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NFL Teams Are Making Brian Flores’s Case For Him

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The lawsuit brought against the NFL by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores earlier this month is still in its early stages, and a lot of its contents remain to be unpacked. But his accusation of systemic racism in coaching hires fits in with what Black coaches have been saying for years. A weakening Rooney Rule has increasingly led to sham job interviews and, ultimately, a glaring lack of minority coaches in a league in which 58 percent of the players are Black (and 71 percent of players are nonwhite). For Black coaching candidates, first chances are hard to come by, second chances even more so, and what few opportunities do exist often come with long odds of real success.

The 2022 hiring cycle — in which Flores was both a job-loser (when the Dolphins fired him) and a job-seeker (he was a candidate for openings with the Giants, Saints, Texans and Bears) — unwittingly went a long way toward proving his point.

For one thing, Flores’s departure from Miami was a historical anomaly. He was dismissed in spite of guiding the Dolphins to a 9-8 record this season, a 10-6 record last season and a near-even 24-25 record overall in his three seasons at the helm. The last of those seasons saw the Dolphins rally back from a 1-7 start to finish above .500, with a better Elo rating than they had in preseason, despite getting below-average quarterback play (according to our QB Elo metric) from primary starter Tua Tagovailoa. Flores became just the eighth coach of the Super Bowl era1 to still be fired while fitting that description:

Flores is in a rare club of fired NFL coaches

NFL coaches since 1966 who left their team after leading them to a winning record and an improved Elo rating despite below-average QB play

Team Elo
Year Team Coach Win % Starting QB QB Elo Pre Final Departure
2021 MIA Flores .529 Tagovailoa -11.3 1532 1557 Fired
2017 TEN Mularkey .556 Mariota -3.2 1460 1491 Mutual
2014 BUF Marrone .563 Orton -14.5 1456 1549 Resigned
2012 CHI Smith .625 Cutler -57.1 1505 1546 Fired
2008 NYJ Mangini .563 Favre -10.4 1442 1472 Fired
2000 DET Ross .563 Batch -72.5 1466 1512 Resigned
1994 OAK Shell .563 Hostetler -18.5 1516 1530 Fired
1986 KC Mackovic .588 Blackledge -89.0 1487 1519 Fired
1982 NYJ Michaels .667 Todd -2.2 1530 1623 Resigned
1980 TEN Phillips .647 Stabler -40.2 1579 1602 Fired
1977 CHI Pardee .600 Avellini -12.6 1476 1509 Resigned
1976 DEN Ralston .643 Ramsey -33.5 1473 1551 Resigned
1976 SF Clark .571 Plunkett -28.9 1421 1495 Fired
1970 ARI Winner .607 Hart -19.1 1426 1521 Fired
1967 CHI Halas .536 Concannon -36.1 1509 1549 Retired

Quarterback performance is measured by FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo ratings relative to an average starter.

Sources: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference.com, Wikipedia

It doesn’t take a detective to realize that three of the four most recent coaches in that group — Flores, ex-Bears coach Lovie Smith (who was hired by the Texans this cycle) and ex-Raiders coach Art Shell — were Black. (And before that, there simply weren’t many Black coaches, period.) This matches up with the general idea that Black coaches need to be miracle workers to justify their positions — and sometimes even that is not enough.

We can see even more evidence to support Flores’s claims in the hiring process this offseason. I combed through news stories on the nine head-coaching jobs that were open to find each team’s list of “finalists” for the role, among whom I also included interim coaches who took over in midseason.2 For every finalist, I collected information on their race, age, coaching background and experience, and the percentile grades their teams had in various statistics over their careers, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.3 If hiring NFL coaches were truly an objective process, we might expect the head-coaching candidates who were hired to have superior resumes to those who were not selected, in at least some kind of quantifiable sense.

And there are slight differences between the groups. In comparing the nine finalists who were hired with the 16 who were not, the former tended to be younger (with an average age of 47.1 versus 49.2 for those who went unhired), with more experience at the coordinator level (5.9 years versus 3.4) and a slightly higher career percentile grade in how often teams they had coached or coordinated won (62.6 versus 57.6). However, the most statistically significant difference between the groups by far was race. Among the candidates who were hired, 83.3 percent were white, while only 37.5 percent of the runners-up were white:

Coach hopefuls differed more in race than success

Background, years of experience and career performance data for coaches in 2021-22 NFL hiring cycle

Share of Coaches NFL Coach Exp. Career Percentile
Coach Type Off.* White Ex-Player HC Coord. All WPct Pts
Departing 66.7% 77.8% 11.1% 5.8 4.4 20.0 44.0 39.0
Hired 66.7 83.3 22.2 2.3 5.9 15.8 62.6 54.9
Not Hired 40.6 37.5 50.0 2.3 3.4 14.6 57.6 53.8

*Offensive coach, according to positions held in coaching background. (Special-teams coaches were assigned a value of 0.5.)

