The NFL and everyone else hoped the story of this hiring cycle would not be the same as it has been for the last three years.
Plenty of time and brainpower have been spent formulating ways to improve the chances for more minorities to join the head-coaching ranks, and there was some optimism in the first few days after the 2021 regular season ended that all of the league office's re-engineering of the system would pay off. Teams were taking more time with their searches -- the first hire was not made until 18 days after the regular season ended -- and bringing in more candidates. Multiple highly-qualified minority candidates were being interviewed, with more in the pipeline coming up behind them. Two more Black general managers were hired in Chicago (Ryan Poles) and Minnesota (Kwesi Adofo-Mensah), bringing the total to seven Black GMs (the most since 2016), important diversity in the job that usually advises owners most closely on football matters. Those were all, inarguably, positive developments.
And then ... nothing. And then, Brian Flores.
This cycle has nine teams making a change at head coach, an amount of turnover only exceeded by four previous offseasons. All nine vacancies are now spoken for -- just two of them by minorities, the Dolphins' Mike McDaniel and the Texans' Lovie Smith. McDaniel, who is multi-racial, and Smith join Ron Rivera, Robert Saleh and Mike Tomlin as the league's only minority coaches.
Flores' bombshell class-action lawsuit, filed on Feb. 1, presented the hiring crisis in stark -- albeit unsurprising -- detail. His description of what he believes were sham interviews, his recitation of qualified candidates who, in his opinion, have been passed over for less-equipped options -- none of that was news to coaches or executives, at the team level and at the top of the league. It is an annual source of immense frustration for the slighted coaches and those who are making good-faith efforts to reverse the troubling course. With each hire, their despair grows. And it should be an embarrassment for the team owners in particular, in whose laps this blight lands.
It is hard to imagine what else league executives can do to get more qualified minority candidates in front of owners. Those executives have done their part. This is a failure of ownership. Each owner says minority representation is an important issue for the league, but few of them, apparently, believe making a Black coach the face of the franchise is what's best for their team. Among other remedies it seeks, Flores' lawsuit wants the league to incentivize hiring and retention of Black general managers, head coaches and coordinators with awards of draft picks and salary cap space, as well as the funding of a committee to source Black investors to take majority ownership stakes.
On Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams acknowledging the hiring results for minorities seeking head coach positions have been "unacceptable." He also said the league would retain outside experts, as well as "solicit input from current and former players and coaches," to assist in reviewing the league's diversity policies and initiatives.
With the NFL world gathering for Super Bowl LVI this upcoming week, Flores' lawsuit and the league's hiring practices will certainly be topics of conversation in Los Angeles. And there, we will also see what every owner hopes for when he hires a new coach: in the Bengals' case, a lightning-fast turnaround led by Zac Taylor; and on the Rams' side, sustained excellence from Sean McVay, who is already making his second Super Bowl appearance and who has sprung a considerable coaching tree, which includes Taylor. The fact that both were offensive whiz kids will certainly not go unnoticed, either. Which is why getting more diverse young coaches on the offensive side has also been a point of interest in recent years by the league's diversity committee and executives who work on hiring practices.
The bar has been set high by the success of Taylor and McVay. Here is a rundown of the next class of new coaches who will try to match them and who will be remembered -- fairly or not -- as the group hired in the midst of a class-action lawsuit that could finally change the NFL.
NOTE: New head coaches are presented in alphabetical order.
Allen, the Saints' well-regarded defensive coordinator, was considered the front-runner as soon as Sean Payton announced he was stepping aside. Allen won just eight games in his two-plus seasons as the Oakland Raiders' head coach, but the Raiders were in a bit of rebuilding mode then and he did not get to enjoy the fruits of his final draft class -- which included Derek Carr and Khalil Mack. And around the league, there had been a feeling in recent years that Allen deserved a second chance to be a head coach. In Allen's seven years as the Saints' defensive coordinator, his unit has become the strength of the team. Allen was Payton's natural replacement because the Saints were not looking for an overhaul, although it will now be his job to figure out the Saints' quarterback situation and to manage under the Saints' difficult salary cap conditions. With the retirement of Tom Brady, though, the NFC South is wide open again and if the Saints get the right quarterback, they could be poised to regain preeminence in the division.
Have you watched Josh Allen over the last two years? Then you know why Daboll immediately became the front-runner for this job once the Giants hired Joe Schoen as new general manager. Daboll and Schoen spent the past four years together in Buffalo, and the Bills' offense has been in the top three in scoring in each of the past two seasons, coinciding with Allen's rise. Just look at the quarterback's immense growth under Daboll's tutelage:
Allen in 2018-19: 56.3 comp%, 184.4 y/g, 6.6 y/a, 30 TD, 21 INT, 78.2 passer rating.
Allen in 2020-2021: 66.1 comp%, 271.2 y/g, 7.3 y/a, 73 TD, 25 INT, 99.2 passer rating.
It's no secret that the first order of business in New York is to develop quarterback Daniel Jones, whom the Giants know has been undermined by constant coaching turnover. In a related vein, Big Blue's offense has fallen into utter disrepair, finishing 31st in scoring and total offense in each of the past two seasons.
Now, it must be noted that the Giants were one of three franchises specifically named in Flores' lawsuit, with the coach claiming the organization brought him in for a "sham interview" in order to fulfill the Rooney Rule. The team claims this allegation is "disturbing and simply false."
