Black Monday robs the NFL of its diversity as firings rack up

Eight vacancies sit open for the right candidates, though, and the make-up of those chosen will be under the microscope

Todd Bowles was sacked as New York Jets head coach
Todd Bowles was sacked as New York Jets head coach

Those same misers that gripe about festive traditions coming earlier every year are likely the people that have a little more time for the starting gun of Black Monday creeping forward with every passing season.

While the teams of the NFL used to at least let the dust settle on week 17’s games before wielding the axe, this year we knew within minutes of the New York Jets’ latest defeat that head coach Todd Bowles would not be returning to the Meadowlands next year. Black Monday had begun early on Sunday afternoon.

At the time of writing, six coaches had gone within 24 hours. Add those to the two in-season firings and there will be eight head coaching positions to fill this off-season, a quarter of the league and the most in five years, and they come at a time when the profile of the incoming coaches will be under more scrutiny than ever.

Firstly that is because of the changing world of the NFL, where young, offensive-minded head coaches have turned the league upside down over the past two seasons. Kyle Shanahan and – most notably – Sean McVay blazed the trail in 2017 and then the success of Matt Nagy and Frank Reich in transforming two of the league’s worst outfits into playoff teams confirmed the trend.

Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley

It means all eyes will be on fashionable young candidates like Freddie Kitchens, the Cleveland Browns’ impressive offensive coordinator, or in the college ranks where Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma’s head coach, awaits. There hasn’t been a head coach plucked from college football in five years, and that hire (Chip Kelly going to Philadelphia) wasn’t so successful. But the professional game has never had so much synergy with its – ahem – amateur cousin as it does now. Riley should be the first name on a number of these teams’ lists.

The second reason that the profile of the incoming head coaches will be of significance is because of the diminishing amount of black or minority head coaches and executives across the league.

Ozzie Newsome, the league’s only minority general manager, announced a year ago that he’d be retiring after the 2018 season. There may be front office moves that change things, but as it stands there won’t be a minority executive in any senior position across the league and Black Monday robbed the league of a further four black head coaches in addition to Hue Jackson, sacked by Cleveland in October.

So with five of the eight departing coaches being black, the Rooney Rule is going to come under serious scrutiny 15 years after its introduction to the league. Brought in to address the lack of minority candidates in the league at coaching and executive positions, can we truly say the rule has been a success if we enter the 2019 season with just three ethnic minority coaches – Anthony Lynn (LA Chargers), Ron Rivera (Carolina) and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh)? The idea was that pathways would be built to help minority candidates get a chance and to fix the structural issues at hand, rather than enforcing quotas – which would have been far easier though far more problematic.

The rule only states that teams must interview minority candidates and not hire them, of course, but it will be an undeniably bad look for a league where the majority of players are black but there is a whitewashing at all the senior positions above that – especially given the backdrop of Trump’s America – if the situation isn’t addressed by the start of next season.

As for the actual openings, we have known for weeks that the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns jobs would be two of the most sought-after.

Up in the wilds of Wisconsin there is one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play the game and a hunger to win the Super Bowl. Green Bay might be one of the few places where a veteran coach who has seen it and done it might be the more sensible candidate over one taking their first job in the big leagues. Joe Philbin, the interim coach, will he interviewed along with retreads including Chuck Pagano and Josh McDaniels. New general manager Brian Gutekunst is under huge pressure and has to get this right to avoid being the man who wasted Aaron Rodgers’ prime.

Cleveland’s rebuild is nearly complete and they have a roster that should be competing for the playoffs for at least the next five years thanks to hitting on some elite defensive talent and stand-out rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. Every coach should be falling over themselves to take over a roster with this much talent and a QB who looks every inch like he will be a face of the league for the next decade. Lincoln Riley coached Mayfield in college and must be under consideration, while at the other end of the scale Bruce Arians has stated he is willing to come out of retirement for the opportunity to work with Mayfield. Other names may enter the picture, as well as interim HC Gregg Williams – who shouldn’t be seriously considered – and talented OC Freddie Kitchens – who should – but Riley or Arians would both make sense in their own way.

Of the Black Monday firings, the openings come in roughly three groups.

First there are the teams who have their quarterback but need everything else – the Jets and the Arizona Cardinals.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Bowles and hapless GM Mike Maccagnan couldn’t make New York competitive but the former will at least have a good number of calls if he opts to return immediately as a defensive coordinator. Whoever replaces him with the Jets will need to get the best out of third-overall pick Sam Darnold and pray that whoever is running the front office can use the huge amounts of salary cap space wisely.

In Arizona, Rosen has shown enough to suggest he was worth his first-round price tag last year at quarterback but they need to do a lot around him if he is to be successful, especially in such a tough division. This might be one of those spots where a re-tread coach like Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio or Mike McCarthy gets a shot after first-time HC Steve Wilks failed to get things going. Wilks, like Bowles, won’t struggle for work if he wants to lead a defense next year.

The second group is the only team who might have their answer at quarterback, but needs a season to find out: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jameis Winston will be given a final chance to prove himself next year but his off-field activities mean he’s running out of lives and his on-field play can’t justify special treatment. Dirk Koetter was hired as an internal continuity candidate to make Winston work but failed. Todd Monken, the team’s talented OC, should arguably get a chance but having made that same mistake last time out, it seems difficult that the Glazers would allow themselves to be fooled twice. It is an intriguing opening with a wealth of offensive talent already on the roster, while Koetter might be on the scrapheap for a while.

The final group of teams needing a coach are the middle-of-the-pack also-rans stuck in quarterback purgatory.

The Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins all have signalcallers who have been successful in the league at some point, but who fail to regularly elevate the talent around them and are on the books for a lot of money next year.

In Cincinnati, the future is very unclear with a half-decent roster but the first coaching change in over a decade. Whether they choose to hit the full reset in a strong AFC North or try and muddle on with the sub-par Andy Dalton will likely determine whether they’re ready to compete again inside three years or if they’re destined to bottom out for the considerable future.

John Elway brought a Super Bowl to Denver with the last game of Peyton Manning’s career, but his evaluation at the position in which he authored his own hall of fame career has been rocky. Picking Manning up was a job of convincing, not evaluating, and the quarterbacks since his retirement have been a disaster. Whoever replaces Vance Joseph counts on some defensive starters but little else to write home about.

Finally there is Miami, an ideal place to live for most coaches but a tough job to figure out. The Dolphins have been kidding themselves for the past few seasons that they aren’t in need of a full rebuild and it will be interesting to see if the successful coach interviewing to replace Adam Gase has convinced owner Stephen Ross that the whole thing needs blowing up or whether someone believes somewhat optimistically that there is enough in place to win.

One thing is for sure, and that is that the Dolphins roster is likely to look very different next year with quarterback Ryan Tannehill and some expensive busts on the way out. Ideally they’d hire a young coach to see out a long-term plan but that is never a popular option and even less so in a market that struggles to get bums on seats.

There is still time for surprise sackings, as with Mike Mullarkey’s departure from Tennessee after their divisional round playoff defeat last year, and there may be some hires that nobody expected.

Eight vacancies sit open for the right candidates, though, and the make-up of those chosen will be under the microscope after a Black Monday that robbed the league of its diversity.

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