Last year, at a previous stop in my NFL employment, I wrote an article entitled “Yes We Can…We Just Don’t Have To.”
Penned the week of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, it focused on how the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” was more of an obstacle than an opportunity—and seeing how Mr. Obama had already expressed a fervent interest in the American sports scene, maybe he could take a look at it.
Fast forward about 50 weeks.
The 2009 NFL regular season is less than 24 hours dead and already, two NFL teams have unwittingly made a mockery of the beloved Rooney Rule.
By nature, there are going to be times that the rule is more of an obstacle than an opportunity. Take the Dolphins in 2008, who knew they wanted Tony Sparano to be their coach but had to interview Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier as a courtesy because Sparano isn't a minority.
Sure, Frazier is infinitely more qualified than probably half the coaches in the league. He's also black, so he satisfies two requirements...and that's the problem.
Take a look at the landscape. With the firing of Jim Zorn and the dismissal of Bills interim coach Perry Fewell on Monday, there are currently 30 head coaches in the NFL. Six of them are minorities (all African-Americans) and two of them had lengthy, distinguished resumes before they were given their shot—possibly because of the rule.
But still, six out of 30 is a whopping 20 percent. MLB and the NBA, which also have 30 teams, have or had higher percentages during their most recent season.
It doesn’t look like it’s about to get any better. In fact, it’s the teams that let Zorn and Fewell go who have already made a mockery of the rule.
First off, take the Redskins. While it’s been widely speculated since, oh, Week 1 or so that Zorn was a lame duck, he wasn’t officially fired until Monday. Yet weeks ago, Daniel Snyder interviewed one of Zorn’s assistants, secondary coach Jerry Gray, for the head job.
Now, I’ve worked for quite a few corporations, and it usually makes good business sense to try to find a replacement when you know you’re going to let a guy go.
But an NFL Head Coach? I mean, name one instance where a guy took over in mid-season as the “new” head coach and lasted for more than a year.
So that was a little sketchy, right?
Not unless you know that Gray is black.
See, according to league spokesman Greg “Don’t Call Me Danny” Aiello, teams can interview members of their own staff or unemployed coaches during the season and have that meeting count towards satisfying the Rooney Rule.
So, let’s set this scenario up in Snyder’s mind. “So I’m gonna can Zorn and hire Mike Shanahan about 20 minutes after I do, but I needs me a black guy who’s even remotely qualified so I don’t get in trouble....hey, ain’t we got a black coach? Yeah, let’s interview him!”
I apologize if that made Snyder sound like a racist or an idiot; the former wasn’t implied or intended, but just about everything he’s done as Redskins owner kind of absolves me from having to hypothesize on the latter.
Now, I’m not saying Gray is unqualified for the job. He played in the league for nearly a decade, went to four Pro Bowls as a cornerback and was the Bills’ defensive coordinator before Fewell. On paper he has infinitely more cred than, say, Raheem Morris or Josh McDaniels—or even Mike Singletary—did.
But he also has no chance in hell of getting the job, because Snyder clearly knows who he wants—it’s just a matter of whether that guy wants Snyder.
Gray has said he'd want the job, but does anyone else think he'd even have gotten a shot if not for that pesky Rooney Rule?
Exactly. But he counts because he’s black, and the head of the agency that monitors Rooney Rule compliance for the NFL said so. What a victory for affirmative action!
Now as for the guy who replaced him in Buffalo, Bills owner Ralph Wilson said that while Fewell and his entire staff were dismissed, he will get a chance to interview for the job again.
Sadly, even Fewell himself probably knows he has no chance in hell of getting it.
You know, he kind of did interview for the job already—it was called the last seven weeks. He led the Bills to a 3-4 record, which accounted for more than half of their wins.
That team is awful with a capital awful, and he did seem to energize them. Plus, on defense, he had one guy named to the Pro Bowl and three more on the line who could’ve been.
Unfortunately, Wilson knows it’s time for a fresh start and Fewell is part of the old guard (he’s been there since 2006). But hey, he did coach here, and he happens to be black, so sure, we’ll bring him in, satisfy the rule, and remember to exchange pleasantries with him when we play whatever team hires him as an assistant next season.
Believe me, it’s not as if there aren’t qualified candidates. Gray and Fewell do have cred, as does Frazier—who actually does have nearly a decade of head experience at the college level.
There are also guys like former All-Pro linebacker Pepper Johnson (who has been one of Bill Belichick’s defensive assistants in New England for a decade) and John Mitchell—the Steelers’ assistant head coach who has been in the league longer than Morris and McDaniels have been alive.
Sure, they all might get interviews, and one or two might eventually get jobs.
And maybe someday the NFL will adopt Obama’s “Yes We Can” attitude, instead of the “Yes, We Have To” mantra.
Until then, just remember what could’ve been the next time a black assistant gets an interview and watches someone else get hired a week later.