Monday Night Football: NFL’s head coaching issues in primetime spotlight

Between Jeff Saturday, Mike Tomlin, and Brian Flores the league couldn’t hide its ugly scars

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Monday night was bigger than a game between two bad teams. It was proof of how confusing the process is of becoming an NFL head coach.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts met in the Week 12 finale, it provided us with an evening in which Jeff Saturday, Mike Tomlin, and Brian Flores all coached in the same game. It meant that ESPN’s weekly crown jewel of programming featured the symbol of the Rooney Rule (Tomlin), the new model for white privilege (Saturday), and the guy who’s suing the league for its history of not hiring Black coaches (Flores).

Yup, that happened.

Pittsburgh defeated Indianapolis 24-17, in part, due to Saturday showing Jim Irsay why we all thought he was crazy for hiring a coach whose “experience” before this job was teaching the game to high school kids that hadn’t been to prom yet. Saturday’s horrific clock management skills, with timeouts to burn, had Twitter laughing at him before his team eventually turned it over on downs.

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“I thought we had a good play,” Saturday claimed. “And I felt like we would get it. Obviously, we didn’t do a great job [blocking] on the backside, so it’s worse. But I felt good about the call before. Felt like we had time, we would have timeouts afterwards. We were in striking distance. So, I never felt like the pressure of needing the timeout.

“We just didn’t execute it.”

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But beyond Saturday showing us that he’s bad at doing a job smart people knew he’d be bad at Monday Night Football was a microcosm of the shit show that the NFL head coaching selection process has become.

On the winner’s side were Tomlin and Flores. In case you forgot, Tomlin was the second-youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl until Sean McVay did it with the Los Angeles Rams last season. Tomlin is also a man that could be on the brink of his first losing season after going 15 consecutive years in which his Steelers were at least .500 or better. But yet, this doesn’t end the constant doubt that seems to surround him, and it didn’t stop reporters from asking him about the USC job opening last year, as if someone of his race and with his resume should have been excited about a job that would have been a demotion.

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Tomlin is also the man that threw Flores a bone by hiring him as Pittsburgh’s senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach, just weeks after he filed a 58-page class-action lawsuit against the NFL, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, and the Denver Broncos alleging their racist hiring practices. Between off-the-field stories about how disgusting Deshaun Watson is and the drama around Tom Brady’s marriage, and the multitude of headlines that are strictly dedicated to football, many have tried to ignore how one of the league’s three permanent African-American coaches hired the man that’s still suing the NFL, while another member of the lawsuit — Steve Wilks — is serving as the interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

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On the loser’s side was Saturday, the man who will go down in history as a Jeopardy question when the answer is “He went from being a bad high school coach and a TV personality to an NFL coach overnight.” Peyton Manning’s former center was chosen as the Colts’ interim head coach after a conversation with Irsay. The hire was so mind-blowing that Saturday admitted that he asked Irsay, “Why am I a candidate for this?” when it was offered to him. Instead of promoting one of the white or Black assistants who had been with the team all season, Irsay picked the guy from ESPN to run his football team.

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The blueprint for coaches in the NFL was ruined the day Irsay chose Saturday. In the past, if you were white, there were two avenues to success: Be a younger copycat version of one of the most successful coaches of that era, like Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, or Sean McVay. Or, check the boxes as a respected veteran with experience. If you were Black, being a defensive coordinator was the way to go. But, that changed recently when an emphasis was put on offense, even though Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and Tampa’s Byron Leftwich are still coordinators. As flawed as those options were, they served as the best chances for upward mobility in the NFL. But thanks to Irsay and Saturday, that’s over now.

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Saturday’s first game was against Josh McDaniel’s Las Vegas Raiders, as both coaches took part in the NFL’s first-ever “White Privilege Bowl,” given that their race was the lone reason why both men were head coaches. The Colts won that game before they would go on losing to the Eagles, who have the best record in the league. In his first three games as an NFL head coach, Saturday has a 1-2 record and a Monday Night Football blunder on his resume.

The conversation around who does and doesn’t get selected to become a head coach in the NFL has been going on for decades. Usually, it takes center stage on Black Monday — the day after the final week of the regular season when coaches are given their walking papers. It’s an annual tradition that reminds us which franchises are bad at hiring coaches, which teams never/rarely hire Black candidates — or fire them too soon— and which owners have a history of doing all of the above. But on Monday night, an AFC matchup became a foreshadower for just how dark the 2023 version of Black Monday will be.