Things may very well be different this time around.
With the NFL's coach and general manager hiring cycle now in full swing, there is a sense of optimism in these early stages of the process about the searches being more diverse and inclusive than anything we have seen in recent years. It's far too preliminary to make any proclamations, but during the initial interviews for candidates not currently under NFL contracts, owners appear to be doing a more-than-cursory job of meeting with varied candidates, and there is a growing sense among current and former NFL executives, coaching agents, and among the candidates of color themselves that 2021 may in fact be more reflective of the composition of the NFL's locker rooms.
I'd call it cautious optimism, as NFL teams begin to submit formal request slips to interview coach and GM candidates. And Rod Graves, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works with the NFL in the pursuit of greater diversity in the coaching and management ranks.
"I think 'cautious optimism' is the right way to frame it," Graves told me Sunday afternoon. "A lot of credit goes to (Commissioner) Roger Goodell and (VP of football operations) Troy Vincent for the sense of urgency that has developed about this issue over the past 8-to-12 months."
There is nothing to champion until we see the final results of these searches, but it seems more than lip service is being paid to The Rooney Rule, and there is a sense within the groups doing the hiring that the time for words is over -- this league must be more equitable in who gets to sit in positions of power within the game, and, ultimately, only the owners themselves can change that.
Experienced coaches like Marvin Lewis and executives like Rick Smith seem very poised at this point to have a legitimate opportunity with multiple teams. There is hope that 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will have better luck this time around.
The league has been far more aggressive, proactive and consistent with its messaging to teams about the need to alter the way they have been doing business, and I have heard repeatedly from those doing the hiring, and those who represent many of the top candidates, that the nature of this cycle will in fact be different.
"I have never felt a vibe like this before," said one prominent agent. "I think Goodell has put the hammer down and these teams are getting the message."
In the past Graves has broached the subject of pushing back all hires until after the Super Bowl to try to level the playing field for this in and outside of the game, giving the tampering rules that govern the sport. However, so many coaches and GMs being let go in-season this year -- creating a more robust cycle of interviews while games were still being played -- is a dynamic that also could foster diversity.
"The early decisions being made by owners, in an effort to get a head start, may become more of a trend moving forward," Graves said.
Of course, this is not about one hiring cycle, or one blip. It's about a course correction in the way owners think and operate. And Graves wants to expand the scope of the thinking into all aspects under the NFL's umbrella: NFL Films, NFL Media, and all ventures of the sort. He, and many others, want to see the same management-level opportunities provided in those ventures as well, and is already working on a presentation to that end for the spring meeting in March.
"This is something that requires a holistic approach," Graves said. "It's about peeling back the cover on the entire NFL umbrella and examining diversity as it pertains to other businesses, and in some instances it is much worse there than what we have seen on the football side."
Continue to hear that the Falcons are super-intrigued by Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. They have not had a top-notch play caller since Kyle Shanahan left. Smith employs many of those same principles in his offense, and there is a growing buzz about him in Atlanta.
also have been hearing Rick Smith as the guy to beat for their GM opening for quite some time, and nothing recently has changed that sense one bit.
Change coming for Giants?
There are plenty of execs around the NFL who believe Dave Gettleman will either retire or assume a different role with the Giants in the coming days. Nothing official and all subject to change. But him being out of the GM spot would not be a surprise to many of his peers at this point.
If Gettleman is out of the GM role, longtime Patriots executive Nick Caserio might slide right in.
More insider notes
- The collapse of the Vikings defense could lead to some very interesting meetings with ownership there. Mike Zimmer entrusted that side of the ball to his son and one of his closest friends. Minnesota had a chance to make a late playoff run but gave up 120 points in the final three games (gulp) while losing three of their last four. Things tend to get awkward when family is involved, but they clearly need to get things sorted on that side of the ball.
- If the Washington Football Team do not go back to men with ties to that organization -- in either or both of Marty Hurney and Martin Mayhew -- as part of their looming restructure, Titans exec Ryan Cowden is a name to watch. He has strong ties to Washington coach Rob Rivera, who wields extreme power in that organization.
- Hearing some teams are definitely interested in Colts exec Morocco Brown for GM openings.
- Seattle execs Scott Fitterer and Trent Kirchner are expected to interview for the Texans GM opening. Houston may end up interviewing 15 or more candidates.
- Rams scouting director Brad Holmes is in the mix for the Falcons and Lions GM openings as those searches move into the stage of talking to those currently under NFL contract.
- It's probably something for down the line, but there has been increasing chatter in scouting circles about the Raiders having a shakeup in personnel of some sort before the 2021 season. Maybe it's something after the draft.
- The Bengals will be hiring at least three new position coaches on Zac Taylor's staff, and perhaps more. There has been some concern in the coaching ranks about the length of contracts that will be extended to candidates.
- Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley will be a name to watch among the group of young coaches who have not garnered head coaching interviews before.
- Darrell Bevell didn't catch many breaks as interim Lions head coach but that was a competitive team when he was at the helm. I see him as an OC somewhere in 2021.
- If the Chargers defensive coordinator job opens, and many around the NFL believe it will, it will be as coveted as any coordinator job in the league.
- Many a once up-and-coming offensive coach has had a second career arc after spending time under Nick Saban at Alabama. Lane Kiffin, Brian Daboll, Steve Sarkisian -- have to wonder if Adam Gase might be the next to do so. He began his coaching career as a grad assistant under Nick Saban at LSU in 2000.