Update (January 3, 2020): The NFL has long struggled to diversify its coaching and executive ranks but 2019 was a particularly bad year for the league’s Black coaches. Four of the league’s six Black coaches were fired in January 2019 leaving just two remaining.

Mike Tomlin of the Steelers and Anthony Lynn of the Chargers are the only Black coaches left in the league, prompting analysts to question how things could have reached such a dire point in 2020.

“We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NFL, yet we have only three head coaches of color,” Rod Graves told The New York Times.

Graves spent decades as an NFL general manager and league executive and now runs the NFL’s coaching diversity initiative, the Fritz Pollard Alliance. 

“For all the hoopla that football has become in this country, that kind of progress, or lack of, is shameful,” he said.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave the NFL its lowest grade ever in November after the league saw drastic reductions in the number of women and minorities hired by teams. In their report, the institute’s director, Richard Lapchick, slammed the NFL for failing to address persistent diversity issues and said there was a consistent lack of Black executives in positions of true power.

“The NFL began the 2019 regular season with only four coaches of color which represented an enormous shift from the record of eight coaches that started the regular season in 2018. That all-time record was also achieved in 2011 and 2017. There were six coaches of color in 2015 and 2016,” Lapchick said in the report.

“The NFL had some bright spots in their 2019 racial and gender hiring practice results within the NFL League Office but has continued to see lower scores within the leadership of participating clubs. There has been a lack of representation of women and people of color in President/CEO and C-Suite positions. People of color and women are seriously under-represented in significant decision-making positions at the team level,” Lapchick added.

A New York Times article attributed the drastic decrease in Black coaches to a somewhat recent move toward hiring offensive-minded coaches, almost all of whom are former quarterbacks. For decades, the NFL and college teams restricted Black players from playing as quarterbacks, forcing a pattern where most Black NFL coaches emerged after careers on the defensive side of the ball.

The sport has shifted toward a focus on offense in the last five years, and most teams now opt to hire offensive coordinators for open head coaching positions. Just two of the league’s offensive coordinators this season are Black.  

“When you look at the demographics, it’s embarrassing,” NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent told a New York Times reporter at The Quarterback Summit, an event held at Morehouse College.

The NFL-organized event is designed to give Black coaches a place to learn from other Black coaches, get interview tips and network with executives. 

The NFL has had the Rooney Rule in place since 2003, forcing teams to interview at least one minority candidate when trying to hire a head coach, assistant coaches or senior executives.

But as more years have passed since it was instituted, team owners have made a mockery of the rule. There have been multiple instances where teams leaked agreements with new coaches almost immediately after a position was opened, only to give a Black candidate a token interview just to technically comply with the rule.  

The NFL had to make the rule more stringent after the Oakland Raiders blatantly violated it in 2018. They signed their new coach at the end of the season and said they had complied with the Rooney Rule by claiming they interviewed the team’s own tight ends coach. 

“These Rooney Rule enhancements are a breakthrough,” Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director Harry Carson, in a statement to The Washington Post at the time

“After last season’s hiring cycle, something had to be done. These enhancements should strengthen the rule and ensure that it applies as intended and truly gives candidates of color a fair chance,” Carson said in 2018, just one year before more than half of the league’s Black coaches would be fired. 

Original (January 3, 2019): The firing of four of the NFL’s six Black coaches this past week raised concerns over the league’s plan to diversify its coaching ranks.

The New York Times reports the New York Jets fired its coach, Todd Bowles, right after the team lost its final game of the season Sunday. Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, Vance Joseph of the Denver Broncos and Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals were fired on Monday. All four Black coaches posted losing records with their respective former teams.

The Monday following the last day of the NFL’s regular season is commonly known as Black Monday because of the number of coaches fired each year for not meeting expectations. The word “Black” never seemed as fitting as it did this week.

Think Progress notes the NFL's player pool is 70 percent Black; however, the coaching staff has always been mostly white. The Black Monday firings lower the number of minority coaches from seven to three (Ron Rivera, head coach for the Carolina Panthers, identifies as Latino). In a league with 32 different teams, this means only nine percent of head coaches are minorities and only six percent are Black.

The league has had a process for increasing its Black top talent called the Rooney rule since 2003, and according to the Times, owners recently voted to strengthen the policy.

Named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the Rooney rule requires teams looking for a new head coach or general manager interview at least one minority candidate, SB Nation reports.

After critics complained the rule wasn't being followed, owners agreed to interview a minority from a list of league-approved candidates (to ensure teams don't just interview random, unqualified minorities to meet the quota) and to prove a minority interview actually took place (some teams were accused of scheduling minority interviews, but not actually bringing the candidates in for sit downs).

The Nation reports some NFL observers aren't sure the rule changes will help much. Attorney N. Jeremi Duru, who wrote a book on diversity in the league, told the magazine professional football has a pipeline problem that keeps head coaching white.

“One key obstacle is that quarterbacks, quarterback coaches, offensive-line coaches, and offensive coordinators are disproportionately and overwhelmingly white," Duru said. “People in those positions are the people who tend to funnel into head-coaching positions. We have to promote initiatives that get more people of color involved on the offensive side of the ball as coaches.”

According to ESPN, teams that fired coaches are already on the hunt for replacements. It remains to be seen whether any new Black head coaches will join the L.A. Chargers' Anthony Lynn and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin, the only Black men who kept their head coaching jobs this season.