The Rooney Rule is always a sensitive topic, but NFL owners only have themselves to blame for that

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore RavensPhoto by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

You might not think it’s an issue that minorities aren’t being hired for high-ranking positions at a better rate. But the NFL certainly thinks it’s a big deal, and that’s really all that matters.

If there’s one topic that often incites the passions of many in any comments section of any article or link published about it on the Internet and/or social media, it’s the Rooney Rule, a rule that was championed by the late Dan Rooney back in 2003.

In case you don’t know, the rule requires all NFL teams with head coaching and/or senior operations/general manager vacancies interview at least one minority candidate.

The rule was tweaked recently and now mandates that, among other things, teams interview at least two external minority candidates for a head coaching position and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator vacancy.

The original intent of the rule was not to dictate to teams who they should hire. The intent of the rule was to, instead, bring awareness to minority candidates that may have been getting overlooked.

But the results, they just haven’t been there. Case-in-point, the upcoming 2020 NFL season that will include only four minority head coaches and one general manager—the Dolphins Chris Grier.

Again, there’s nothing that incites the passions of folks more than the Rooney Rule, and sports fans are often prone to take it personally while discussing the controversial subject. But with all due respect, it’s really not about what the fans think, same with those in the media. All that matters is that the NFL clearly thinks it’s a problem, so much so, in fact, the powers that be discussed a proposal last week that would have improved a team’s draft positioning if it hired a minority candidate for a high-ranking coaching or executive position.

Was it okay to be against such a proposal without being portrayed in a poor light? Thankfully, many prominent minorities with head coaching experience spoke out against it, such as former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who called the proposal “offensive.

And it was an offensive proposal. It’s like the kid down the street who only invites you to play pick-up basketball with him and his friends because you have the nicest ball. While the proposal is offensive, it’s not going to become a reality—the NFL shelved it in favor of the aforementioned tweaks to the Rooney Rule.

Can the rule hurt a team that has good intentions and wants to immediately hire the person it feels is best for the job? Andrew Brandt, a former vice president with the Green Bay Packers and current writer for Sports Illustrated, appeared on Mark Madden’s radio show on 105.9 the X on Tuesday and recalled a conversation he once had with former Colts general manager Bill Polian. The two were discussing the time Tony Dungy was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 2001 season; the moment Dungy became available, the Colts knew they wanted him and nobody else. Had Dungy been white, however—and had the Rooney Rule already been in effect—Indianapolis would have had to interview a minority candidate first, before offering the job to the person they wanted all along—provided Dungy was still available.

That’s a good point by Brandt, and I’m sure there are a lot of teams that have and will continue to face that dilemma. But why, 17 years after the Rooney Rule was first implemented, aren’t there more minority coaches and executives like Dungy, whose credentials speak for themselves?

When I think of a list of names off of the top of my head, I come up with Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Herman Edwards, Marvin Lewis, the late Dennis Green and, in the case of general managers, Ozzie Newsome. Those men were allowed to establish themselves; once they did, the only thing that came up when evaluating them was their performance.

But considering Art Shell was hired to be the Raiders head coach in 1989—or 14 years before the Rooney Rule was first implemented–that’s a rather small list.

During his interview with Madden, Brandt suggested that the best way to improve a minority candidate’s chances was through a stepping-stone approach, where he ultimately works his way up to a coordinator position—often the next step before becoming a head coach. On one hand, that makes sense. But on the other hand, there are countless minority assistant coaches employed by NFL teams each and every year. Yet, they’re not being promoted to coordinator positions—particularly offensive coordinator positions—at a high rate.

According to an article published by The Atlantic in January, 40 percent of head coaches hired in the NFL since 2009 were offensive coordinators. Problem with that: 91 percent of offensive coordinators hired in the NFL over that same time period were white.

Currently, there are two African American offensive coordinators in the NFL—the Buccaneers Byron Leftwich and the Chiefs Eric Bieniemy. Bieniemy has been in charge of Kansas City’s offense since 2018. Not only do the Chiefs have one of the most potent offenses in football, they’re the defending Super Bowl champions. But while Bieniemy, 50, has interviewed for seven head coaching positions over the past few seasons, he has yet to break through.

