Patriots assistant Brian Flores and the complex landscape for black coaching candidates

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Half of the eight teams with head coaching vacancies have reportedly asked to interview Brian Flores, the Patriots' de-facto defensive coordinator.  

It’s probably just a matter of time before others join the Broncos, Browns, Dolphins and Packers and request a sit-down with the 37-year-old Flores. As a minority coaching candidate, bringing Flores in will satisfy the NFL’s Rooney Rule obligation, which says that a minority candidate has to be interviewed for each opening.

It’s a rule that annually presents a Catch-22 for minority coaching candidates who have to divine whether they are actually in the running for the position or merely in town so that a team can say it complied with the rule.

And even if a minority candidate can tell the interview is a sham, turning it down deprives a candidate of the chance to get his name “out there” and also to get face time with owners and team decision-makers.

With the industry being as incestuous and cloistered as it is, a candidate who makes a good impression, even in a bag-job interview, stands to have his name passed around the ever-active NFL gossip trail.

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Flores didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. He’s been with the Patriots since 2004. He worked in scouting and personnel when he started, shifted to coaching and went from special teams to making a one-season cameo as an offensive assistant in 2010. He’s coached on the defensive side of the ball since 2011.

A former linebacker at Boston College, he’s got a commanding presence. He’s smart and demanding. His players say he’s direct and takes ownership of his coaching missteps. In short, he’s a very impressive coach and deserves to be in the mix for head coaching opportunities.

But when I look at the coaches who’ve been thrown overboard -- five of the eight being black men -- two names stick out: Vance Joseph and Steve Wilks.

The 46-year-old Joseph spent one year as an NFL defensive coordinator in Miami before being hired to coach the Broncos in January of 2017. He didn’t last two years.

Wilks, 49, was defensive coordinator for one season with the Panthers in 2017 before the Cardinals hired him. He didn’t make it a year.

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If you’re going to hire a coach with limited experience running half of the football team, shouldn’t you allow the man some time to grow into the responsibility of running the whole team?

Apparently not. Both franchises had seen enough. Now, inevitably, both teams will seek more experienced coaches with offensive backgrounds to resuscitate and develop flagging offenses.

Meanwhile, Wilks and Joseph are out of work and probably wondering if they were doomed from the start in both of their shots at running a team.

The NFL has been dogged for years by the complexity of figuring out how to get better minority representation in front offices and on the sidelines.

With coaching programs, it’s tried to grow the pool of minority coaching candidates. With the Rooney Rule, it tried to break down the pernicious recycling of washed-up coaches owners feel comfortable with because they saw them on TV a bunch of times.

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There’s persistent pressure from the media that the league has to “do better” and the league dutifully nods each year and says it will.

But too rare is the black head coach who is hired, serves and is fired without some weirdness occurring along the way. Sometimes, that weirdness is being shown the door with little evidence of failure.

Last year, the Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season and four years in which his combined record was 36-28. The Lions hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who went 6-10 and was predictably overmatched when it came to human interaction.

Lovie Smith got fired by the Bears after a 10-6 season in 2012, two seasons after taking Chicago to the NFC Championship Game.

Tony Dungy went 48-32 over his final five seasons in Tampa Bay, got fired after the 2001 season and watched while Jon Gruden took the Bucs to a Super Bowl win the next season.

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Other times, it’s a head coach who may have been hired because of his potential or relatability with his players who gets cast aside when the potential isn’t reached and the fanbase isn’t relating to the lack of wins. Raheem Morris would be an example there.

Then there’s the hue and cry from the media for a particular coach to be hired based mainly on his accessibility and cooperation with the media.

Hue Jackson was incessantly pushed forward by national media as an offensive genius being criminally overlooked for a head coaching job. The Browns let him go this season and he may have been one of the worst head coaches in league history.

I don’t think the situation is as dire as others do.

Marvin Lewis just was let go after 16 seasons in Cincinnati. Mike Tomlin’s been going strong in Pittsburgh since 2007. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn may be the NFL’s Coach of the Year.  Ron Rivera’s been in charge in Carolina since 2011. Todd Bowles got all the time he deserved with the Jets before it was clear it wasn’t working.

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The most vital thing the league can do is putting the onus on franchises to grow the pool of qualified minority candidates. I believe they make an honest effort at doing that.

Second, though, teams have to either exercise greater patience or greater foresight when it comes to hiring minority head coaches.

When you hire a Steve Wilks or Vance Joseph despite their light resume and fire them after they barely get settled, compound damage is done to the effort to become more diverse.

Unlike Wilks and Joseph, Flores is in his 30s. He’s going to be a terrific candidate for years. It probably wouldn’t be a terrible thing for him if he gained more experience and he indicated last week how much he’s learned in his first year running the defense.

But if he is offered a job in this year’s coaching cycle, hopefully he gets the leeway to grow into the job that Joseph and Wilks didn’t.

And hopefully he locks up with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback.

Because when it comes down to it, whether it’s Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, Anthony Lynn, Ron Rivera, Frank Reich or Bill Belichick, the equation is the same whether you happen to be black, white or Hispanic.

Make sure you have a good quarterback in place and -- if you aren’t great at coaching them -- bring somebody with you who is.

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