Researchers of NFL hiring practices watching Falcons

Credit: AJC

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Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris addresses expectations for defense and Matt Ryan in season finale at Tampa Bay.

Credit: AJC

Field study: ‘There is the potential for history there’

Upon completion of the NFL’s regular season Sunday, the Falcons and at least two other teams will seek permission to interview head coaching candidates.

In addition to openings already with the Falcons, Detroit and Houston, other firings are expected Monday. The NFL is looking to improve its hiring record for Black coaches and executives.

The Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University recently completed an NFL field study that examined the hiring and firing tends at the highest sport levels. The academic report looked at the NFL hiring patterns over the past 10 years.

“If Black coaches are the last hired and first fired, right, then the point is can you get them into a higher place on the queue,” said Scott N. Brooks, the director of research at the Global Sport Institute (GSI). “We know that’s about attitudes, institutionalized and systematic forms of racism that kind of block those things.”

As the Falcons prepare to set off on their search, they are one of 12 of 32 teams in the NFL that has never hired a Black coach.

Oakland and Tampa Bay have each hired three coaches of color. The 12 (37.5%) that have not hired a permanent head coach of color are the Falcons, Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angles Rams, New England, New Orleans, New York Giants and Tennessee and Washington.

The Falcons, Buffalo and Washington have had interim head coaches of color. No team has hired consecutive coaches of color over the past 10 years, which is covered in the study. In 2008 and 2009, the Colts went from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell.

From 2009-19, four of those 12 teams have had one coach for nine years, which reduced the likelihood of new hires of any race.

“So, we’ve got to start look at this ideal that it’s based on a meritocracy,” said Karen Gallagher, senior researcher at GSI. “If you’re successful, if you’re good, if you’re a great player, then you potentially could go on to this head coaching position, and that’s simply only being held true for head coaches of color.

“When we look at the hiring and firings we look at the fact that white coaches tend to have more repeat opportunities: back-to-back. They are hired younger. They have a longer age range in which they can be hired. There are just a lot of variables that we explored as those both within the head coaching hiring and the pipelines that feed them, namely (the) offensive and defensive coordinator positions.”

Much like the rest of the nation is looking at Georgia’s senate runoff races, researchers are watching the Falcons to see if they’ll make history. GSI will release new information and more NFL data in February to include the 2021 hires and look back at the NFL’s Rooney Rule which started in 2003.

“The two searches going on there in Atlanta for GM and head coach, everybody says there is the potential for history there,” said Brooks, who has a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania.

The field study is designed to be help to teams looking to improve their hiring practices.

“One of the things that we started to say and advise, we feel like that’s the role, the role now needs to be that we find best practices and/or by looking at the patterns,” Brooks said. “We use those patterns to help inform what can be done to make different decisions.”

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris, now that he has experience on offense, is an intriguing candidate to Brooks.

“For Raheem Morris, who had one chance, now he could potentially have a second chance, this really bids well,” Brooks said. “This is good for Atlanta. You’ve got somebody who has the experience, somebody who has been there, somebody who has experience at multiple positions. ... For Morris who has coached on both sides of the field, that’s something that makes him unique and special.”

The study found that often coaches come only from offense or defense, not both.

“So, I think that stands out as a good thing,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if that will become a trend.”

Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy also is considered a hot coaching candidate for this hiring cycle.

“There is a potential for him somewhere down the line, but Raheem brings in this (experience) on both sides as a coach that I think makes him pretty unique,” Brooks said. “When you look at his experience in his previous coaching job and you see how he was able to turn around the Bucs.

“Those are one of the hallmarks that Black coaches, the coaches of color often get those lowest performing teams. They don’t get a team where a coach was hired away and they were sitting at the crest or they are right there at the precipice. They often get those real bottom situations.”

White coaches get hired from various backgrounds.

“White head coaches get hired at younger ages and at the oldest of ages,” Brooks said. “You have a Bruce Arians, who in his (60s), mid-to-late 60s and you have whether it’s (Arizona’s Kliff) Kingsbury or (the coach) with the Rams (Sean McVay), who could come in their early 30s, so there is a (30) year range.

“When you look at coaches of color, and it can because they played longer or played and they don’t get into coaching as early, but they are not getting hired until (later). Their window is truncated.”

Arians landed his first head coaching job at 61.

“I never thought it was going to happen,” Arians said. “It took Chuck (Pagano) to get sick in Indianapolis for me to even get a head coaching job.”

After getting fired in Arizona, he landed the Tampa Bay job at 66.

“After I retired, Saturday’s locker room and the looks on guys faces is really why I came back,” Arians said. “You miss that. Dick LeBeau (a longtime NFL assistant who briefly was a head coach) told me a long time ago, we were getting ready for a championship game, he said, ‘Man, don’t ever get out because you’ll never get days like this on the golf course.’ He was exactly right.”

Arians helped the Bucs land Tom Brady, and the team is going to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Their previous Black coaches are Tony Dungy (1996-2001), Morris (2009-11) and Lovie Smith (2014-15).

Ron Rivera, in his first season as the Washington Football Team’s coach after nine seasons as Panthers coach, stuck out in the study. He went straight from being fired to landing another head coaching job. Fired Black coaches usually have a waiting period, if they ever get a second chance.

“Right now, coaches of color only get one shot,” Brooks said. “Ron Rivera has been the exception, which may speak to us a little bit more specifically about the experiences within coaches of color: Black head coaches have a different experience than the current Latino head coach where they don’t get that back-to-back (head coaching job.) His seat didn’t even get to cool. He moved on to a new head coaching job and was given a second chance.”

Morris, who is set to finish an 11-game term as the interim coach, has major support for the Falcons’ position. He worked for team president Rich McKay in Tampa, and the team already has said he’ll be interviewed.

“It was a difficult position to be put in,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “He obviously loved and respected Dan (Quinn), as we all did. ... I think he did it his way for sure and I think guys appreciate that.”

Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich endorsed Morris for the job.

“I want to just give my endorsement of Raheem Morris just as a head coach if it’s here or somewhere else,” Ulbrich said. “In this day in age, this current player, this current culture in the NFL, there is not a better candidate in my opinion.”

Ulbrich pointed to Morris’ offensive and defensive acumen, his ability to relate to CEOs and modern-era players.

“He’s special in that way with his ability to connect, motivate, relate and energize,” Ulbrich said. “I think given this opportunity (to run) this organization, this fan base is going to be very excited (about) what he can do for the Atlanta Falcons.”

The NFL’s hiring practices will be heavily scrutinized after commissioner Roger Goodell called for change, the owners enhanced the Rooney and the Fritz Pollard Alliance called the league’s hiring record “abysmal.”

What we find is that you look at 2003 to 2009, and it still holds up that coaches of color are not gaining anymore significant opportunities since the beginning of the Rooney Rule,” Brooks said. “That tells you how much this is subjective and holds up. It’s not about the actual background requirements.”

Falcons’ 2021 draft position

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

2. New York Jets

3. Miami Dolphins (via Houston)

4. Falcons

5. Cincinnati Bengals

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