive assistants of color in those new entry-level jobs will grow and ascend into coordinator roles. Is that outlook too Pollyannaish?

It certainly feels like it.

Time and support rarely are afforded to Black coaches, even at the entry level, and second chances for them have always proved scarce. There’s a long track record of Black head coaches — Marvin Lewis, Leslie Frazier, Brian Flores and Steve Wilks come to mind — who have never received a second chance to be a head coach despite supreme qualifications. Meanwhile, mediocre White coaches frequently and promptly rebound with second chances (examples include Adam Gase, Jack Del Rio, Doug Marrone, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Josh McDaniels). 

What will it take for a true breakthrough for offensive assistants of color? Maybe this copycat league simply needs one success story (as if Bieniemy helping the Chiefs win two Super Bowls wasn’t inspiring enough). Maybe the league needs another success story? Perhaps. That’s kind of what happened this offseason for defensive coaches.

The NFL is diverse at defensive coordinator; 14 are Black. But they also have struggled to advance because until this offseason, NFL owners shied away from hiring defensive-minded head coaches, believing that young, prized quarterbacks needed a head coach who specialized on offense.

DeMeco Ryans, who played linebacker in the NFL for 10 seasons and shined for two seasons as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, shattered that theory with his work with the Houston Texans and C.J. Stroud. In the process, Ryans may have opened the door for Pierce and Mayo to also become head coaches. Perhaps Raiders owner Mark Davis and Patriots owner Robert Kraft recognized that the best head coaches all share similar traits: attention to detail, plus an ability to identify talent (both of players and assistant coaches), unite and inspire and demand excellence. Coordinator and play-calling experience can be overrated. Leadership is leadership.

Perhaps more owners will take note, but there’s no guarantee. John Harbaugh has proven a successful head coach doesn’t have to come from the offensive or defensive side of the ball. The former special teams coordinator leads a consistent AFC power in Baltimore, yet special teams coordinators — Black or White — still have a hard time receiving consideration for head coaching positions. That’s despite the fact that special teams coordinators like Rich Bisaccia (Green Bay), Chris Horton (Baltimore) and Richard Hightower (Chicago) are widely regarded by peers as some of the strongest leaders and teachers in the league.

And so, the fight continues. Yes, this winter produced positives on the coaching front:

• Morris, 13 years after being fired as Buccaneers head coach, got his long overdue opportunity to lead another team.
• Canales quickly made the jump from coordinator to head coach, which is rare for minorities.
• Pierce and Mayo became head coaches despite a lack of coordinator experience.

The diversity regression among offensive coordinators, however, casts a conflicting light on this hiring cycle.

The NFL has long viewed itself as an engine of cultural influence. Monday, Goodell noted that numerous non-sports corporations have adopted their own versions of the Rooney Rule. To have a true impact, the NFL must take its own commitment to diversity and inclusion seriously — for all arms of the league, not just for coaches. And it must be consistent with its pursuit of equality, because that is the difference between a short-lived trend and true transformation.

(Photo of Eric Bieniemy: Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)