Detroit has the NFL's only minority GM/coach duo: Martin Mayhew (left) and Jim Caldwell (center). (Patric Schneider/AP)
When free agency opens next week, there will be a small bit of good news about minority hiring in the NFL.
For the second season in a row, seven of the people who at least theoretically have power over personnel decisions -- general managers and the top personnel executives -- are minorities. That is the most ever in the NFL and more than double the number in place just one decade ago. And there will be 19 minority head coaches or offensive/defensive coordinators in 2015, the most since 2004.
That number may seem surprisingly paltry -- it is -- because there are 32 teams, each with a head coach and at least two coordinators (many have three, including a special teams coordinator). But considering that just two years ago the NFL hit a nadir in its efforts to get more minorities into team braintrusts, when no minority head coaches or general managers were hired for a total of 15 openings, that counts as at least incremental progress.
John Wooten -- the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works closely with the NFL on diversity issues -- was encouraged even by those who didn't get the biggest jobs this year. Wooten, in an interview this week, said about five teams interviewed minority coaches for coordinator jobs before ultimately hiring others. That, though, is the kind of action Wooten hopes for, because it suggests that new coaches will get into the coordinator (and by extension, head coach) pipeline -- even though owners rejected an idea several years ago to expand the Rooney Rule, which mandates that minority candidates be interviewed for general manager and head coach positions, to include coordinator openings. At the time, owners said they believed such a rule applying to coordinators would slow down the hiring process, a significant concern in the often-frantic days after the season ends when the coaching carousel is spinning at full speed.
It turns out that while the Alliance pursued an expanded Rooney Rule, Wooten had doubts about it, too.
"I said to our guys, this is a very sticky area," Wooten said. "The head coach should have the right to select who he wants as his coordinator. It's like tampering with a marriage. There are some things you can't get involved in. What we saw this year, though, was gratifying to us. It showed what we had asked for, an extension of the Rooney Rule, was taking place. We saw not just compliance, but commitment. For years, coaches in particular were not going to hire a guy unless they knew him. We saw that blatantly. Here in the last two years we've seen that change. They're bringing in guys to see what they have to say."
Wooten is generally encouraged about the direction the NFL is moving, and he senses among coaches a new willingness to listen to new ideas presented by unfamiliar people. Wooten said that when he entered the league in 1959, "other than few blacks on (the) field, the only other blacks were the ones picking up or cleaning up."
The feel-good moments should be tempered by a dose of reality, though. While the NFL has averaged nearly eight minority defensive coordinators per year since 2000, it has averaged fewer than three minority offensive coordinators, a glaring problem for a team in the market to hire an offensive-minded head coach.
It is not difficult to figure out why there is a shortage: Many offensive coordinators rise to the job after being quarterbacks coaches. And because quarterbacks coaches are often former college or journeyman professional quarterbacks themselves, the historical bent against African American and other minority quarterbacks has kept the pool of eligible candidates low. A review of each team's current coaching staff shows that there are no African American quarterbacks coaches in the league this year.
"This is where we have this discussion all the time with the NFL," Wooten said. "Until the teams start to open up opportunities to be the quarterbacks coach, you're not going to be able to get that coordinator position up higher. That's the pipeline we have to be concerned about. For years, the defensive side of the ball moved steadily ahead in terms of coordinators. But there was this slowdown to the point where minorities simply weren't being put into position to be offensive coordinators -- they don't come from the running back position. You might get some that come from the wide receiver position. But those guys have to be coming from the quarterback position."
Detroit Lions Coach Jim Caldwell is an exception to the shortfall. A college defensive back at Iowa, Caldwell made the switch to offense as a college assistant. He coached wide receivers and quarterbacks, and became the passing game coordinator during a stint at Penn State. After serving as the head coach at Wake Forest, he moved to the NFL. Caldwell became Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach, and eventually held that, and other posts, with Indianapolis before being elevated to the head job. After he was fired by the Colts, he became Baltimore's quarterbacks coach, then its offensive coordinator and then was hired in Detroit as the head coach.
Caldwell knows that his career trajectory, particularly being a minority offensive coordinator, remains rare. And that it could stall the small bit of progress the NFL has already made.
"Unfortunately we have not had a representative number of African-American coaches serve as quarterbacks coaches in our league over the years," Caldwell said. "That needs to change and I believe it will change because the fact of the matter is that in the NFL today, every coach is well versed in the nuances and subtleties of their respective team's system or they wouldn't be coaching in the NFL."