To reiterate, you might not think it’s a problem. You might think NFL teams should be allowed to hire who they want—and they are. Only question is: Why don’t they seem to want to hire minority candidates at a much higher rate?

You can channel your anger over the Rooney Rule in plenty of different places, but at the end of the day, this is on the NFL owners—they’ve had a century to figure this out and get it right.

Maybe the tweaks to the Rooney Rule will finally lead to some positive results.

These Duke doctors are working with NFL, Big 12 to mitigate coronavirus spread among teams

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In the more than two months since the suspension of all NBA activities ushered in an unprecedented era without sports, professional leagues and the NCAA have turned from preventative health measures to evaluating when, where and under what conditions teams could safely return to normal activities without increasing the possibility of an outbreak of the coronavirus strain.

The question is uniquely pressing for teams in the NFL, which may have had the luxury of thus far avoiding any major, coronavirus-caused disruptions to the league’s annual schedule — the April draft was held with teams working remotely — but must now create guidelines for juggling larger rosters and the physicality of practice along with the renewed daily interaction between players, coaches, trainers and support staffers.

To help steer the response to COVID-19 and provide recommendations for transitioning back into traditional team activities, the NFL and the NFL Players Association have turned to Infection Control Education for Major Sports, or ICS,an independent organization run by two Duke University infectious-disease doctors, Deverick Anderson and Christopher Hostler.

As teams begin to ease into drastically altered preparations for the upcoming season, ICS has been the league’s go-to source for how to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus through testing, disinfection and environmental distancing.

“Sports teams and leagues have an acute need at this moment, and that is specifically related to COVID and how to reopen,” Anderson told USA TODAY Sports. “We believe that these teams can benefit from this type of systematic implementation of best practices moving forward.”

The NFL faced a similar situation seven years ago, when a series of potentially fatal staph infections, known as MRSA, spread through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room. One of the players infected, kicker Lawrence Tynes, cited unsanitary conditions in later suing the franchise, and settled for an undisclosed sum.

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To help steer the league’s response to MRSA, the NFL leaned on the expertise of the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, or DICON, which had been providing the league with educational newsletters related to stemming the spread of infectious diseases. After pitching the NFL on installing systemic, league-wide guidelines, DICON entered into a contract as the league’s infection-prevention experts.

Anderson and Hostler, who consulted extensively with the NFL as part of DICON’s team of experts, formed ICS when the coronavirus started to spread in the U.S. as a separate and distinct entity from Duke and DICON as inquiries from major sports leagues increased with the rise of COVID-19.

The company is under contract with the NFL and the Big 12 Conference, and has held conversations with at least eight other professional or college leagues, including Major League Baseball, which is considering a shortened regular season beginning in July.

“They have been part of committees and working groups that are looking really at every aspect of our operation and our response to COVID, from advising us on how we conducted the draft to how we were able to reopen clubs’ facilities to now helping us think about player safety,” said Allen Sills, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer.

Through conference calls with NFL owners and with three-ring binders distributed to every team, ICS has provided “really basic but really important infection-prevention strategies,” Anderson said. “In some ways, a lot of these broad strokes are applicable in other parts of society as well.”

At about 360 pages, the binder includes checklists, sample policies and an appendix of additional resource materials, including posters and specific documents from the Centers for Disease Control. Anderson called the more global advice provided by ICS the “Swiss-cheese model,” in that no suggestion is perfect; all have holes. If you put them together, however, the hope is that the holes may not match up — much like stacked slices of Swiss cheese.

The steps include constant handwashing teamed with barrier precautions as a way to provide safe separation inside locker rooms and broader football facilities. NFL teams should maximize the use of face masks even as there may be times when masks may not be feasible, such as during aerobic exercise. ICS has also provided the NFL with recommendations on environmental disinfection.

“There’s effort that has to go into changing the way that we interact with people,” Anderson said. “Social-distancing, redoing a lot of the environmental spacing. That’s certainly going to be true on the training side. Again, not different from other parts of society but certainly an area of emphasis in an athletic setting.”

