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Time to update the Rooney Rule

1/22/2013 - NFL

I spent a good chunk of the weekend trying to get black NFL position coaches to talk to me about the challenges of getting hired as a coordinator or a head coach and, well … it was a challenge.

None of them wanted to say anything that could jeopardize their careers and in their minds -- despite the clear disparity between the men who play the game and those who coach -- talking about race would indeed jeopardize their careers.

How incredibly frustrating it must be to be part of a system with a debilitating flaw and yet feel unable to address it for fear of retribution. So they watch eight new coaches get hired, none black, and just bite their collective tongues. They'll celebrate the fact Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is in the Super Bowl, while quietly lamenting the fact until December, there weren't any black playcallers in the league.

Not to dump on the Rooney Rule, which was supposed to improve diversity in hiring, but clearly the decade-old innovation is in need of a touch-up.

During the 2011 season, there were 11 minority head coaches (including interim job-holders), but the 2013 season will start with just four. The problem is not in the requirement to have NFL teams interview minorities for head-coaching jobs but in the sustainability of the pipeline that feeds the system.

Consider this: According to a University of Iowa study, the average first-year head coach has 13 years of pro coaching experience and comes from a coordinator's position. As Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver recently pointed out, offensive coordinators tend to get the call to be head coach, and the guys overseeing quarterbacks -- the Texans' Karl Dorrell and the Vikings' Craig Johnson were the two African-Americans in that group as of December -- tend to get OC jobs. There's still time for that to change with QB coach openings created by job shifts, but I'm not hopeful, given the decisions teams have already made.

I'm not suggesting the NFL's lack of black coaches is a case of blatant racism. And considering nine of the past 14 Super Bowl teams have had either a black coach or GM, there's no denying there's been progress. But the current emphasis on hiring head coaches who previously have called plays has created a new glass ceiling for blacks, even with the Rooney Rule.

It's one thing to require teams to call and interview minorities.

It's another to have a system in place that guarantees minorities will get the experience necessary before that call, so that they can be attractive head-coaching or GM hires. Right now, the system is not designed that way and this is one reason the Rooney Rule falters.

Take Norv Turner for example.

A few days after being fired from the Chargers, his third head-coaching job, he was hired to be the offensive coordinator for the Browns. The coach who hired him? Rob Chudzinski, who worked for Turner as an assistant coach in San Diego. Turner received a similar soft landing when he was hired by Mike Nolan, another one of his former coaches, as his offensive coordinator in 2006 after being fired from the Raiders' head job.

This network, this fraternity is not inherently racist or malicious but it is inherently non-inclusive.

Turner didn't create this dynamic but he is an example of someone who has profited mightily from it. Most fans of teams he has led will express nothing but frustration and yet with his experience and current position as an offensive coordinator, Turner is in prime position to be hired again as an NFL head coach. His offense got him a pair of Super Bowl rings in Dallas during the 1990s and finished second to last in 2012.

I don't think the focus should be on weeding out a guy like Turner, but rather how do we sow in more men like Caldwell (who got three seasons as the Colts head coach) and Perry Fewell, who won a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator of the Giants, but whose only stint in the top job was for seven games as an interim in Buffalo?

Like Turner, they got their jobs from past relationships.

So the Rooney Rule, which is currently focused on the top, needs to become more grassroots if it's to achieve its goal of adding more minorities to the hiring pool.

The simpleton thinks this focus on race in the hiring practice is about hiring unqualified minorities for reasons of political correctness. The truth is, it's about casting as wide of a net as possible to draw in the best talent. When Kenny Washington broke the NFL's color barrier, it was more than aesthetics. It made the game accessible to more people and to more talent, lifting the overall level of play. If the play on fields has improved over the decades because of casting a wider net, it only stands to reason that the quality of coaching could, as well.

When teams recycle members of the same fraternity, chances are they are inadvertently leaving a great deal of talent out of the quarterback coaching jobs, which could lead to offensive coordinator jobs and eventually head coach jobs. And when you consider the number of minorities who play the game -- and who have played in the game for decades -- it stands to reason talented coaches being overlooked.

"There are a lot of good coaches who aren't getting those opportunities," Marvin Lewis said.

Restructuring the Rooney Rule to turn its focus from top down to ground up could address that issue.