The NFL has made significant progress in improving its minority hiring record among its head coaches.

The so-called "Rooney rule," enacted by acclamation of the league's team owners under the threat of litigation, requires each club with a head-coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. During the two hiring cycles in which it has been in effect, three black head coaches were hired -- Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Lovie Smith in Chicago and Dennis Green in Arizona -- bringing the league-wide total to five among the 32 teams.

Now, say the leaders of the group formed to promote minority hiring at all levels of the NFL, it's time for the league to improve its record among its clubs' top front-office jobs.

Ideally, the leaders of that group -- the Fritz Pollard Alliance, named for the NFL's first black coach -- wanted to see the Rooney rule broadened by the league this offseason to require each team looking to fill a vacancy in a key front-office position, such as general manager or vice president of football operations, to interview at least one minority candidate. The group had the support of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, a member of the league's workplace diversity committee who said the Rooney rule had worked well for coaches and should be extended to the front office.

"There aren't any reasons against it," Bowlen said earlier in the offseason. "I think it's a real useful tool . . . Obviously we've done a lot of work on the coaching situation over the last year. We've made some mistakes obviously, but we've also made some real headway. It seems to be working, and it definitely should be extended to include the front office."

It didn't happen. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the head of the workplace diversity committee and the man for whom the interviewing rule for coaches is named, said this week that the measure was discussed by committee members this offseason but was not enacted. Rooney said he thinks the rule has worked well for coaches but he does not necessarily feel that it should be extended to the front office because teams hire for those jobs differently, more often promoting from within the organization or pulling candidates from the local business community.

Rooney said the league plans to promote minority front-office hiring by making certain that teams with openings are aware of minority candidates. John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said the same message was delivered to him by Jeff Pash, an executive vice president for the league who is the NFL's chief in-house counsel.

Wooten said that, at least for now, he is willing to allow the league to try it this way. The real solution, Wooten said, is for teams to consider minority candidates without a rule forcing them to do so. The Rooney rule was enacted for head-coaching openings because clubs weren't considering minority candidates and the league had a woeful minority hiring record.

But perhaps the Rooney rule has changed the league-wide mindset and further modifications aren't necessary. Most of the seven teams with head-coaching openings this offseason interviewed multiple minority candidates. Smith and Green were hired. New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who is black, might have gotten a head-coaching position as well if he had not been, in effect, kept off the market by the rules regarding assistant coaches on playoff teams that limited his ability to pursue jobs while the Patriots were on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

For now, Wooten said, he is willing to hope that things indeed have changed. He said he will remain on the sideline while the NFL proceeds as it chooses.

"If the league is making a concerted effort to do what was done in Miami and Tampa -- if this effort is continued and they're sincere in approaching it that way -- we're okay with that," Wooten said. "They want to see if this process works. They're going to have names in the data base of people we think should be candidates and keep the teams apprised of that. We're all very, very happy with the way the league is working to address the minority hiring issue. Minorities all over the league now are getting opportunities to interview for jobs. If it is really going to go the way we want it to go without a rule being put in, that's fine.

"Would we rather have the Rooney rule extended? Yes. But we're not going to get all bent out of shape and lose all the good things that have happened in the last year. The best way is to have no rule and have teams interview minority candidates anyway. That's what happened in Miami and Tampa. Then, talking to Pash and those people, if they don't continue to make progress, maybe the Rooney rule will be extended. We'll see. We've seen great progress."

Three teams hired general managers or GM-level executives this offseason. None hired a minority. The Atlanta Falcons hired Rich McKay as their general manager. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced McKay with Bruce Allen, formerly a senior assistant for the Oakland Raiders. The Miami Dolphins promoted Rick Spielman to GM and hired their former quarterback, Dan Marino, as his boss, only to see Marino resign.

Wooten said that the Dolphins and Buccaneers seriously considered minority candidates, and all three teams interviewed minority candidates. The Falcons "had gone after McKay before," Wooten said. "It was not as open as Miami and Tampa, but there were some minority candidates."

Other minority front-office candidates declined interviews this offseason, Wooten said.

Ozzie Newsome became the NFL's first black general manager when the Baltimore Ravens gave him that title in November 2002. Other top black executives in NFL front offices include Rod Graves, the vice president of football operations for the Cardinals; Ray Anderson, an executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Falcons; James Harris, the vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Martin Mayhew, the senior vice president of football administration and legal affairs for the Detroit Lions.

The NFL has demonstrated that it is serious about improving its minority hiring record. Wooten lauds the progress made in the coaching ranks under Rooney's committee and rule. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined Lions President Matt Millen $200,000 last year for failing to interview any minority candidates before hiring Steve Mariucci as his coach, and threatened fines of $500,000 or more for future violations of the Rooney rule.

Now the league's individual teams must demonstrate that they are serious about giving front-office opportunities to qualified minorities without a rule forcing them to do so.

"From the standpoint that they're not going to extend [the rule], we're disappointed," Wooten said. "But from talking to Pash and other people in the league office, they are going to continue to push for things to happen like what happened in Miami and Tampa this offseason. They opened up their front-office searches to minority candidates without any rule making them do so."