KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At the end of last season, four NFL teams interviewed Eric Bieniemy for their head coaching vacancies. He was, in many ways, a candidate of the moment. In a league crazed for points, Bieniemy had coordinated the third-highest-scoring offense in history. He apprenticed under Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid, who has produced a bounty of thriving head coaches. Franchises craved offense and trusted Reid’s mentorship. At the intersection sat Bieniemy.
Bieniemy received no offers, which represented another NFL trend. Last year, teams fired eight head coaches, including four minorities. They hired seven white coaches and one black coach as full-time replacements. As this year’s hiring cycle intensifies, the league again must confront the efficacy of its attempts to create equal opportunity for minority coaches.
The NFL, a league of 32 teams and roughly 70 percent black players, has three black full-time head coaches. It is both the same total as in 2003, when the league adopted the Rooney Rule to promote hiring diversity, and the same number employed by the eight-team XFL.
Said agent Brian Levy, who represents Bieniemy and a bevy of prominent black coaches, “In its 100th season, the NFL should be ashamed of itself.”
Within the NFL’s coaching diversity crisis exists an overlooked mini-crisis: It fails acutely at cultivating minority coaches on the offensive side of the ball. Only five black head coaches in NFL history — Art Shell, Dennis Green, Jim Caldwell, Hue Jackson and current Los Angeles Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn — came from an offensive background.
“That is truly amazing,” said Jimmy Raye III, an NFL consultant who served as an offensive assistant coach from 1977 to 2013. “Clearly there’s more qualified people than that. It’s denial of opportunity.”
As the NFL has skewed toward offense over the past two seasons, it revealed an alarming dearth of minority coaches in high-ranking offensive positions. The surest route to a head coach’s office in today’s NFL is the ability to develop quarterbacks, a task that falls to offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches. Of those 64 positions this season, minorities fill five. Bieniemy and Byron Leftwich, who calls plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are the only black offensive coordinators. Caldwell, who is on medical leave from the Miami Dolphins, and the Indianapolis Colts’ Marcus Brady are the only black quarterbacks coaches; the Denver Broncos’ T.C. McCartney is half-Samoan.
“When they’re hiring offensive coaches, and that seems to be the way the league wants to go, then you’ve got less candidates,” said NBC Sports analyst Tony Dungy, the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl. “There’s just not that many offensive coaches who have gone up the ranks.”
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, has worked with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization dedicated to increasing diversity in the NFL, to circulate candidate lists for teams with coaching vacancies. He emphasized that the NFL cannot mandate hires. He has urged teams to consider minority offensive coaches and play-callers, even from the college ranks.
There are more than 200 minority assistant coaches in the NFL, but at the top of the profession, progress has lagged. The point is not diversity for diversity’s sake. Pushing for more equity, Vincent said, not only affords fairness but also fosters new ideas that lead to better football.
“At the end of the day, we’re looking for the best coach, the best player personnel, the best general manager and asking that all be considered,” Vincent said. “When all are considered, we’re better.”
‘Hire him right now’
And so Bieniemy’s primacy as a candidate arrives at a crucial time. A 50-year-old who played running back in the NFL for nine seasons, Bieniemy could become the sixth black head coach groomed on offense in league history.
“One thing I’ve learned in life: You don’t worry about the things you can’t control,” Bieniemy said. “I put one foot in front of the other, I work, I chop wood, and that’s all that matters. When it’s all said and done … something good is going to happen because of my work ethic.”
Those close to him believe Bieniemy, after 19 seasons as a running backs coach and coordinator in the NFL and college, has proved himself. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes extolled Bieniemy’s attention to detail. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins said Bieniemy built a standard essential to Kansas City’s culture.
“He has to be at the top of the list of teams who need a head coach,” said Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
Reid has perhaps the most expansive coaching tree in modern NFL history. At the start of the 2019 season, seven former assistants were head coaches. What would he tell an owner interested in Bieniemy?
“I’d say, ‘Hire him right now,’ ” Reid said. “If you’re asking me, ‘Is he ready to be a head coach?’ Yeah, he was ready last year. Nobody is in more control than what he is in this game. He’s a leader of men. He knows football. He knows this offense like the back of his hand.”
