The case for Jim Caldwell, a glaring example of NFL's racial coaching bias

(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

February marks the celebration of Black History Month. This year’s theme — according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History — is “Resistance.” Yahoo Sports will feature a series of stories highlighting the achievements of pioneering African Americans whose very being is a form of resistance against the status quo in their respective fields.

LAS VEGAS — One week before Super Bowl Sunday, in a hotel conference room in Las Vegas, former Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell sat down for an informal interview session with NBC Sports personality Michael Smith.

It wasn't live-streamed to the masses and it wasn't hyped on social media. It was a veteran teacher who had reached the sport's highest levels sharing his story, his observations and his tips to a room full of men who look like him and aspire to follow his path in many ways, at the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches' second annual convention. (Full disclosure: I spoke at the convention after receiving an award from the group for my coverage of the NFL's diversity issues.)

Sometime during the session, between Caldwell detailing the meticulous steps of his coaching career and him offering his personal book — the one he has honed over decades to bring to interviews — to the others in the room for free, it became apparent:

The NFL owner class is even worse than I thought. 

Because if that Jim Caldwell, the faithful, genuine, deeply experienced, brilliant family man who spoke that morning is the same one who has sat in front of NFL team owners and those owners chose not to hire him, they really have no idea what they're doing or what they're looking for.

He has done that. And been passed over.

To say it's a damn shame doesn't come close to capturing how negligent it is that a man so knowledgeable not only isn't still the head coach in Detroit but has been without a job for three years, since stepping down from the Miami Dolphins after agreeing to join Brian Flores' staff in 2019 and then taking a medical leave of absence not long after.

This isn't anything new when it comes to team owners, or many of the people with hiring influence in the league. They can give a bunch of bullet points on what they're looking for in a new head coach or coordinator but when the press release goes out affirming a new hire, far too often it's another white head coach getting another chance or jumping ahead of non-white candidates who have been doing the same work for years longer.

Unlike many Black aspiring head coaches, Caldwell, 68, has at least gotten his chances. But like Black men who do get a chance, he was not given the same amount of leeway as his white counterparts. Data published by The Washington Post last year shows that Black head coaches don't get the same length of time as white ones, and are twice as likely to be fired even after a winning record.

Caldwell was 26-22 with two playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance in his three seasons with the Colts, and that includes the 2-14 season in 2011, when franchise star Peyton Manning was out the entire year due to neck surgeries. And somehow, Caldwell was made the fall guy.

Jim Caldwell coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl appearance in 2010, but he was fired two years later despite an overall winning record as head coach. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Jim Caldwell coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl appearance in 2010, but he was fired two years later despite an overall winning record as head coach. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In four seasons with Detroit, he was 36-28 with two playoff appearances, the best four-year run the Lions have had this century. Claiming the Lions' 9-7 mark in 2017 wasn't good enough, then-general manager Bob Quinn fired Caldwell to hire his buddy from the New England Patriots, Matt Patricia.

It took Patricia 23 games to get nine wins.

Just to put a fine point on the disrespect shown to Caldwell, his predecessor in Detroit, Jim Schwartz, got five years in the job. He had only one winning season and 29 wins in 80 games.

Beloved by Manning, Caldwell is known as a quarterbacks guru in a league that has rushed to anoint and elevate many a white man with a fraction of the résumé. Matthew Stafford's only Pro Bowl was with Caldwell as his head coach in Detroit. Joe Flacco had 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four 2012 postseason games, culminating in a Super Bowl XLVII win, with Caldwell as his coordinator.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave his annual state-of-the-league news conference last week in Phoenix. As has happened several times before, he got a question about the state of Black head coaches in the league 20 years after the Rooney Rule was adopted, requiring NFL teams to interview minority candidates for all head-coach openings. Goodell offered many words but little substance because that's how he almost always answers questions in front of cameras. He has said he is concerned about the issue, but his actions say otherwise.

There are exactly as many Black head coaches in the NFL as there were when the Rooney Rule was instituted in early 2003: three (Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Houston's DeMeco Ryan and Tampa Bay's Todd Bowles; Miami's Mike McDaniel says he identifies as "biracial.")

Those numbers could improve if the Arizona Cardinals and Colts, who each have vacancies, hire a Black head coach. But the Colts are reportedly leaning toward hiring Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen.

And it's not much better at the coordinator level, which doesn’t bode well if you’re optimistic it will be only a matter of time until things improve. Entering Monday, 15 coordinators were hired or reportedly hired this coaching cycle, seven on offense and eight on defense. Of those 15, four are Black. All of them coach defense.

From 2016-2022, there were 51 new head coaches hired. Thirty-seven came from offense.

Nathaniel Hackett was a disaster as Broncos head coach this season, but that didn't stop the New York Jets from hiring him as offensive coordinator, complete with a media whitewashing of his Denver debacle when New York made the hire official.

Kellen Moore and Mike LaFleur didn't get the job done with their previous teams, but were still hired instantly by the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams, respectively. The newly expanded Rooney Rule mandates that teams must interview at least one non-white candidate for coordinator openings. The Jets announced several interviews, but while the Rams said via email they fulfilled that obligation, a team spokesman declined to share to Yahoo Sports who was interviewed other than LaFleur.

This also serves to underscore that the 2020 Rooney Rule adjustment that gives teams compensatory third-round draft picks for developing Black and minority assistants that go on to become head coaches was as useless as it seemed when it was conjured up. Teams don’t care if there’s a small bonus for doing the right thing, they still aren’t going to do it. We should add this is for every team other than the San Francisco 49ers, who have consistently promoted and prepared Black coaches and executives in recent years, both in the coaching and front-office ranks.

It's hard not to feel discouraged for the men sitting in the crowd listening to Caldwell, both because he should still be a head coach and because the odds for a Black coach seem longer than ever.

If you're looking for answers as to why, they haven't come in the 20 years since the toothless Rooney Rule was instituted, and they certainly didn't come during Super Bowl week from Goodell.