A Washington Post analysis found Black head coaches were twice as likely to get fired by NFL teams since 1990 after posting a record of .500 or better than coaches of other races.
Other findings published Wednesday included Black coaches having to spend "significantly longer" as mid-level assistants and a trend of Black coaches being given a higher rate of interim head coaching roles than full-time positions.
The investigation comes as the 2022 season takes place with just three Black head coaches—the Houston Texans' Lovie Smith, Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Todd Bowles—the same number as in 2003, when the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule to ensure minority interviews for head coaching and executive roles.
Smith is one of the Black head coaches fired despite a winning season, getting let go by the Chicago Bears after a 10-6 record in 2012, which moved his record with the franchise to 81-63. He also guided the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XLI at the end of the 2006 season.
Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from midway through the 2010 season until 2013, was a popular candidate this past offseason after Buffalo led the league in both total defense and scoring defense in 2021.
But Frazier didn't get hired despite the success in a key assistant role and his past experience, and he told the Washington Post it feels like the goal posts are always being adjusted for Black coaches.
"It seems like the criteria moves," Frazier said. "One week, or one year, it's 'We want an offensive-minded guy.' Another year: 'We want a guy with a Super Bowl-winning background.' What's the criteria? Sometimes it's because he's 'a great leader.' Sometimes it's because he 'came up the same way I came up.' But the common theme ... is [an owner is going] to hire someone that looks like that owner."
Former Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who's worked as a special assistant in the Los Angeles Chargers' front office since 2017, agreed with that assessment.
"I really think there's a disconnect [between] the owners and the kind of culture that is Black folks—not understanding the way Black folks communicate, the mannerisms, the expressions," Tomlinson told the Post. "It's different than someone who looks like them. We hear owners say all the time, 'Oh, I connected with this [white] candidate because they reminded me of myself.' If we can't get past that [mindset with] coaches who don't look like you or talk like you or come from the same background, they'll never get a chance."
Only one NFL owner responded to the Washington Post's request for comment on the topic: Art Rooney II, whose father, Dan, is the namesake of the Rooney Rule.
He lamented the drop in the number of Black head coaches in recent years, which is all the more startling in a league where 58 percent of the players during the 2021 season were Black, per Statista.
"Most of us were not expecting it to turn in the wrong direction the way it did, and to the extent it did, and over the time period that it did," Rooney said. "I don't think there's any one reason that you could point to. It's obviously a trend that was not expected [and] not welcomed. ... It may have taken us too long to get to this point. We're addressing the situation. But I'm just pleased to say at this point that I do think there's a consensus and a collective effort to address it."
In March, the NFL announced an expansion of the Rooney Rule to require two interviews with minority candidates, a group expanded to include women, and a requirement for every staff to include an offensive assistant who's a person of color or a woman.
The changes came after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out about the issue in February, shortly after former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the hiring and firing processes of the league's teams.
Goodell said the NFL needed to "find more effective policies" to ensure minority coaches were being given a fair opportunity to lead staffs.
"We're not having the success we want with head coaches," Goodell said. "How do we evolve that rule, or do we have to have a new rule? Do we need to find some other way of being able to achieve that outcome? I think we're not going to rest until we find that, until we get those outcomes that are mandatory for us to move forward and have an inclusive league."
Flores, who was fired by the Dolphins in January despite back-to-back winning seasons, landed on Tomlin's staff in Pittsburgh as a senior defensive assistant.
The Steelers' longtime head coach explained he worked quickly to ensure Flores joined his staff after it became clear he wouldn't be given another head coaching job before the 2022 campaign.
"I just didn't want him to feel like he was on an island," Tomlin told reporters in March. "From a coaching fraternity standpoint I owed him that. I was in position to provide that. I think that started our interactions and conversations."
He later named Flores as one of the five coaches he'd target to lead a staff if starting from scratch as an NFL general manager.
Smith and Bowles, the only two Black head coaches hired during the 2022 cycle, were both internal promotions within their own teams.