Reid’s offensive coordinator job has been a springboard. The Eagles poached Doug Pederson in 2016, and he won the Super Bowl two seasons later. Matt Nagy replaced Pederson, and after landing the Chicago Bears’ job, he led an instant turnaround and won coach of the year honors. Reid calls Kansas City’s plays, as he did during Pederson’s tenure and most of Nagy’s.
Bieniemy’s credentials were just as impressive as his predecessors’ last year, when he interviewed with the Buccaneers, Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets without success.
“I’m not surprised,” Dungy said, “because I’ve seen it before.”
In the early 1990s, Green Bay Packers Coach Mike Holmgren’s staff became a head-coaching factory. The San Francisco 49ers hired Steve Mariucci. Two years after Reid replaced him as quarterbacks coach, the Eagles hired Reid. Holmgren stumped for Sherman Lewis, who is black and was his offensive coordinator. When teams passed over Lewis, Dungy recalled, the explanation was that he didn’t call plays, even though Reid hadn’t, either.
“Kind of the same thing happened to Eric last year,” Dungy said. “It should be a natural progression. … It seems slower to happen for the African American guys.”
Lewis never became a head coach. Levy said he expects Bieniemy will be hired this offseason, and league insiders agreed. But Dungy believed Bieniemy was both ready last season and perfectly aligned with the NFL’s hiring trends, only to be turned down.
“You have to scratch your head and say, ‘Why not?’ ” Dungy said.
‘Denial of opportunity’
The dearth of African American offensive NFL head coaches is both systemic and deep-rooted, owing in parts to networking practices, the embers of retrograde stereotypes and the lasting effects of positional prejudices.
“That stigma attached to blacks lacking the leadership skills or the ability to play the position, I think some of that still exists as it pertains to coaching the position,” Raye said.
Unlike on defense, the path from offensive assistant to head coach typically leads through one position. Quarterbacks coaches are most likely to be promoted to coordinators. Black coaches have been given those positions in sparse numbers.
“When you look at running backs, when you look at wide receivers, that’s where those coaches have been,” Jackson said.
“Historically, blacks haven’t been allowed in that room, to coach the quarterback,” Raye said. “It was denial of opportunity.”
The lack of high-profile black offensive coaches is, in part, an echo of the plight of African American quarterbacks from past generations. Teams awarded few black quarterbacks starting positions but even fewer backup jobs — the latter being an ideal position from which to launch a coaching career. “It has been a great incubator,” Dungy said.
Joshua Pitts, a sports economics professor at Kennesaw State, performed a study that showed black quarterbacks were more likely to switch positions from high school to college than any other subgroup. The data from his study is 10 years old, but Pitts believes it remains relevant in coaching.
“You’re seeing this historical discrimination against black athletes in leadership positions still having an effect,” Pitts said. “And it’s a really hard thing to get rid of. Even if you make efforts to eliminate it, it’s a really hard thing to overcome.”
Black coaches often feel typecast. Raye has mentored many, including Pep Hamilton, who entered the NFL as the Jets’ quarterbacks coach. Raye told him: “Make sure you stay in the quarterback room. Don’t fall for the banana-in-tailpipe deal: ‘We could really use you as a receiver coach or a running back coach.’ Stay with the quarterback.”
“I had a white coach tell me once, ‘If you go to the defensive side of the ball, you’ll be a head coach quick,’ ” Lynn told the Denver Post in 2017. “ ‘You have it, but you have to go to defense.’ So everybody knows.”
Lynn is the only current black head coach with an offensive coaching background; Miami’s Brian Flores and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin are both former defensive coordinators.
‘The fall is so steep’
The NFL’s lack of minority coaches traces back to the people hiring. Only one owner, Shad Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is not white. Miami’s Chris Grier is the NFL’s lone black general manager.
“Most of the time,” Dungy said, “you hire people you know.”
The NFL’s networking circles — and nepotism — have worked against black offensive coaches. NFL teams employ two black offensive coordinators. Six NFL play-callers, all of them white, have fathers who coached in the league.
