A question for NFL team owners and their advisers: Why is it that you’re content to hand Black assistant coaches an industrial-sized roll of Scotch tape and ask to hold a team together after a head coach is fired in-season, but so infrequently inclined to hand them the reins to a team from Day 1, with the full support and resources and time to succeed?
The former has happened twice thus far this season.
Two weeks ago, after Houston Texans owner Cal McNair had seen enough from the power-hungry but results-poor Bill O’Brien and fired him, Romeo Crennel was named interim head coach.
Last week, after Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank could no longer endure watching his team lead games only to fall apart late and parted ways with Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris was named interim head coach.
If you’re keeping track at home, Crennel and Morris’ elevations means there are five Black head coaches in the NFL at the moment.
Of the 18 Black men who have been NFL head coaches since the league implemented its Rooney Rule in 2003 (which is a sad enough number itself), seven had the interim label attached. Four of them never got a chance to be a head coach without it. Two, Crennel and Morris, were interim coaches after first getting their shot at being a head coach elsewhere. One, Anthony Lynn, was Buffalo’s interim coach for a game and got a formal interview after the season but wound up being hired by the Chargers.
Those numbers aren’t great, but there’s a different reason I’m skeptical there will still be five Black head coaches in the league a few months from now.
That pessimism is because Blank gave an incredibly revealing — and damning — answer a few days ago when discussing his decisions.
Asked if Morris would be given consideration for the job full-time, Blank said, “If Raheem ends up 11-0, he’s certainly going to be a candidate.”
If he goes 11-0?!
Keep in mind, Blank didn’t just fire Quinn, he fired general manager Thomas Dimitroff as well, meaning he wasn’t just unhappy with what was happening on the field, he was unhappy with the roster construction too.
But given the same roster of players, he will “consider” Morris if he goes 11-0? Consider him? This is the insanely high bar Black coaches have to clear?
If Raheem Morris leads the Falcons to an 11-0 finish after an 0-5 start, which almost certainly would put them in the playoffs, Blank should show up at Morris’ home with a massive thank-you in the form of a multi-year contract as head coach and a significant pay raise to accompany it.
Morris took the first step on Sunday, a 40-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Yes, it was the Vikings, but when you’re winless you’ll take every W you can get, any way you can get it. Atlanta dominated in the first half and led 23-0 midway through the third quarter before the Vikings got on the board.
It’s been quite a decade for Morris. His first stint as a head coach didn’t go well, in large part because he was too young and too lenient on some of his Tampa Bay Buccaneers players, most notably Aqib Talib. Morris posted a 17-31 record in three seasons leading the Buccaneers, a job he got at the tender age of 32, though there was a 10-6 season in 2010 sandwiched between his first and final years in charge.
He has certainly had to work his way back since his firing. Morris started as a defensive backs coach with Washington, and he has coached defensive backs and wide receivers in Atlanta before being named the defensive coordinator this past offseason.
As if that wasn’t humbling enough, now he apparently has to perform a football miracle for the chance to have “interim” dropped from his title.
Crennel is in a different position. The 73-year-old is one of the most respected coaches in the league, one of the good guys, and has been in the league since 1981. He has gotten multiple bites at the apple; Crennel spent four years in Cleveland from 2005-08 and was the last coach to lead the Browns to a winning record. In 2010 he was hired as the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, then named interim head coach for the past three games of the 2011 season, and then he became head coach in 2012 before being fired after a 2-14 season.
Last week, Crennel led Houston to its first win of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Morris got the game ball on Sunday in leading Atlanta to its first win of the season, and players noted that he pushed them in his first week in charge of practice.
“It’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Morris said.
How he motivates, teaches and supports players over the coming 10 games, during this most unusual of seasons, should be what gets Morris a legitimate chance to remain with Atlanta. It should not rest with him winning 11 games in a row. (Which would be two games longer than the franchise record, by the way).
Morris’ resume now is worthy of consideration. It should not be, once again, that a Black coach is held to such a ridiculously high standard to get a chance.
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