For the second year in a row, the Houston Texans fired a Black head coach after just one season. Let’s talk about what’s going wrong with this organization.
Another year, another head coach fired in Houston. Shortly after the Texans won their third and final game of the 2022 regular season, head coach Lovie Smith was fired, an event that was followed by yet another generic statement “wishing the best moving forward.”
But there’s a larger problem here, and it’s systemic in nature.
Entering the season, Smith was one of three Black head coaches in the NFL, joining Todd Bowles in Tampa Bay and Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. (Incumbent Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel is biracial, while Steve Wilks’ interim tag was never removed in Carolina despite posting a 6-6 record after taking over a 1-4 Panthers team from the ousted Matt Rhule.)
Thus, the count is down to two, and the Texans in particular are at the forefront of this issue. Remember that it wasn’t very long ago at all that team ownership and its Nick Caserio-led front office fired David Culley — one of just three Black NFL head coaches for the 2021 season — after a single campaign in charge. Some may be quick to blame his 4-13 record, but context matters: Houston had just lost its franchise QB in Deshaun Watson and had zero Pro Bowlers on its roster, which broke a 17-year streak for the franchise.
The same might be argued against Lovie Smith, who, instead of folding for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft in the final seconds of Week 18, elected to go for a two-point conversion that helped secure a W against the division rival Colts to finish the season 3-13-1. The Chicago Bears and their own first-year head coach, Matt Eberflus, ended up receiving the No. 1 overall selection as a result. (Football fans will recall that Brian Flores, who was fired by the Dolphins a year ago, later alleged that owner Stephen Ross offered him a $100,000 incentive to tank for the top pick).
That’s two seasons, two head coaches fired in Houston — and both of them Black men. So, what gives? How is anyone, particularly minority coaches, ever supposed to walk into an interview with this Texans organization as things currently stand and expect anything good or fair come from it, either on or off the field?
Both Lovie Smith and David Culley were hired into situations in which they had almost zero reasonable chance at what the franchise’s ownership and front office surely considered success; they still got axed by season’s end, the fourth head coach the franchise has gone through since October 2020 alone.
Let’s be real and direct: The primary starting QB under Smith was Davis Mills, who threw for 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, the highest interception total this season among QBs who started at least 15 games and the third-fewest TDs after Denver’s Russell Wilson and Daniel Jones of the Giants. If he was never going to be given time to work with this roster and grow things the right way, why bother hiring him in the first place?
And more profoundly, why would anyone want to bother interviewing for the top job in Houston after what’s transpired over these last couple of years?
The NFL has had this crisis on its hands in some form for quite some time now. It was supposed to get better over time — not worse — but here we are. The NBA currently has 15 minority head coaches out of 30 after Jacque Vaughn was elevated by the Brooklyn Nets in November, and no “Rooney Rule” was required to reach that milestone. The fact remains that while the NFL has taken specific measures to help its coaching ranks evolve to appear more similarly demographically to that of its players, the desired effects just haven’t been achieved.
There are levels to this. Let’s take a look.
The Rooney Rule is Fundamentally Flawed
The NFL adopted the so-called Rooney Rule in 2003 based on recommendations made by the league’s Workplace Diversity Committee. Focused on the historically low number of minorities in head coaching positions, the policy originally required every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one diverse candidate before making a hire.
When the Indianapolis Colts fired Franck Reich earlier this season, they immediately hired former lineman and incumbent ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday — a white man with zero formal coaching experience — to replace him on an interim basis. The team technically didn’t violate the Rooney Rule, as it does not apply to interim head coach appointments.
Saturday and Steve Wilks, who was previously given just one season as head coach of the Cardinals before being fired, are believed to be candidates to take over full-time. No interim coach has been offered and subsequently accepted the permanent job since Doug Marrone in Jacksonville back in 2016.
With regard to the Indianapolis situation, the Fritz Pollard Alliance called on the NFL to move interim hires under the Rooney Rule umbrella; that has not happened. After the current season, however, Colts owner Jim Irsay will need to meet with two external minority candidates before making a full-time hire.
The NFL’s Record on Social Justice
In 2019, the NFL with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation partnered to “amplify the league’s social justice efforts,” according to the press release. While certain causes were advanced, including enhancing diversity in Super Bowl Halftime shows and expanding league-wide social justice campaigns, not much has actually changed in the hiring realm.
Those social justice campaigns, as emblazoned on helmets and stadium signage and all manner of official materials, carry names and taglines like:
- It Takes All of Us
- End Racism
- Stop Hate
- Black Lives Matter
- Inspire Change
Nobody’s saying that Jay-Z and Roc Nation can force the league’s hand in hiring more Black head coaches; that shouldn’t be the path to improvement anyway. But when you implement a Rooney Rule, vote against the interim hires falling under said rule, and then boast the notion that things are changing when just two Black head coaches are currently under contract today out of 32 jobs in the league, it’s more a smack in the face than it is helpful in the bigger picture.
“First they said, ‘Well, you have to be a coordinator.’ Then you had to be a coordinator who actually calls the plays. Well, now that line moved, and they want an offensive coach. And now all of a sudden it’s a wide receivers coach,” Commanders assistant Ray Horton told The Washington Post in 2020. “It seems like the rules shift on a case-by-case basis. And while some have cited the NFL policy that forbids coaches from signing contracts with a new team mid-season, coaches who have endured the tireless interview process aren’t buying that. Instead, like many others, they have pointed to league owners’ racial bias. There are zero Black owners in the league.”
Where is the lie?
Let’s take a look at minority head coaches hired around the NFL since 2017 and how long they lasted:
- David Culley, Texans: Fired in 2022 after one season.
- Brian Flores, Dolphins: Fired in 2022 after three seasons and four QBs.
- Steve Wilks, Cardinals: Fired in 2018 after one season and one QB that’s out of the league (Sam Bradford) and another on a practice squad (Josh Rosen)
- Anthony Lynn, Chargers: Fired in 2021 after four seasons and a 33-31 record.
- Vance Joseph, Broncos: Fired in 2018 after two rebuilding seasons and four QBs (Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum).
Of the above coaches, Wilks, Lynn, and Joseph had white successors.
As we enter the 2023 offseason, five teams currently have full-time vacancies: Broncos, Cardinals, Panthers, Texans, and Colts. The Broncos are already reportedly interested in Jim Harbaugh, Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris, and DeMeco Ryans. The Cardinals are reportedly interested in promoting Joseph, who has served as defensive coordinator there since 2019.
In a league within which approximately 60% of players are Black, you’d hope — and ideally expect — there to be more diversity across coaching staffs, front offices, and ownership groups, but in 2022, the number of Black NFL team presidents increased from one to four. The number of Black majority owners is still at zero. The head coaching tally just went from three to two on this latest iteration of “Black Monday.”
Should we expect things to change? Will Houston hire a coach and support that person in good faith for more than a single season? These are all questions that need to be answered unequivocally if the league is truly committed to changing for the better, because as of Jan. 9, 2023, the case of Lovie Smith is merely the latest example of a vicious cycle that’s been permitted to self-perpetuate with zero shame, accountability, or clear path toward reform.
Until sincere progress is made on this front, it’s hard to imagine any self-respecting would-be candidate to leap at the chance to interview for the top job with the Houston Texans.
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