“Everybody talks about the pipeline,” Jackson said. “Well, how do you get them in the pipeline? What does that mean? … The pipeline has already been established. It’s just established the other way.”
From 2014 to 2017 in Detroit, Caldwell posted three winning years, led the Lions to their first 11-win season since 1991 and twice made playoff appearances. In his first head coaching job, Caldwell took the Colts to the Super Bowl. “The fact that Jim is not a head coach today,” Graves said, “is really a travesty.”
Caldwell is not even a coordinator. After Detroit fired him, Caldwell sat out the 2018 season. He returned this year as Miami’s assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, working under Flores, the lone minority head coach hired in the previous cycle. Vincent said cases such as Caldwell’s should prompt questions of a double standard.
“We’ve seen the black coach, the minority coach, go from head coach down to a position coach, where his counterpart goes from head coach to a coordinator,” Vincent said. “That should be a concern. The fall is so steep.”
Levy points out that only once in NFL history, when Dungy retired and handed the Colts’ reins to Caldwell, has a team replaced a minority head coach with another minority. The concentration of recently fired minority coaches last year, Levy believes, played a role in Bieniemy’s rejection.
“We just looked at the teams and said, ‘The probability of him getting a job where a minority just left is very low,’ ” Levy said.
Jackson, who was fired by the Oakland Raiders in January 2012 after one season, received his second head coaching chance in 2016. He led the Cleveland Browns to a 1-31 record over two years before the franchise fired him midway through his third season. Jackson’s flop underscored an unfair burden.
“There’s not very many of us as it is,” Jackson said. “And then you’re failing — which I was — at the highest level. That doesn’t say, ‘Go hire more guys.’ ”
‘It just shouldn’t be the way it is today’
Last summer, Vincent asked himself, “How do we close this door — or this perception, this excuse — that they don’t exist, that there’s no pipeline?”
With help from Washington Redskins executive Doug Williams and others, he organized the NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit in Atlanta, where more than 30 minority offensive coaches, from the NFL and college ranks, gathered to share expertise and career advice. Ozzie Newsome, the former Baltimore Ravens GM who still consults for the franchise, told the room that the number of qualified candidates astonished him.
“All along, we’ve been hearing: ‘We can’t find anybody. We can’t find the numbers,’ ” Raye said. “But that summit uncovered the fact that there are a number of people that are highly successful at doing that job and coaching that position.”
Raye and Vincent noted that if Arizona Coach Kliff Kingsbury can be a viable NFL head coach because of his offensive wizardry at Texas Tech, where he posted a losing record, it should open the door for other college play-callers. Then-Alabama offensive coordinator and current Maryland head coach Michael Locksley and Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, both black, called plays against each other in last season’s College Football Playoff national championship game.
The number of qualified candidates is expanding in the NFL, too. Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians built a staff with more than a dozen minority and female coaches, including all three coordinators. The Colts’ Brady, 40, is a former Canadian Football League quarterback and offensive coordinator starting his ascent.
“As you’re growing up and then you get into the coaching business, you’re aware of the limited opportunities that are there,” Brady said. “But I don’t let it stop who I am or what I do. … I do understand the position that I’m in. I do feel a bit of responsibility to others that I’ve been given an opportunity, that I need to produce.”
Dungy views the current quarterback landscape, in which black passers are dominating the MVP race and holding numerous backup jobs, as a promising sign for the near future.
“We as a sport have come a long way in accepting and celebrating African American quarterbacks,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said. “I’m a positive human being. I think that, over time, we’ll do the same thing looking at African American quarterback coaches and African American offensive coordinators and offensive head coaches.”
Bieniemy’s expected ascent would be significant and another step forward. Raye chuckled when he recalled his entry into coaching, which gave the NFL a third black assistant coach. Dungy counted 10 black assistant coaches in the league when he broke in. Bieniemy provides another chance at progress.
“It’s not about the percentage of participants or we want a ratio, [that] there should be this number of X, Y and Z,” Vincent said. “It just shouldn’t be the way it is today.”