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The Rooney Rule is broken and only NFL owners can fix it

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy looks at his play sheet

(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It is important to remember that the “Rooney Rule” was not implemented by the NFL in 2003 out of some benevolent sense that the league and its owners needed to fix a problem.

No, it took high-profile lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri and the possibility of legal action for the NFL owners to come up with a plan to widen the pool for interviewing potential head coaching candidates. 

The current rule — named for longtime Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney — states that teams must interview at least one minority candidate from outside of their own organization when trying to hire a head coach, assistant coaches, or senior executives.

The Steelers put their money where their mouth is by hiring Mike Tomlin, and he has gone on to be one of the best coaches in the league, but far too many potential Tomlins are being passed over.

As any parent knows, you can force a kid to eat vegetables because they are healthy and part of a balanced overall diet, but what happens the moment mom and dad are out of the room?

And that is what is happening in the NFL where four of the five open coaching slots have gone to white men this hiring cycle (the Washington Redskins hired Ron Rivera, who is Latino) and black coaches will be shut out altogether.

Before continuing, it is important to step back and look at the scoreboard. In the NFL, that is the only thing that matters, right?

There are 32 NFL teams and black players make up roughly 70% of the workforce. The league has zero black owners, one black general manager, and three black head coaches.

So, is the Rooney Rule working, or has it just become a box that owners check on their way to doing what they wanted to do in the first place?

It certainly feels that, like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the good old boys network remains undefeated.

Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, believes the NFL has lost ground. 

Pollard became pro football’s first black head coach in 1919. It took until 1989, when the Los Angeles Raiders hired Art Shell, for the league to see another. Graves certainly has a solid perspective on the subject.

“Right now the league is celebrating 100 years of football and to be needing to have this conversation is certainly frustrating,” Graves said. “There was a point where it felt like we were making real progress but when you look at what is going on right now, it feels like we have taken a step back. It’s embarrassing. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do. The fact is: There are qualified candidates out here and the league is not doing a good enough job of identifying them and giving them a chance.” 

Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis recently interviewed with the Dallas Cowboys for their open position.  He was passed over for Mike McCarthy, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Lewis holds no grudge over not getting the Dallas job. McCarthy certainly has a strong resume, but Lewis is frustrated by the overall situation. In the last three years, 19 coaches have been hired and only three were black.

“You keep beating your head up against the wall, but I would say — and again, this is somebody’s business, this is somebody’s franchise, nobody’s going to tell them who to hire,” Lewis told ESPN Radio. “But if we could just somehow open the process a bit more and provide more opportunity then more coaches could get hired.” 

Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers is congratulated by head coach Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins

(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

One simple answer is for the NFL to have more black general managers. After Ozzie Newsome retired following the 2018 season, the league was left with one: Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins.

Grier and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores are the only minority GM-HC tandem in the league. 

Another potential solution is to expand the pool of candidates by creating more chances for black assistants to become offensive and defensive coordinators. 

Generally, those are the positions that lead to head coaching opportunities. Currently, only two offensive coordinators and 10 defensive coordinators are black. 

Former NFL player Mike Golic made a strong point about that “pipeline”. During his radio show, he said that current NFL head coaches deserve part of the blame as well. They are not developing more minorities as coordinators.

But then how to explain Joe Judge landing the New York Giants job? Judge has never been a lead coordinator at any level. His best qualifications seem to be having coached under Nick Saban and Bill Belichick.

Last year, the Arizona Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, who had a losing record as a college coach at Texas Tech. The Bengals hired Zac Taylor, whose best qualification is that he once worked for Rams head coach Sean McVay.

Meanwhile, Bieniemy has helped create one of the NFL’s best offenses with the Kansas City Chiefs. He also has deep experience going back to when he was Minnesota Vikings running backs coach.

Kansas City’s two previous offensive coordinators were Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy. Both are head coaches. Pederson won a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles following the 2017 season. Nagy led the Chicago Bears to the playoffs last season.

Joe Judge poses with a helmet after he was introduced as the new head coach of the New York Giants

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Bieniemy has interviewed for seven of the last 12 open head coaching job the last two offseasons. How does he continue to be passed over for seemingly less-qualified candidates? This trend continued Monday when the Browns tabbed Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to be their next head coach.

Whose team performed better this weekend: Bieniemy’s Chiefs, who overcame a 24-0 deficit to beat the Houston Texans on Sunday? Or Stefanski’s Vikings, who got steamrolled by the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday?

“I think it’s discouraging, to say the least,” Bieniemy’s agent Brian Levy told Terez Paylor of Yahoo! Sports. “We’re really trying to find out what the standard is, and every year, the standard changes. We’re just trying to swim against the current.” 

Graves believes that despite any frustration, black assistants should continue to take interviews. If they sense it may have been set up with the goal of satisfying the Rooney Rule, take the opportunity.

“You never know when that interview makes an impression and sets you up for something else,” Graves said. “Just getting in the room is a start. We will continue to push for more opportunities but getting in that room and letting people know who you are and what you can do is an important first step.” 

Bieniemy struck a positive tone in a press conference this week in between preparations for the Chiefs playoff game.

“I had an opportunity to interview for three jobs (this year) and one thing I can say — I had a great process, a great discussion,” Bieniemy said. “Each and every interview is different … Yeah, it’s a blessing, it’s always great to be mentioned, it’s always great to have that opportunity to be considered in those roles.”

The only good news to come out of the recent hiring cycle is that NFL owners have once again been put squarely into the spotlight.  

Prominent sports television personalities like Stephen A. Smith and Bomani Jones have used their platforms to skewer the NFL for its ongoing diversity problem. 

Former players like James Harrison, Ryan Clark, and Shannon Sharpe have done the same.  

Maybe being shamed into doing the right thing will help solve the problem. 

As the late Cochran said way back in 2002, before the Rooney Rule was put into place: “NOW, is the time for the NFL to step up and make a change.”