One risk that NFL teams must confront is maintaining those distancing efforts at practice, during typical moments as mundane as huddling or route running. At some point, teams will need to perform an act that has been nearly eliminated from everyday life: passing an object from one person to another — in this case, a football — without the interception of a disinfecting wipe.

Splitting players into smaller groups at practice, likely by position, and then layering on additional activities is a way to ease into traditional team events, Anderson said.

“It is clear and I think it is appropriate that most groups we’re engaged with are really trying to move in small, short steps,” said Anderson. “I think that methodical approach, where you then have some time to see how things are going, is definitely a good way to do it. If you employ that strategy, it’s true that you can’t speed up the process. You have to take it one step at a time.”

The biggest step will be in formulating a testing model for identifying individuals with COVID-19 and minimizing the downstream impact of a positive test. Testing has been a primary topic of conversation between ICS and the Big 12, with the conference quizzing ICS on who, when and how frequently to test athletes set to arrive back on campus early next month.

“We had a long list of questions we presented to ICS — and they’ve been going through providing us answers,” said Big 12 executive associate commissioner Ed Stewart. “It’s an evolving list. I think they would probably like for us to stop reaching out to them so they can answer the questions we’ve already given them. But we keep coming up with new questions for them.”

As of now, testing for the coronavirus is “imperfect,” Anderson said, and ICS and others are trying to find tests that increase sensitivity and avoid false negatives. Under optimal testing conditions, ICS has advised to test frequently to find the person on the verge of having symptoms before they subsequently expose teammates or coaches to COVID-19. Even then, it’s unlikely that casting such a net  would catch everyone that comes through.

“A key message we relay just about any time we get the opportunity to is, listen, there is no such thing as a zero-risk scenario. We’re going to do our best, but infections with this virus are going to happen whether or not sports occur,” said Anderson. “So if we all kind of accept that’s the baseline that we’re living in, we then have to say it certainly has to be recognized that sports activities by their very nature will increase that risk.”

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz, Mike Jones, Bob Nightengale

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James Conner: It’d Be Hard To Leave Steelers

Steelers running back James Conner is scheduled to be a free agent following the 2020 season. Still, he says it “would be hard” to play for another NFL team.

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It would be hard, it would be hard to put another helmet on. Just because of everything and what this city means to me,” Conner told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “The city I played my college ball in, the city I had my life saved in, became healthy. The city I got drafted to, and I want to be able to say the city I brought a championship to…It would be hard. I’m Pittsburgh through and through.”

Conner’s loyalty to the Steelers hasn’t wavered. However, his stock has. In 2018, he shined as the team’s new replacement for Le’Veon Bell, posting 973 rushing yards, a per carry average of 4.5 yards, and 497 receiving yards. However, he slumped last year along with the rest of the Steelers’ offense. Conner had just 464 yards on the ground and played in just six games.

This year, the Steelers expect the University of Pittsburgh product to come back strong and healthy. It’s not easy to rehab from knee and shoulder injuries, but no one is counting Conner out after he bounced back from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

This year, Conner will be supported by Benny Snell, fourth-round rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., and Jaylen Samuels. If he’s able to reprise his 2018 performance, he should be in line for a nice pay bump in 2021, and he’ll probably get that deal from the Steelers.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

This Date In Transactions History: Steelers Sign JuJu Smith-Schuster

Three years ago today, JuJu Smith-Schuster officially joined the Steelers by signing his rookie deal. The USC product had considerable buzz heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, but the Steelers managed to snag him in the second round, at No. 62 overall. All in all, the Steelers secured four years of his services for just $4.2MM, including a $1.2MM signing bonus.

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Their investment paid dividends immediately. As a rookie, Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in just 14 games. In his last regular season game as an NFL frosh, he took a 96-yard kickoff all the way to the house and became the youngest player in NFL history to record more than 1,o00 all-purpose yards in a season. He celebrated his 21st birthday in November, so, yes, Smith-Schuster could drink to that.

