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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chip Kelly, Keith Armstrong and the NFL, a Big Business

So Keith Armstrong, the Falcons' special teams coordinator, seemingly has done everything right.  He's worked his way up the coaching hierarchy, and is now a coordinator.  While not an offensive or defensive coordinator, he's an NFL coordinator.  Moreover, there's precedent for a special teams coordinator to go from that job to the job of an NFL head coach and succeed -- John Harbaugh of the Ravens, who had been the Eagles' special teams coordinator.   He's in his second AFC championship game in two years.

Armstrong surfaced on many interviewing slates this year, a bona fide candidate from a Super Bowl contender.  Yet, he only showed up on the laundry lists, so to speak, and not the short lists.  Was it because he wasn't good enough?  Was it because the teams that interviewed him only did so because the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching positions, made them?  Did they ever consider Armstrong seriously?  (Interestingly, the Rooneys themselves hired a minority coach after their last opening -- Mike Tomlin -- and he's led the Steelers to a Super Bowl during his tenure in Pittsburgh).  From what transpired during coaching searches, it appears not.

The Eagles, instead of hiring a native son in Armstrong, hire Chip Kelly.  On the face of the decision, it's a no-brainer.  Kelly is the hot name in college football; Armstrong is a special teams coordinator.  Most special teams coordinators don't become head coaches; some, like Joe Avezzano and Mike Westhoff, become known for their outsized personalities.  And yet, Armstrong's name came up in searches -- he seemingly was interviewed early in several processes.  Was it that he is a hot commodity?  Or, alternatively, a "check the box" interview because the Rooney Rule requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching position?    (As for Kelly, the big question is whether someone with zero coaching experience in the NFL and not that far removed from powerhouse New Hampshire can adapt to the fast pace of the NFL, professional players and an expectation that he win a Super Bowl within the next five years).

It seems like Keith Armstrong is a good coach.  He's a coordinator on a team that's a win away from the Super Bowl.  And yet, it doesn't appear that a minority candidate really got serious consideration for any of the eight vacant coaching positions (all now filled).  Romeo Crennel, fired in Kansas City, appears to be headed for retirement (or at least that's what I heard on ESPN after he was fired).  Lovie Smith, who took the Bears to a Super Bowl, didn't seem to draw serious attention.  Neither did Ray Horton, the well-respected defensive coordinator for the Cardinals (who has since landed in Cleveland in the same spot and who, at 52, might seem to be getting up there in years for consideration for a head coaching position, even if Bruce Arians, at 60, just got his first full-time head coaching position).

A few things are worthy of probing:

1.  Is the NFL's Rooney Rule working?
2.  If the answer is no, what can the NFL do to create opportunities for minority candidates and enable them to get hired into head coaching positions (given that a large majority of NFL players are minorities)?
3.  Why weren't Keith Armstrong and Ray Horton given more consideration and why wasn't Lovie Smith hired, given that the demand for Andy Reid soared the day that he was let go?

It wasn't so long ago -- perhaps a few decades -- that the press used a term, the "black quarterback," perhaps because there weren't many African-American quarterbacks and in my estimation because of racism (as if the expectation was that African-Americans couldn't play the position).  Sure,  there were James Harris, Doug Williams and Warren Moon, among the earliest, but the absence of African-American quarterbacks helped create the term.  Did it mean anomaly?  Did it mean surprise, as in "the world is surprised that an African-American can play the position?"   (My father took me to a Temple-Grambling game in the mid-1970's, and we were left with our jaws hanging as to how any team in the country wouldn't have recruited Doug Williams, that's how great he was).  Thankfully, over time, high school, college and professional coaches came to their senses, there are many African-American quarterbacks, and you don't hear that bad term any more.  It might be only a small part of evolution away from stereotyping, but a powerful one, too.

The time is long past due that we don't need to hear the term "African-American" head coach, either.  There are plenty of worthy candidates out there, and it's long past due that the NFL foster a culture where there are more African-American head coaches -- with or without a Rooney Rule.

As the NFL approaches the day on which the country will honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, the league should think about that.  To it's credit, from headlines on ESPN, it is.

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