The minority hiring gains the NFL had seen in teams’ front offices in recent years had not translated into progress in the diversity of the league’s head coaches, but that changed in recent weeks with the latest hiring cycle.

NFL teams hired four minority head coaches — three of them Black — among eight vacancies, providing a significant boost to the league’s efforts. League leaders and others involved in promoting diversity in the NFL’s hiring practices now must hope the gains are a sign of lasting progress.

“I think the league is certainly pleased,” said Jonathan Beane, an NFL senior vice president and the league’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “But we also know that this is one snapshot and one cycle and one place in time. … I think what we’re really looking for is sustainable improvement over a number of seasons where this is normalized.”

The NFL seeks better minority-hiring results this head-coaching cycle

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works with the NFL on its minority hiring, echoed those sentiments.

“Obviously I’m delighted in many areas with what we saw with this past hiring cycle,” said Rod Graves, the group’s executive director. “But I’ll just tell you that I typically like to go beyond the numbers and really look at what’s going on in a number of other telling areas.”

The hires of Jerod Mayo by the New England Patriots, Antonio Pierce by the Las Vegas Raiders and Raheem Morris by the Atlanta Falcons give the NFL six Black head coaches. They join the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles and the Houston Texans’ DeMeco Ryans.

Mayo said at his introductory news conference last month that being the first Black head coach in Patriots history “means a lot” to him. Mayo also said that day, “I do see color, because I believe if you don’t see color, you can’t see racism.”

Those moves and the Carolina Panthers’ hire of Dave Canales, who is Mexican American, give the league nine minority head coaches. That includes the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, and the Miami Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel, who is biracial.

“I think we’re starting to see now that there is, or at least what appears to be, a promising change in the landscape,” Graves said.

The hiring cycle played out with the NFL and teams still facing a racial discrimination lawsuit filed in February 2022 by Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Dolphins who is now the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator. Two other Black coaches, Steve Wilks and Ray Horton, later joined the lawsuit.

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U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ruled in March that Flores’s claims against the Dolphins, Wilks’s claims against the Arizona Cardinals and Horton’s claims against the Tennessee Titans must be submitted to arbitration under the authority of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, based on the terms of their employment contracts. But Flores could litigate his claims in federal court against the NFL and several other teams, Caproni ruled. Flores’s attorneys declined to comment on the results of this hiring cycle.

Ryans was the only Black coach hired among the five in last year’s hiring cycle.

The league was doing better at other positions, with seven minority team presidents and, by season’s end, 11 minority general managers. That included interim GMs Champ Kelly of the Raiders and JoJo Wooden of the Los Angeles Chargers, who were not hired full time this offseason.

Graves, formerly the Cardinals’ general manager, said he was encouraged not only by the minority coaches who were hired but also by the number and quality of the minority candidates who interviewed for head coaching vacancies.

“We are no longer talking about an absence of a pipeline,” Graves said. “That’s a far-fetched concept now. To me, we’ve buried that.”

The Patriots used a head coach succession plan written into Mayo’s contract to promote him from linebackers coach to head coach the day after they parted with Bill Belichick. The Raiders had to fulfill the NFL’s requirement to conduct in-person interviews with at least two minority candidates from outside the organization. But they conducted a relatively abbreviated search before removing the interim tag from Pierce’s title.

Otherwise, the NFL succeeded in slowing down the selection process, as it had hoped to do with a new rule this year prohibiting in-person interviews with candidates from other teams until after the divisional round of the playoffs. (Virtual interviews were permitted sooner.)

Beane said the league also found that teams had “more people involved in the process of hiring a head coach or GM at the clubs than we’ve ever had,” adding that the NFL views that as “a huge positive” leading to “better outcomes.” But ultimately, hiring decisions are made by a team’s controlling owner.

“A lot of times there is this thought that membership is not comfortable having a person of color in the head coach position,” Beane said. “I think what we see now with this cycle is there is that comfort.”

The Los Angeles Rams will be awarded two third-round draft picks under the NFL’s plan for rewarding teams that develop minority head coach and general manager candidates hired by other franchises. Morris had been the Rams’ defensive coordinator for the past three seasons. Canales was the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator before the Panthers hired him. But the Buccaneers will not benefit from that policy because Canales was with them for just one season, one fewer than the requirement.

The league’s diversity efforts in recent years also have included “accelerator” programs in which minority head coach and general manager candidates interact with owners. The NFL tried to bolster its head coaching pipeline by requiring that each team have a minority assistant coach in a significant role on its offensive staff.

Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores sues NFL and its teams, alleging racial discrimination

“When things are implemented, it takes time for the implementation to come into place where you actually see the outcomes,” Beane said. “And I think now we’re seeing the outcomes.”

Mayo, Pierce and Morris come from defensive coaching backgrounds (along with Dan Quinn, hired by the Washington Commanders and Mike Macdonald, hired by the Seattle Seahawks), reversing the trend in recent years of teams regularly seeking offensive-minded leaders. Still, Graves said he is concerned about a lack of minority offensive coordinators, which could be an issue in future head coach hiring cycles.

“We get so caught up in where we are at the final stage of the hiring cycle,” he said. “But, really, are we making substantive change in the foundation and in the attitudes of those who are hiring? … I still think we’ve got a lot of work. But now, having said all of that, it’s a hell of a lot better than [where] we were.”

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