Quarterback Coaching Summit Aims to Create Opportunity for Black NFL Coaches

During a two-day event next week, black coaches who could be future NFL head coaches, offensive coordinators or quarterback coaches will have the chance to network with current NFL owners, GMs and coaches.
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Last year was the second for the Quarterback Coaching Summit, and the first for the NFL running it in conjunction with the Black College Football Hall of Fame. And there were plenty of moments, for the league’s EVP of football operations, Troy Vincent, to illustrate why the event was so necessary in the first place.

There was ex-Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell explaining the first 30 days for a head coach, then going step-by-step through a year-long process of teaching and developing a young quarterback, from general philosophy down to specifics of mechanics. There was Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy lecturing on leadership, managing a staff and building player/coach relationships.

And then, there was Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who spoke just months into his new job, after spending two years as offensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama.

“Mike Locksley is the one who completely just jumped out,” Vincent said. “Mike Locksley talked about the RPO and how the teaching of the run-pass option works, and talked about Tua [Tagovailoa]’s development, and went through the whole philosophy of implementing the RPO system and developing a quarterback in that system, and getting the most out of it, how you generate points and creating matchups, just phenomenal.

“And to watch him go step-by-step—pre-snap, progressions, option one, option two, touchdown. OK, here’s an adjustment, once the defense adjusts, here’s where you go. It was great.”

In doing that, Locksley confirmed something else for Vincent—the pipeline isn’t dry.

On Monday and Tuesday, some 80 coaches will convene with NFL folks for the third annual summit, done this year, for obvious reasons, virtually. And given the times, Vincent and others from the league will arrive with a little extra purpose.

They’ll be there to help develop promising young coaches, of course. But they’ll also be there to reveal some to NFL decision-makers, which signifies a real step forward for 2020.

The hope being, of course, that the impact will be felt during the next hiring cycle in January.

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy

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We’ve got a loaded GamePlan column this week, with plenty to get to, including …

• My pre-season watch list for Defensive Player of the Year.

• Explaining what a workout list is.

• Revealing some potential new COVID-19 rules tweaks.

• A reason to calm down on positive tests.

But we’re starting with a pretty cool event set to go down early next week.

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Vincent, at the end of our call on Thursday morning, went through all the names that interviewed for each of the NFL’s five head-coaching openings back in January—with the point being that there was only one black offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, who even had a shot at any of the five jobs (he was in the running for three of them).

And that really drove home the point here, which is that the summit isn’t just about addressing the league’s shortage of black head coaches (there will be just two in 2020). It’s also about attacking a similar lack of numbers in what’s become the best runway for young assistants to become head coaches.

The biggest reason Bieniemy was the only black OC to interview for a head coaching job is, in fact, remarkably simple and obvious. There are only two of them in the NFL, with Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich being the other. Likewise, Indianapolis’s Marcus Brady and the Chargers’ Pep Hamilton are the league’s only black quarterbacks coaches.

That’s a point of frustration for a lot of people. And it’s not hard to hear it in Vincent’s voice.

“We’re just better than that,” he said. That’s all. We’re just better than that.”

So yes, the two-day event is going to be about sharing ideas—like Locksley shared his knowledge of the RPO game, and how the Tide deployed it to get the most out of Tagovailoa in 2018. But it’s also going to be about exposure, in a number of different ways, as the league looks to improve some seriously lagging diversity numbers.

How will these guys get that exposure? In a few different ways.

Owner involvement. The number one problem I’ve heard from black coaches in interviewing for and failing to get jobs is that owners will often say they were more comfortable with another candidate. It’s probably why, on the GM side, so many that have ascended to the top jobs were internal promotions (i.e. Ray Farmer, Chris Grier and, more or less, Andrew Berry), and it’s an issue that really can only be solved by generating more interaction.

This year’s summit will venture to do that, and the first piece will be in making owners more familiar with the coaches themselves. Six of the eight members of the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee are owners, and all six (Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Arizona’s Michael Bidwill, Chicago’s George McCaskey, Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, Buffalo’s Kim Pegula and the Giants’ John Mara) are confirmed for the summit, among other owners attending.

Mara and Rooney will be part of a panel discussion, while Pegula will do a mock interview with Hamilton and Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

“This year, we know that the familiarity is critical,” Vincent said. “So as we examine what we’ve done and areas where we’ve fallen short, it’s just the networking, the interaction. We have nine owners, each of those on the workplace diversity and inclusion committee, all are participating. This year there were people that were putting their hands up as general managers to participate. … That’s the difference.

“We have mock interviews with Kim Pegula, Chairman Rooney’s involved, John Mara’s involved, Ozzie Newsome’s involved, [Texans exec] Javier Loya. Now, they get a chance to see these men present, ask questions, interact. Now, we know it’s virtual, but that’s OK. In an informal manner, that didn’t happen the last two years. We have tremendous, tremendous participation from club ownership. Huge difference.”

Networking time. In the agenda, an hour has been put aside at the end of the day on Monday for “virtual networking sessions.” As Vincent described it, the league has identified around 10 promising young candidates, and will give each of them time to talk shop and just get to know owners and GMs on a more intimate level.

“Those individuals will be able to go in a private chatroom and have a discussion with John Mara,” Vincent said. “Just like you’ve seen on Zoom, with private chatrooms, where you can carve it out for those 8-10 individuals, where you can see each other and you all just have conversations. Just casual conversations allowing each to ask each other questions, again, just to get to know me, put your eyes on me.

