During his state of the league address three months ago at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged a need to increase the opportunities for minorities to become head coaches and general managers.
"Clearly we are not where we want to be on this level," he said. "It's clear we need to change. We have already begun discussing those changes, what stages we can take next to determine better outcomes."
The call to action grew even louder after only one of the five coaching vacancies during the offseason was filled by a person of color, continuing a trend in which just three of the past 20 openings have gone to a minority. Now in perhaps its most aggressive and controversial attempt to address the issue, the league will present a pair of resolutions this coming Tuesday during the owners' virtual meeting that it hopes will level the playing field.
The first would remove the longstanding anti-tampering barrier that permits clubs to block assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions with other clubs, even though having coordinator experience is typically the final and most significant step in becoming a head coach. The other would incentivize the hiring of minorities as head coaches or primary football executives by rewarding teams with improved draft slots, multiple sources told NFL.com.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. The league declined to comment Friday on this specific agenda for Tuesday's meeting. But if the resolutions were to be voted in under the League Policy on Equal Employment and Workplace Diversity, they would work as follows:
- If a team hires a minority head coach, that team, in the draft preceding the coach's second season, would move up six spots from where it is slotted to pick in the third round. A team would jump 10 spots under the same scenario for hiring a person of color as its primary football executive, a position more commonly known as general manager.
- If a team were to fill both positions with diverse candidates in the same year, that club could jump 16 spots -- six for the coach, 10 for the GM -- and potentially move from the top of the third round to the middle of the second round. Another incentive: a team's fourth-round pick would climb five spots in the draft preceding the coach's or GM's third year if he is still with the team. That is considered significant because Steve Wilks and Vance Joseph, two of the four African-American head coaches hired since 2017, were fired after one and two seasons, respectively.
If passed, the changes would be a radical departure from current protocol. League officials have been trying for years to implement programs and procedures that would increase advancement opportunities for minorities, from adopting the Rooney Rule in 2003 to increasing fellowship positions to bringing in pro and college coaches for networking and empowerment summits to working with clubs to allocate more entry-level positions to diverse candidates. In addition to the coaching hires, only two of the 32 GM positions currently belong to someone of color, alarming statistics considering 70 percent of head coach hires during the past three years came from two positions: quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
The belief internally is the numbers can be reversed by removing some of the barriers that have hindered minority mobility, such as teams blocking assistants from interviewing for coordinator positions elsewhere. Many owners view coordinator experience as essential for first-time head coaches, but currently Eric Bieniemy in Kansas City and Byron Leftwich in Tampa Bay are the only minority coordinators on offense.
Under the proposed resolution, clubs would be prohibited from the end of the regular season to March 1 from denying an assistant coach the opportunity to interview with a new team for a "bona fide" coordinator position on offense, defense or special teams. Any dispute about the legitimacy of the position would be heard by the commissioner, and his determination would be "final, binding and not subject to further review."
If a minority assistant left to become a coordinator elsewhere, his former club would receive a fifth-round compensatory pick. And if a person of color leaves to become a head coach or general manager, his previous team would receive a third-round compensatory pick.
One final provision: Any team that hires a person of color as its quarterbacks coach would receive a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round if it retains that employee beyond one season. The provision is an attempt to get a more diverse pool of coaches working with quarterbacks, since the trend of late is to hire head coaches with offensive experience -- 24 of the past 33 hires have been from the offensive side of the ball -- and it's considered even more beneficial to have worked with quarterbacks. Currently there are only two African-American QB coaches in Pep Hamilton of the Chargers and Marcus Brady of the Colts.
The league office is also looking at further enhancing the Rooney Rule by doubling the number of minority candidates a team must interview for head-coaching vacancies. It also is expected to apply the rule to coordinator positions for the first time. Steelers owner Art Rooney II hinted at changes in January during an interview with the NFL Network’s Steve Wyche.
"I think where we are right now, is not where we want to be, not where we need to be," Rooney said. "We need to take a step back and look at what's happening with our hiring processes. The first thing we'll do as part of our diversity committee is really review this past season's hiring cycle and make sure we understand what went on and talk to the people involved both on the owners' side, management's side as well as the people that were interviewed.
"The thing I think we have to look at is back when the Rooney Rule was passed and put in effect in 2003, there was a period there where we did see an increase in minority hiring at the head coaching position. And I think over a period of time there were 10 or 12 minority coaches hired. Since then that trend seems to reverse itself particularly in the last few years. We need to study what's going on and understand better what's going on and really decide how we improve the situation."
Step one could be taken during Tuesday's virtual meeting.
Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at @JimTrotter_NFL