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.
Morris took over Tampa Bay after just the sort of late-season collapse that gets coaching regimes swept from office. Last December, the Buccaneers were 9-3 and looked bound for a second-straight trip to the playoffs; then the team went flat. The renowned Tampa Bay defense was pummeled like an early Mike Tyson opponent, and the offense, never the Bucs’ strong suit, ground to a halt. Four bad losses later, longtime GM Bruce Allen and Coach Jon Gruden were gone.
Morris was hired to replace Gruden, and his arrival amounted to a very fast rise. Eight years ago, he was an assistant coach at Hofstra University in New York. Unfortunately, he has given every indication of being in over his head. The team has looked listless and disorganized. The new offensive coordinator, Jeff Jagodzinski, was let go before the season started. The new defensive coordinator installed a new system, then abandoned it. (Evidently you have to play a Tampa 2—a defense made popular by the Bucs—in Tampa Bay). Morris’ Bucs are 1-12 and show little evidence of progress. What’s worse, the Glazers, who own the team, aren’t afraid of the expense of firing a coach under contract. The dismissal of Gruden and Allen cost them $25 million in commitments. The lone point in Morris’ favor is that the Glazers hired him, and they may find it easier to give him a chance to grow into the job, rather than admit an error so quickly.
In Buffalo, Fewell knows that his job has an expiration date of Jan. 3, but his performance has probably earned him consideration from teams looking for a non-celebrity head coach (perhaps Carolina). The Bills have played much better football with him at the helm. When he took over the Bills were 3-6; since then, they have won two of four under Fewell, and both losses were close hard-fought contests. The Bills close out the season with three tough games; solid play will put Fewell on a lot of coaching short lists. Under most circumstances, Fewell would also be on Buffalo’s wish list, but for the last decade or so, the Bills have been as memorable as an Alan Keyes presidential campaign. They will be in the market for a big-name coach to rebuild their brand.
The other leading candidate for a vacant head-coaching position is Leslie Frazier, the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator. He was rumored to be on the short list for the Denver Broncos job last winter, and he is expected to get serious consideration this winter. So even if Morris is shown the door, there is a decent chance that the number of African Americans among NFL head coaches will increase. It’s progress at a three yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust pace, but progress nonetheless.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.