The Color of Coaching

Rivera’s firing reinforces NFL’s woeful standard regarding coaches of color

When we think about injustice within the National Football League, a singular name comes up — Colin Kaepernick.

That is certainly understandable, with all of the media attention on Kap and the inexplicable reason why he’s not on a NFL roster. 

And yet, there’s an ugly hiring and firing practice in the NFL that doesn’t get as much attention — the league’s treatment of head coaches of color.

That dynamic was reinforced Tuesday when the Carolina Panthers fired head coach Ron Rivera. Rivera, who is Puerto Rican, had been with the team since 2011.

Panthers owner David Tepper said he “thought it was time” to fire Rivera, which is an interesting commentary considering the facts behind Carolina’s season.

For starters (no pun intended), the Panthers have been without franchise quarterback Cam Newton since Week 3, and haven’t had him at full strength since the middle of last season. Despite Newton’s absence, Rivera led the Panthers to a 5-3 mark with backup Kyle Allen before its current four-game losing streak.

Sure, there have been some bad losses to Atlanta and Washington. But what changed in a month’s time that warranted this firing? What would have changed a month from now at the end of the year, which would have at least allowed Rivera to finish the season?

There have been rumors around the franchise which suggest that Rivera and Tepper didn’t see eye-to-eye in terms of philosophy. Rivera’s more of an “old-school” coach, while Tepper is more of an “analytics” guy.

The rhetoric surrounding “analytics” sounds more like code than actual insight. It’s the kind of racial rhetoric that allows for whippersnapper white guys to not only get head coaching jobs, but fail up if and when they fall on their faces.

Steve Wilks, Carolina’s former defensive coordinator, was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals for a calendar year. You read that right. Wilks was hired January 22, 2018 and fired on New Year’s Eve. He was replaced by a coach in Kliff Kingsbury who did not have a winning record in the college ranks and had no NFL coaching experience.

Todd Bowles, for his struggles with the New York Jets, was replaced by Adam Gase, who finished with a 23-25 coaching record during his tenure in Miami. Not only did he “fail up,” he was named interim general manager for almost a month after Mike Maccagnan was fired on May 15.

It’s a shameful trend that makes no sense. Marvin Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati is an outlier that speaks more about owner Mike Brown than Lewis. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are a standard of stability when it comes to head coaches, are showing their savvy by retaining Mike Tomlin. It’s paying dividends at the moment, despite a slew of injuries for Pittsburgh.

Moves such as Tepper’s are representative of a culture change, which sounds good in the short term and likely spells doom for Cam Newton’s tenure in Carolina. Those changes rarely work out as planned, and for middling franchises such as the Panthers, take several years to pan out, if at all.

It also denies Rivera a chance to finish out the season in strong fashion, something that is his (and granted, Newton’s) calling card. Save for last year’s 1-4 finish, Rivera compiled a 23-8 mark between 2011 and 2017 in the month of December.

The interim tag on defensive backs coach Perry Fewell would mean more for the Carolina-born Fewell if he had a chance to be retained in that capacity. He had the same opportunity in Buffalo in 2009 and was shipped out then as well.

Fewell’s tenure will be a stopgap — just like the “Rooney Rule” itself. It’s toothless — just like the Panthers as they separate themselves from the franchise’s most successful head coach and quarterback.

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