Are NFL teams finding ways around the Rooney Rule?

The NFL's "Rooney Rule" has come under scrutiny this offseason.

The hiring of former USC coach Pete Carroll in Seattle has attracted criticism and allegations that the team complied with the letter of the rule, but not its spirit.

Falcons president Rich McKay and owner Arthur Blank sit on the NFL's diversity committee, which wrote the rule.

"Teams are very aware of the rule," McKay said Monday in his Flowery Branch office. "They want to honor the rule. I think there are certain instances that they've got a coach in mind, and it's tough for them to go by the letter of the rule."

The rule, adopted by the league in 2003, requires teams to interview minority candidates when looking to fill head coaching and senior management positions. Those are jobs in which minorities have historically been denied or underrepresented.

Former head coach Tony Dungy stated in interviews with ESPN and the Associated Press that he felt the rule has been misused by Seattle and Washington this offseason.

"I know people have taken shots at the results or at some of the processes, but I think by and large, the rule has served us very well," McKay said.

John Wooten, the former Cleveland Browns great and league official, is the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which monitors league-wide compliance with the Rooney Rule.

His group closely monitored Seattle's hiring of Carroll.

"In Seattle, what threw that off is that the news hit the fan and you had all of these newspaper people saying that the deal was done," Wooten said. "The contract was in order and all of that, but Seattle was telling us that was not the case."

Wooten was skeptical before eventually advising Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to interview with the Seahawks.

"Pete Carroll called me himself [last Saturday] and said ‘I would not be involved in something that was a sham or dishonorable' and he said, ‘I do not have a contract,' " Wooten said.

Carroll did acknowledge to Wooten that the Seattle had been in contract with his representative. They laid out what Carroll wanted, and Seattle said it needed to discuss the matter.

Wooten was concerned and spoke with Seattle's CEO Tod Leiweke.

"We said to them that we needed to be assured that there was no deal already done," Wooten said. "Because if there was a deal that was already done, they would be asking us to violate the Rooney Rule as it exists.

"We checked with the league office, and they said there was no deal. We talked with Leslie and recommended that he take the interview."

Frazier interviewed on Sunday. Carroll was announced as the Seahawks' new coach on Monday.

Frazier, who is preparing for the Vikings' divisional-round playoff game, has not been available to the media. He also is a candidate for the vacant head coaching job in Buffalo.

Openings in Washington and Cleveland also had some "Rooney Rule" overtones.

The Redskins complied with the rule by interviewing Jerry Gray, their secondary coach. They later hired Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowl titles with Denver.

In Cleveland, Will Lewis interviewed for the general manager post before Tom Heckert was hired Monday.

Wooten said that his group was aware that Snyder talked to Gray during the season.

"Dan Snyder knew early on that he was going to change coaches," Wooten said. "He called the league office for permission to speak to Jerry Gray."

Lewis, Seattle's director of pro personnel, felt he received a legitimate interview in Cleveland.

"He felt very good about it," Wooten said.

Seattle, Washington and Cleveland all complied with the rule, league spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed in an e-mail to the Journal-Constitution.

Before the rule was implemented only Tom Flores, Art Shell, Tony Dungy, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes and Herman Edwards were or had been minority head coaches during the modern era of the league.

Fritz Pollard was the NFL's first African-American head coach in 1921 with the Akron Pros. There wasn't another minority coach until the Raiders named Flores, who's Hispanic, in 1979.

When the "Rooney Rule" was implemented in 2003, only Dungy and Edwards were minority head coaches, representing 6 percent of the league's 32 top jobs. Last season, there were six minority head coaches: Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell, Chicago's Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris and San Francisco's Mike Singletary.

In the past, the Fritz Pollard Alliance has recommended that a candidate not take part in the process if it's determined to be a sham. In 2003, Detroit was fined $200,000 when Steve Mariucci was hired without the Lions interviewing any minority candidates.

Dallas once circumvented the rule by interviewing Dennis Green over the phone.

"We know what a sham is, and we know what a legitimate interview is," Wooten said. "If you just sit down and just have a cup of coffee, that does not constitute an interview."

In addition to getting more minority candidates in front of ownership, McKay credits the rule with slowing down the hiring process. He noted that the rule even has helped some non-minority coaches get jobs.

"What the process does for you is that it brings people to the table for an interview that you otherwise would not have put on your ‘quote' short list," McKay said. "Before the rule, I think the short list might have been two names.

"Now I think you begin with a list of 10 and you narrow it down so you do run into a Mike Smith, who is the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. He makes it to the second round and becomes your coach. I'm not sure that's the case 10 years ago, eight years ago."

There are certain to be other openings in 2010 as the offseason continues.