In two not-so-bold moves the NFL has doubled its number of African-American coaches and some might say, advanced NFL diversity 20 years without giving any unproven, fresh talent a shot at a HC gig. I’d love to say that the Rooney Rule, which requires each NFL team to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching spots was in full effect this offseason. Like when a young, fiery, shrewd football mind named Mike Tomlin shocked everybody and won the Pittsburgh Steelers job in 2007. That was the Rooney Rule at its finest and fairest. And after a 2012 in which no minority hires were chosen to fill 15 HC and front office NFL positions, Fritz Pollard Alliance Chairman John Wooten will tell you the process is working because a number of black coaches got interviews with NFL teams so far this postseason. And as long as they are getting face-to-face love – to borrow an outdated NBA slogan – “anything’s possible.”
How many of those interviewed black coaches were actually considered “serious” candidates, however, can only be left to debate and assumption. Unlike last offseason, when eight first-time, white HC's were hired, at least a couple of brothers got second shots at being top dog. NFL history considers that a plus.
First Lovie Smith got back in the NFL groove with Tampa Bay. It’s good to see a deserving Smith ruling the sidelines again. Besides, anything is an upgrade from clueless Greg Schiano. But we know what kind of offensive buzz-kill Lovie can be, so expect a pretty conservative and defensive-grinding Bucs team. Smith needs more weapons on O, so Tampa’s return to NFL respectability may not be a swift one.
On Tuesday, the Detroit Lions named Jim Caldwell their HC, ending a two-week search during which they interviewed four candidates. Caldwell is the second minority coach hired this season, and was the first person to interview for the Detroit job, followed by former Texans HC Gary Kubiak, former Titans HC Mike Munchak and former Chargers OC Ken Whisenhunt.
Word is, Caldwell was sloppy seconds to Detroit’s first choice Ken Whisenhunt, who decided the Tennessee Titans job was a more attractive gig. But the 58-year-old Caldwell largely fit the criteria Detroit was craving during its search and he has the winning pedigree needed to immediately gain his team’s trust. The Lions wanted someone with head-coaching experience and savvy enough with QBs and designing plays to take what has been a pretty dope but inconsistent QB in Matthew Stafford and help him focus, cut down on mistakes and fulfill his tremendous potential.
"To be openly frank, we felt that he should be the guy," Wooten said Tuesday "We (FPA) really wanted him on that particular team. Thought it was an excellent fit."
Notable is the fact that Caldwell is the first African-American coach in the 83-year history of the Detroit Lions. More important is the truth that he is considered one of the greatest offensive minds in the NFL. He’s known for his work with Peyton Manning as well as Joe Flacco last season as OC of the Ravens Super Bowl-winning offense. Caldwell’s first plan of action will be improving Stafford’s mechanics and helping the 25-year-old gunslinger trim his 19 interceptions. With Detroit’s abundance of offensive talent (Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson), Caldwell is in an ideal situation to utilize his strengths as a HC.
“There’s no question that Jim Caldwell is the best fit for this job, former Colts HC Tony Dungy told ESPN. “He has everything the Lions need to take the next step.”
Caldwell has been a HC at the college and pro level. From 2009 to 2011 he coached the Colts. In his first season with Manning they started 14-0 before an executive order forced them to tank the last two games and Caldwell was the fall guy. Prior to that, from 1993 to 2000 he led Wake Forest. He replaces Jim Schwartz (who TSL writer DJ Dunson calls “the anti-Caldwell), who was fired following Detroit's late-season collapse that resulted in a 7-9 finish.
Caldwell posted a 26-22 record in three seasons after replacing Dungy in Indy. The Colts reached the Super Bowl in Caldwell's rookie season and went to the playoffs the following season. He was controversially fired in 2011 when Indy plummeted to the bottom of NFL standings after losing Manning to neck surgery. In fact, Caldwell’s two playoff wins are more than the Lions organization has over the last 55 years combined. Since winning the NFL title in 1957, the Lions are 1-10 in the postseason. If Caldwell can glam up that ugly number, then a long career in Detroit lies ahead. They are a franchise used to ineptitude at HC from Wayne Fontes to Bobby Ross to Rod Marinelli, so Caldwell, a low-key but detailed and serious guy should be a breath of fresh air to Lions fans and players alike.
Caldwell’s biggest challenge will be changing the undisciplined culture of a team that has continuously shot itself in the foot with stupid penalties, overly aggressive play and inopportune turnovers. Former Colts center Jeff Saturday thinks the Lions will be playoff-formidable next season under Caldwell’s leadership.
“This is a great hire for the Detroit Lions,” said Saturday who won Super Bowl XLI with Caldwell as Indy QB coach (2002-2008). “They are loaded with talent both offensively and defensively…they do lack discipline. Jim Caldwell will bring discipline, consistency and accountability to this organization.”.
Two-out-of-five African-American coaches hired isn’t bad math. Add the recent movement we’ve seen with black assistant coaches such as Indy’s Pep Hamilton – who www.stampedeblue.com reports is a hot candidate for the Vanderbilt HC job – and Arizona’s Harold Goodwin getting promoted to OC gigs, and there’s hope for the future. Last season qualified assistants like Green Bay’s Winston Moss weren’t even getting calls for interviews. Despite these incremental gains, the push for some new black blood in the game will have to continue to come from diversity-driven organizations such as the FPA, who is rightfully elated because in essence its various “plans of action” to improve not only the number of minority HCs, but the pipeline from which and the process by which these HC’s are selected, seems to have worked enough already this offseason.
"One of the things we've been very conscious of is the fact that minority coaches don’t get the second shot,” Wooten told The Shadow League in the article “NFL And NCAA Leadership Positions Bang Nothing But White Noise.” Now Ray Rhodes did and so did Dennis Green, but there was a long drought in between. Even more important is that Lovie was given full authority to have the last word in the personnel department, so this is extremely relevant as far as what's going on."
While the hiring of Smith and Caldwell temporarily silence those that accuse the NFL of discriminatory and culturally biased hiring practices, there’s still a long line of young guys (which The Shadow League presented in a list of "ready" minority HC and front office candidates provided to us by the FPA) still waiting for their first shot at leading an NFL squad. It’s highly unlikely that the last two remaining jobs (Cleveland Browns and Minnesota ) will hire minority coaches. NFL.com is reporting that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to be the next Vikings boss, and nobody seems to want to coach Cleveland. Even Arizona Cardinals DC Todd Bowles who’s a very prominent name on the FPA’s list, withdrew his name from the Brown’s list of HC candidates. So only time will tell if this is a matter of “the old boys network” – which O.G. HCs like Smith and Caldwell are honorary black members of -silencing the critics without giving the people what they really want. The particular black blood that was infused into the NFL’s lilly white HC ranks is not new blood, but it’s better than no blood.