It’s a commonplace that the NFL is a copycat league, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Look at the rise of Sean McVay, which in recent months has prompted a mad scramble among teams for McVayalikes the world over. Confronted with one successful unorthodox coaching hire, many NFL teams seized on the wrong variables and left the larger, more pernicious orthodoxies unchallenged. Sometimes the problem is that the cats don’t know what they’re supposed to be copying.
At the start of 2017, the Rams hired McVay, who became the youngest head coach in history at 30 years old. On the surface, this clashed with the idea that the league is a strict meritocracy that rewards sustained achievement and demonstrated talent. At his age, McVay had very little experience. He did have another attribute the NFL prizes, however: pedigree. His grandfather was John McVay, a former executive for the 49ers who worked with Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. That connection will get a résumé to the top of the pile.
Two seasons later, and the previously cruddy Rams are in the Super Bowl. They look to be a contender for a long time, or whatever the slim window is for an NFL team not run by Bill Belichick. When other teams saw that turnaround, they wanted it, even if they didn’t have players the caliber of, say, Aaron Donald or Todd Gurley or Jared Goff. And if they couldn’t get Sean McVay, they’d take anything in the general vicinity.
Every year, when the final week of the regular season wraps up, a bunch of teams will shitcan their ineffective, bad head coaches, if they already haven’t been shitcanned before then. By the end of this year’s Black Monday, including the midseason firings, five of the newly unemployed head coaches were men of color. This left, out of 32 teams, three head coaches who were not white: the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, and the Panthers’ Ron Rivera. There are sound arguments to be made that a couple of these firings were unfair. Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks had only one season with a rookie quarterback and a roster with little talent; what exactly was he supposed to do? Vance Joseph turned in back-to-back losing seasons for the Broncos, which hasn’t happened since the ‘70s, although every quarterback that enraptures GM John Elway either over- or underthrows a football. But Marvin Lewis really did deserve to be fired from the Bengals, and probably should’ve been three seasons ago. Todd Bowles had four seasons with the Jets, each one more soul-sucking than the last. More audacious than these coaching changes, though, was who were picked as the replacements.
The overwhelming majority of new hires were offensive-minded white guys: the Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians (Old Sean McVay), the Browns’ Freddie Kitchens (Alabama Sean McVay), and the Jets’ Adam Gase (Bad Sean McVay), who took his 23-25 record and one playoff appearance to a new team without even needing a gap year. There were also actual McVay connections. Former Rams offensive coordinator Matt Lafleur went to the Packers, and made sure to shout out his old boss.
While it isn’t official, since the Rams’ season hasn’t ended yet, the Bengals are locked in on McVay’s current QB coach, Zac Taylor. They also interviewed the Rams’ passing game coordinator. Just a whiff of McVay, anything to tease the palate.
Gradually it became a running joke, even one enjoyed by the guy who got his start in the NFL because his dad was Bum Phillips:
The most egregious example in the batch of newly hired coaches had to have been Kliff Kingsbury, former Texas Tech coach and short-lived USC offensive coordinator. The Cardinals, an organization run by the deeply stupid Michael Bidwill, took little time to hire the 39-year-old. The former quarterback had one interview with the team and has never coached in the NFL, but he did once talk to McVay, who coaches in the same division, and the wunderkind even said something nice about him. The Cardinals made sure to include that boast in the announcement:
Rams coach Sean McVay – the 32-year-old offensive genius who has become the blueprint of many of the new coaching hires around the NFL – reached out to Kingsbury after Texas Tech let him go to see if Kingsbury wanted to join the Rams’ staff for the stretch run and postseason as an offensive consultant. Kingsbury considered it but ultimately joined USC.
“I think he’s been a very good head coach,” McVay said last week when asked about Kingsbury’s NFL prospects. “I think he’s demonstrated the ability to do a lot of different things at a high level, and he’s got a great offensive mind.”
As Jonathan Jones of Sports Illustrated pointed out, this was an absurd timetable for the Cardinals to find a new coach. Before he got the job, McVay met with a handful of important executives in the front office, the owner, the quarterback, and the best defensive player on the team. Even when the crew was dicking around with Wolfgang Puck during dinner, at least the candidate was able to talk to people at many different positions in the hierarchy. What sort of vetting did Kliff Kingsbury get in the handful of hours between his first interview with Bidwill and his hiring? Which parts of the operation besides the president and the office urinal actually got to interact with him?
The Wall Street Journal’s account of the McVay hire is worth reading, as it shows how the Rams found a way to put aside a deeply ingrained institutional bias. The story is a bit over the top, acting as if the Rams did anything braver than realizing a 30-year-old could comprehend zone blocking as well as a 40-year-old. (“Age doesn’t matter,” GM Les Snead wrote into his notebook 10 minutes into his interview with McVay, as the triumphant music swelled and the credits began to roll.) But there are actual lessons in there that can be applied to more subtle kinds of bias. The Rams were willing to be convinced that age was irrelevant, and they did the hard work of proving it to themselves—they did their vetting of McVay. While he might not have gotten in the door without his grandfather’s name, he won the job, in the Journal’s telling, by impressing everyone he met. The moral of the story for other teams is that the traits they desire in a candidate might be hiding in their blind spots.
Assuming that the two tentative agreements hold after the Super Bowl’s over, seven of the eight open head coaching positions will have gone to white men. Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who’s expected to go to the Dolphins, will be the only new non-white coach in the NFL, bringing the grand total to four out of 32 for the new season, in a league where over two-thirds of the players are black.
An ESPN report during the 2016 offseason, covering the previous five hiring cycles, found that 103 out of 117 coordinators were white. The situation improved since then: Each of the last two seasons featured eight non-white head coaches, the most since 2011. That number has now been halved. The NFL strengthened the requirements of the Rooney Rule in December, but as this round of hires showed, it can only do so much. Even though Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, was optimistic that the NFL would continue the trend of the last two seasons, it didn’t happen. He also awarded the league an A+ for increasing the number of assistant coaches of color from 31.3 percent to 35.5 in 2018. While that is a significant year-to-year increase, that percentage is still woeful, as Lapchick would surely admit.
Coaches of color aren’t getting head coaching jobs because there aren’t that many of them among the assistant ranks, and there aren’t that many of them because they don’t have connections in high places, and they don’t have connections in high places because it’s harder for them to get an executive position, and it’s harder for them to get an executive position because they don’t come from a football family. McVay’s success, despite his lack of experience, should have served as proof that it’s smart business to look for unconventional candidates, that good hires can come in differently shaped packages. Instead, other NFL teams see McVay as proof that success comes in McVay-shaped packages. And thus a creative hire wound up closing more doors than it opened. So far, the Sean McVay phenomenon in the NFL has done little more than provide an abundance of opportunities for people who look the part.