No longer an issue for quarterbacks, race remains an issue for coaches

Mike Florio

As the NFL’s 100th season continues to unfold, the anniversary of a significant milestone passed just four days ago. On October 9, 2000, the Bucs and Vikings met on Monday Night Football. It was the first game ever played between two teams with African-American coaches (Tony Dungy and Dennis Green) and African-American quarterbacks (Shaun King and Daunte Culpepper).

Nineteen years later, the NFL still has plenty of work to do ensure true equality and diversity when it comes to coaching. As to quarterbacks, however, race isn’t and hasn’t been a consideration, for a long time.

It’s been so long that even the mere mention of quarterback race seems odd and outdated. Not that long ago (in the grand scheme of things), it was a big deal.

After Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson‘s epic Thursday night performance in Week Five, a reporter Wilson about the reality that non-white quarterbacks like Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Lamar Jackson are currently dominating the NFL.

“I don’t think it should be about the color of your skin,” Wilson said. “I don’t think it should be about how tall you are or whatever. I think if you’ve got it, you got it.”

He’s right, and coaches got to the point long ago where nothing matters except whether a guy can play, with height becoming the latest factor to become irrelevant. But the fact that there was an extended period where things weren’t that way remains glaring, given that the NFL is (or at least is supposed to be) the ultimate meritocracy.

“I think more than anything else, I think it’s cool that other people get their opportunities to play,” Wilson said. “It shouldn’t matter what you look like. If you can play, you can play. . . . There’s a lot of great quarterbacks in this league, doesn’t matter, white, black, anything else. It’s about playing great and it’s about leading a group of people.”

Again, he’s right. But as we commemorate the league’s 100th season, it’s hard to believe that it took as long as it did for race to not be an issue as to quarterbacks. And it’s even harder to believe that the NFL still hasn’t gotten to the point where race isn’t an issue when it comes to coaching.

Dungy, the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, believes that the race issue for quarterbacks ended in 1999, when the first round saw Akili Smith, Donovan McNabb, and Culpepper drafted early, and when the Bucs selected King in round two. And while that may indeed may be when coaches finally quit thinking about a factor that never should have mattered, it’s taken another 20 years for it to get to the point where it’s such a non-issue that even mentioning it feels strange — especially as Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes meet for the first time in what could become the new Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry.

But that makes it feel even more strange that, nearly a generation after the adoption of the Rooney Rule, race clearly hasn’t become the same kind of non-issue for coaches. And maybe that won’t change until the ownership ranks become more diverse; ultimately, the billionaires who run NFL franchises are going to hire whoever they want to hire, and no set of artificial interviewing procedures will keep owners from deciding weeks if not months before the hire is made who is going to get the job.

It’s unclear when or if the obvious lack of diversity among head coaches will change. At a minimum, more minority assistant coaches need to be groomed as quarterbacks coaches and offensive coordinators. But 20 years after the race stopped being an issue for quarterbacks, it feels like we still may be having the conversation about coaches 20 years from now.