Black Men Running the Field

But for how long? Will the ranks of African-American NFL coaches increase in the off-season?

Coach Raheem Morris of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Getty Images)

This time last year, the number of African-American head coaches in the National Football League had reached an all-time high of 7 out of 32. Then a tumultuous post-season cut that number nearly in half. Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts retired, and two coaches, Romeo Crennel at Cleveland (4-12 record in 2008) and Herm Edwards in Kansas City (2-14) were fired. However, Jim Caldwell was named to replace Dungy; Raheem Morris made a rapid ascent to the head job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and last month Perry Fewell was named interim coach of the Buffalo Bills.

This brings the group temporarily back to seven, but rumors of imminent change are swirling. Coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Morris in Tampa Bay are said to be on thin ice. Yet it is still possible that the ranks of African-American head coaches will increase this off-season. First of all, four of the seven NFL coaches have no need to look over their shoulders. Caldwell took over a situation that seemed impossible to improve upon. (Dungy had been a rock in Indianapolis, and the team has won 12 or more games six years in a row.) Yet Caldwell’s Colts have won 14 straight games, and they have their sights set on a perfect season and a lot more.

Mike Tomlin won the Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers in February, but this year’s team has struggled and will probably not make the playoffs. However, the Steelers allowed Tomlin’s predecessors, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, time and space to rebuild and retool their squads. There’s no indication that Tomlin won’t receive equal opportunity.

Marvin Lewis, coach of the 9-4 Cincinnati Bengals, is under contract until the end of next season, but after his team’s surprisingly strong performance this year, he’s likely to seek an extension during the off-season. Mike Singletary’s San Francisco 49ers have shown incremental improvement in his first full season as a head coach. He won’t face any trouble until next season, when expectations rise among the 49er faithful.

There is a lot of speculation about Smith’s future in Chicago, but most of it is hot air. Although the Bears rank as one of this season’s biggest disappointments, management is contractually obliged to Smith for two more years and $11 million. Their track record with previous coaches like Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron suggests that Smith will be allowed to coach at least another year if not until the end of his deal. In addition, much of the speculation in Chicago centers around big names like Mike Shanahan, Cowher and Mike Holmgren, who are considering a return to coaching. Bringing one of those esteemed football men aboard would mean dismissing current General Manager Jerry Angelo, whose pact lasts until 2013. Barring a complete collapse in the final weeks of the season, it’s hard to imagine the Bears ownership willing to spend that kind of money.