Percentile grades for points and yards were for the area of the team the coach primarily oversaw, according to his background.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

There are other correlated factors that relate to this trend. As my former colleague Perry Bacon Jr. and I noted in our proposed guide to improving NFL coaching diversity in 2020, assistant coaches with an offensive background are hired more often as head coaches than their defensive peers — and offensive coaches tend to skew more white than defensive coaches (a gap that has actually widened over the past decade-plus, according to research by Arizona State’s Global Sport Institute). That pattern continued this offseason, with 67 percent of hired head-coaching candidates coming from an offensive background, while 59 percent of unhired candidates came from a defensive background.

Another major factor correlated with the racial differences between hired and unhired candidate groups involves playing experience. As Perry and I covered in our story, playing the game appears to be devalued relative to other paths en route to an NFL coaching career. Among the candidates who were hired, only 22 percent had experience playing in the NFL; that figure was 50 percent for the group of candidates who were not hired. As we mentioned above, the vast majority of NFL players are nonwhite, which means this apparent bias against playing experience feeds into the racial differences in hiring patterns. In particular, it can also help explain why the group of hired coaches had more years of experience as coordinators or simply in any NFL coaching capacity (15.8 years versus 14.6) than their unhired peers. Paradoxically, the years the latter group spent playing didn’t “count” toward their future coaching prospects, and therefore left them at a disadvantage relative to other coaches who were much less successful in the game as players.

No matter what the correlated factors may be, the bottom line is that white candidates enjoy a starkly better rate of being hired than do nonwhite ones. During this hiring cycle, 53.8 percent of white finalists ultimately ended up being hired for the job, while just 16.7 percent of nonwhite finalists4 did — a difference that is very unlikely to have happened solely due to chance.5

White and nonwhite candidates had similar resumes

Background, years of experience and career performance data for head-coaching finalists in the 2021-22 NFL hiring cycle, by race

Share of Coaches NFL Coach Exp. Career Percentile
Race Off.* Ex-Player HC Coord. All WPct Pts Hired%
White 65.4% 30.8% 1.8 5.2 14.7 63.9 54.6 53.8%
Nonwhite 33.3 50.0 2.8 3.3 15.3 54.4 53.7 16.7

*Offensive coach, according to positions held in coaching background. (Special-teams coaches were assigned a value of 0.5.)

Percentile grades for points and yards were for the area of the team the coach primarily oversaw, according to his background.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Aside from race, little in the groups’ comparative resumes comes close to explaining the difference in successfully getting hired. White coaches did have more history with winning teams in the past, but that difference is only marginally significant at best,6 and could simply be explained by the phenomenon of Black coaches often being hired into situations where they are set up to fail. (Plus, the underlying differences in their teams producing or preventing points and yards were not close to being statistically significant.) And nonwhite candidates actually had more head-coaching and overall NFL coaching experience than their white peers, though they also tended to be older on average (49.7 versus 47.3).

The only other remotely meaningful difference between the groups was in their area of expertise. As we alluded to earlier, 65 percent of white candidates came from an offensive pedigree, while 67 percent of Black candidates came from a defensive pedigree. That difference was more significant,7 meaning teams’ collective focus on hiring offensive-minded coaches probably played some role in generating the racial disparity in hiring rates. But it was also less significant than the overall racial hiring disparity, making it likely that Flores’s claim is correct: Racism was also a sizable factor driving the difference in hiring between the groups.

There are plenty of even bigger systemic challenges keeping people of color from representation at the game’s upper echelons at a rate proportional to their participation as players. Nepotism and connections give certain coaches a leg up on others, while upward mobility appears inexplicably easier for those who didn’t play at a high level than for those who did. But even among those candidates who fought through all the disadvantages and got the chance to make their cases as finalists for head-coaching positions, the process seems rigged against them. 

Perhaps it is the residue of the same old prejudices faced by Black quarterbacks to this very day. Perhaps it is because the NFL’s hiring process is neither transparent nor objective enough, allowing biases both conscious and unconscious to seep in. Perhaps it is because only one of the league’s 32 owners is not white, and they are ultimately the ones who make the decisions on hiring coaches. But whatever the root cause, Flores’s lawsuit has shone a bright light on one of the NFL’s biggest problems — and this offseason’s coaching carousel provided plenty of evidence that corroborated his case.

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