TAMPA ― Bucs coach Bruce Arians had no intention of becoming known as a trailblazer for hiring the only NFL coaching staff with three Black coordinators.
Byron Leftwich (offense), Todd Bowles (defense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams) were former players for Arians before they traded their helmets for headsets. And don’t forget assistant head coach/run game coordinator Harold Goodwin, another key member of the NFC champions’ staff.
“That was not by design,” Arians said. “Those are the best coaches I know.”
The Bucs had the third-best scoring offense over the past two seasons under Leftwich, who had to be talked off the golf course to join Arians’ staff in Arizona four years ago.
Young, offensive play-callers seem to be what NFL owners are looking for. Yet despite seven head coaching openings this offseason, Leftwich, 41, didn’t score a single interview.
“I was very, very (ticked) that Byron didn’t at least get an interview this year for the job that he’s done,” Arians said. “I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady for the job that Byron has done. I’m throwing Keith Armstrong in the mix, too.”
Goodwin, 47, may not have been a play caller, but Arians believes his time to become a head coach also has arrived. “He’s a leader of men,” Arians said. “People get caught up with play callers and miss the fact that some people are just really good leaders of men.”
A year ago, there were five head coaching openings and only one went to a minority when Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was hired by Washington.
In a league where roughly 70 percent of players are Black, the NFL still struggles with racial equality when it comes to hiring head coaches. Only three of the 27 NFL head coaching vacancies over the past three hiring cycles have been filled by Black men.
In 2011, there was a league-most eight Black head coaches in the NFL. There are only three today: the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Dolphins’ Brian Flores and the Texans’ David Culley, who was hired last week.
Bowles, 57, who went 24-40 in four seasons as head coach of the Jets from 2015-18, drew interest this cycle from the Falcons, Lions and Eagles for their vacancies, though Detroit canceled a scheduled interview to hire Dan Campbell.
“We know what color we are, believe me. We see it every day in the mirror,” Bowles said. “We want to be recognized as just coaches in this league because we all grinded and worked our way up to this point and got to the game by being good coaches, not by being good Black coaches.”
Leftwich likely is hurt by the fact that no matter how well the Bucs offense performs, most of the credit will be given to Brady and Arians.
In his first season as a play-caller, the Bucs were not only third in scoring, but Jameis Winston led the NFL in passing with 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also threw a league-worst 30 interceptions.
Leftwich said he hasn’t spent too much time wondering why he wasn’t contacted to interview for a head coaching position.
“I want to help these players be the best football players they can be,” he said. “... All we can do is our job to the best of our ability and the narrative may change.”
Arians has taken the diversity of his staff to another level, also hiring two full-time female assistant coaches: assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach/physical therapist Maral Javadifar.
“A player is going to ask the coach, ‘How are you going to make me better,’ ” Arians said. “He doesn’t really care whether the answer comes from a male or a female, Black, white, brown, yellow — just help me get better. The best teachers I had were all different races, all different ethnic groups, male and female. If you can teach, you can coach.”
If there is hope for change, it rests in the changing landscape of some of the decision-makers in the NFL.
Many owners tend to rely on their front-office executives to conduct head coaching searches and recommend hires. This offseason, three more Black general managers were hired — Terry Fontenot (Falcons), Brad Holmes (Lions) and Martin Mayhew (Washington) — increasing the number in the league to five.
It also doesn’t help that there is a small window when coordinators and assistants on teams still in the playoffs can interview for head coaching jobs.
But ultimately, Bowles says, how you measure real progress is when race won’t be mentioned when identifying head coaching candidates.
“As we start seeing us first as football coaches and not African-American coaches, I think we’ll start to move the needle a little bit more,” he said. “It’s been moving, but it’s got to move a little bit faster.”
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