In 2018, Smith-Schuster took things to a whole ‘nother level, recording 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven scores en route to his first ever Pro Bowl performance. With Le’Veon Bell staying home, Smith-Schuster was the talk of the town and the focal point of the Steelers’ offense, which didn’t exactly thrill longtime star Antonio Brown.

When Brown was shipped to the Raiders before the start of the ’19 season, Smith-Schuster became the Steelers’ unquestioned offensive superstar. Unfortunately, the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for much of the year and Smith-Schuster’s year was marred by a knee injury, plus a concussion suffered in their now infamous Week 11 game against the Browns. It was a year that everyone in Pittsburgh would rather not think about.

What’s next for Smith-Schuster is anyone’s guess. He’s now set to enter the final year of that rookie pact with a modest cap number of $1.335MM. Last year, we expected the Steelers to be gearing up for a massive contract extension that would put him at or near the top of the market. Right now, Smith-Schuster’s best bet would probably be to wait things out so that he can restore his value. The Steelers might not be in a huge rush either – they’ll want to see how Smith-Schuster does before making a monster commitment and, even if he reprises his ’18 season, they’ll have the franchise tag at their disposal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Longest-Tenured Head Coaches In The NFL

Things move fast in today’s NFL and the old adage of “coaches are hired to be fired” has seemingly never been more true. For the most part, teams change their coaches like they change their underwear. 

A head coach can take his team to the Super Bowl, or win the Super Bowl, or win multiple Super Bowls, but they’re never immune to scrutiny. Just ask Tom Coughlin, who captured his second ring with the Giants after the 2011 season, only to receive his pink slip after the 2015 campaign.

There are also exceptions. Just look at Bill Belichick, who just wrapped up his 20th season at the helm in New England. You’ll also see a few others on this list, but, for the most part, most of today’s NFL head coaches are relatively new to their respective clubs. And, history dictates that many of them will be elsewhere when we check in on this list in 2022.

Over one-third (12) of the NFL’s head coaches have coached no more than one season with their respective teams. Meanwhile, less than half (15) have been with their current clubs for more than three years. It seems like just yesterday that the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, right? It sort of was – Kingsbury signed on with the Cardinals in January of 2019. Today, he’s practically a veteran.

Here’s the list of the current head coaches in the NFL, ordered by tenure, along with their respective start dates:

  1. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000
  2. Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints): January 18, 2006
  3. Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers): January 27, 2007
  4. John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): January 19, 2008
  5. Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): January 9, 2010
  6. Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs): January 4, 2013
  7. Bill O’Brien (Houston Texans): January 2, 2014
  8. Mike Zimmer (Minnesota Vikings): January 15, 2014
  9. Dan Quinn (Atlanta Falcons): February 2, 2015
  10. Doug Pederson (Philadelphia Eagles): January 18, 2016
  11. Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills): January 11, 2017
  12. Doug Marrone (Jacksonville Jaguars): December 19, 2016 (interim; permanent since 2017)
  13. Anthony Lynn (Los Angeles Chargers): January 12, 2017
  14. Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams): January 12, 2017
  15. Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers): February 6, 2017
  16. Matt Nagy (Chicago Bears): January 7, 2018
  17. Matt Patricia (Detroit Lions): February 5, 2018
  18. Frank Reich (Indianapolis Colts): February 11, 2018
  19. Jon Gruden (Las Vegas Raiders): January 6, 2018
  20. Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans): January 20, 2018
  21. Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals): January 8, 2019
  22. Zac Taylor (Cincinnati Bengals): February 4, 2019
  23. Vic Fangio (Denver Broncos): January 10, 2019
  24. Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers): January 8, 2019
  25. Brian Flores (Miami Dolphins): February 4, 2019
  26. Adam Gase (New York Jets): January 11, 2019
  27. Bruce Arians (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): January 8, 2019
  28. Ron Rivera (Washington Redskins): January 1, 2020
  29. Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers): January 7, 2020
  30. Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys): January 7, 2020
  31. Joe Judge (New York Giants): January 8, 2020
  32. Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns): January 13, 2020

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.