The rare hire from the defensive side of the ball, and the most curious of this cycle so far. Eberflus, who has a reputation for being detailed, had emerged from previous cycles as an impressive interviewee. But the biggest question surrounding the Bears in the wake of Eberflus’ hiring is the development of young quarterback Justin Fields, which will be overseen by new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who was the Packers’ quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. The other question: How smart was it to match a first-time head coach with a first-time general manager (Ryan Poles) when there were more experienced coaching candidates available?
On the plus side, Eberflus executed a rapid defensive turnaround in Indianapolis, transforming the Colts' D into a top-10 unit that recorded the second-most takeaways in 2021. Still, the grade on this hire will be determined almost completely by what becomes of Fields.
It's no surprise the Broncos went with an offensive coach, given that their offense has been in the doldrums since Peyton Manning retired. Which brings us to the most important piece of hiring Hackett: Who is his quarterback? If it's Rodgers, fantastic. If it's not, can Hackett get the most out of whoever's taking snaps? This is an extremely high-flying division, so the pressure will be on Hackett to turn around the offense quickly and to finally identify that next great Broncos passer.
Lastly, there is an important detail to keep in mind: The Broncos will likely be sold in the coming months, and new owners are known to like making their own imprint. So the clock on Hackett might tick even louder than usual.
Are you sensing a trend? McDaniel, 38, is another offensive whiz kid who has made a meteoric rise. He served as San Francisco’s run game coordinator from 2017 to 2020 and, after one season as the 49ers' offensive coordinator, he will take over in Miami. McDaniel got his coaching start as an intern for the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan. He has been with Kyle Shanahan ever since, including stints with the Houston Texans, Washington Commanders, Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons before going to San Francisco. McDaniel did not call plays, but he and Shanahan have produced some of the NFL’s best running games. Not to be overlooked: McDaniel was on the staff in Washington that developed an offense around Robert Griffin III’s unique talents. Now, the Dolphins hope he can do the same with Tua Tagovailoa.
McDaniel joins Miami at a time when its leadership is under scrutiny. Team owner Stephen Ross fired previous coach Brian Flores after back-to-back winning seasons, citing issues with "communication and collaboration," and has been named in Flores' class-action lawsuit, where Ross is alleged by Flores to have offered the coach money to lose games during Flores' first season. Ross has denied Flores' allegations, calling them "malicious attacks," and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said matters pertaining to the integrity of NFL games "will be reviewed thoroughly and independently."
The longtime Patriots offensive coordinator finally gets his second chance with the Raiders in the headline hire of this year. The setup is much better than the one he had during his catastrophic tenure in Denver: He has the general manager he wanted (Dave Ziegler, also from the Patriots), a quarterback he can either take to new heights or from whom he can quickly move on (Derek Carr, who has just one year left on his contract), a star tight end (Darren Waller) and a team that just went to the playoffs despite its head coach getting fired in the middle of the season.
The pitch from McDaniels for the last few years is that he has learned from everything he did wrong with the Broncos (also, presumably, from when he left the Colts at the altar after verbally agreeing to become their coach). If that's true, his long history of success -- not just with Tom Brady, but this past season with Mac Jones -- suggests McDaniels is well-prepared to help Carr and the offense prosper. The Patriots fielded a top-eight scoring offense in 13 of the 14 seasons McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. (They were 27th in 2020, post-Brady/pre-Jones.) Considering they play in the same division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the pressure will be on McDaniels to make the right decision on Carr.
Shad Khan laid out pretty clearly why he made this choice: The Jaguars owner hopes Pederson can recreate the magic he had as the head coach in Philadelphia, where he went 42-37-1 over five seasons, helped make Carson Wentz an MVP candidate and then won a Super Bowl with Nick Foles after Wentz was injured.
Molding Trevor Lawrence into a top quarterback will be Priority No. 1. A more general ambition: bringing some consistency to a franchise that has had precious little of it. It's worth noting that Pederson took the Eagles to the playoffs in two other seasons in addition to the Super Bowl year. He was the selection after an exhaustive -- perhaps meandering -- search that exposed candidates' concerns about the presence of general manager Trent Baalke. It remains to be seen if Jacksonville's front office will undergo changes, too, though the Jaguars did notably interview longtime Vikings GM Rick Spielman for a high-level front office position.
Smith, who was David Culley's defensive coordinator, was the Houston Texans' landing spot after a circuitous and confusing search moved away from Josh McCown at the 11th hour. So Smith, an accomplished coach who took the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl, starts his third go-around as an NFL head coach for a franchise that hasn't been short on controversy. Smith is Black and, like the Dolphins Mike McDaniel, who is multi-racial, was hired after former Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a class action lawsuit against the league over its hiring practices related to minority coaches. He takes over a team that is about to move on from Deshaun Watson, whose roster has been depleted in recent years and that overachieved with four wins last season under Culley. With the Texans in the midst of a protracted rebuild, it is fair to wonder if Smith will be given more time than Culley got to improve the Texans.
With O'Connell's hiring expected after he's done coordinating the Rams' offense in the Super Bowl, this will be the first big move for new Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. But O'Connell's history will sound familiar: He works under Sean McVay. And like McVay, O'Connell's rise has been meteoric. The former San Diego State quarterback was drafted by New England in 2008 and spent a few years bouncing around the league. His coaching career began at the NFL level, when the Browns hired him as their quarterbacks coach in 2015. He has been the Rams' offensive coordinator for the last two years, and while he hasn't been the play-caller, he's worked very closely with McVay on designing game plans and plays.
While the Vikings' defense faltered last season, all eyes will be on O'Connell's handling of quarterback Kirk Cousins, with whom he worked closely as Washington's quarterbacks coach in 2017.