“And it’s hoping that as we do that, when appropriate, we don’t want to get into any tampering issues, we can do it more often so now we can build familiarity with one another over long time periods, so that they get a chance.”

Head coach involvement. This is another area where a big leap is coming, which should allow for more networking and learning. Titans coach Mike Vrabel will do a presentation on building a staff on Monday morning, and Bucs coach Bruce Arians will be part of a Monday afternoon panel. On top of that, ex-Browns and Raiders coach Hue Jackson will do this year’s “first 30 days” presentation, Caldwell will lead the mock QB coach interview on Tuesday and Chargers coach Anthony Lynn will do the mock OC interview right after.

Last year, Urban Meyer was the only speaker who’d been a head coach the previous year.

And the impact there is less so for guys like Bieniemy, who are reaching for the final rung of the ladder, and more so for younger coaches who might be looking for their shot, and who could give the league a shot at bettering its OC and QB coach numbers. The two-day event could be putting a prospective position coach in front of his next boss.

“I think that’s so important, as it’s discussed, we’re not saying everyone in this room should be a head coach,” Vincent said. “No. What we’re saying here is we have a pipeline of individuals that are quarterback gurus that can develop the quarterback. There are others in that room that are ready, that could be tremendous play-callers. And then there’s a small batch that we can say, these individuals are ready to be head coaches.

“And so it’s important that we frame that up so there’s not a misperception or unrealistic expectations—no, we’re not saying that 80% are ready to be head coaches. But if we put them in blocks, these guys are ready to be QB coaches, offensive coordinators, and we have the select few that are ready to be head coaches, if not return to head coaching.”

Bringing fresh names to the table. Last year, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott spoke, and it impressed those in attendance, and it made a difference. Six months later, his name was being kicked around for the Cowboys job, and Vincent doesn’t think it’s a coincidence—after all, Elliott’s been the Tigers’ OC for five years now.

So his name is one. Locksley’s is another. And Vincent’s hope is this year brings that kind of opportunity for guys like Rice OC Jerry Mack, Giants RBs coach Craig Johnson (a former QBs coach) and Ted White, who worked on Hamilton’s staff with the DC Defenders. Then, there’s someone you have heard of who will be introducing himself to a lot of people in the summit for the first time as, not a player, but a coach.

“We’ve heard of Byron,” Vincent said. “You can see what Coach Arians has done over the last year, he’s completely given Coach Leftwich the green light, he’s doing it all, the playsheet’s in his hand. He’s getting it, he’s running the offense. So he’s another one.”

And he’ll be working with Tom Brady this season, which should help, at least on paper, the same way working with Peyton Manning in Denver once helped Mike McCoy and Adam Gase.

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That last point? As Vincent sees it, that’s where the greatest challenge is in this effort he and others have undertaken—it’s changing perception.

Vincent hopes people give Leftwich the credit that McCoy and Gase got if Brady has a banner year at age 43. But he’s not counting on it. Because, as he sees it, credit has been given on a selective basis in the past.

“This is what’s done with their counterparts,” Vincent said. “And I’m not taking anything away from my teammate Doug Pederson, I’m not taking anything away from Coach [Matt] Nagy, I’m not taking anything away from these individuals. But each of them had an association with a quarterback. Hey, ‘Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady.’ We don’t hear that when it comes to our black coaches. Please, what you just said, people are not making that connection.

“And this has been going on for years. Let’s just take Jim Caldwell. Matthew Stafford, wonderful quarterback. If anyone goes back and looks at his most prolific years as a passer and their best years as an offense, let’s go back and see who was the head coach.”

It was, of course, Caldwell.

So Vincent, and others involved, know well that they can’t just flip a switch and fix everything that’s gone wrong over the years. But they can take steps to do that.

And based on how things went last year, and all they done to make this year’s summit better, the ones they’ll take on Monday and Tuesday feel like pretty big ones.

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POWER RANKINGS

This week we’ll continue our preseason postseason awards rankings with our top contenders for Defensive Player of the Year (Odds courtesy of Oddsshark.com).

1) Aaron Donald, DT, Rams (+650): Donald’s got a new coordinator in Brandon Staley, and the last time he went through such a change, in 2017, he won his first DPOY. Likewise, one of J.J. Watt’s three DPOY awards came in Romeo Crennel’s first year as Houston’s DC. Why does this matter? My guess is the mystery in how he’ll fit into a new scheme will work to Donald’s advantage, in his final season on the right side of 30.

2) Nick Bosa, DE, 49ers (+800): This is a chalk pick, sure. But it’s also correct. Despite missing most of his first pro offseason, Bosa was a wrecking ball as a rookie, an easy pick for DROY and the best player in the Super Bowl through the game’s first three quarters (we all know what happened after that). Now? Bosa will be coming off a healthy offseason, and on a level playing field with the other contenders for this award. Look out.

3) Jamal Adams, S, Jets (+3300): A contract drive can be a powerful factor for a player—so maybe this could go either way. I’m betting Adams has a big year. And if Gregg Williams’s defense comes alive, I’d bet he’ll be in the running.

4) Marlon Humphrey, CB, Ravens (no odds): This is my dark horse. A lot of evaluators pointed out to me in the fall what a quietly incredible season Humphrey was having. Well, if the Ravens’ defense can build on the positive momentum they had at the end of the 2019 regular season, I think we’ll hear a lot more about the Alabama product, particularly if his ball production is better than it was last year (three picks).

5) Myles Garrett, DE, Browns (+1200): I think he’ll have something to prove coming off last year’s season-ending suspension, and he’s another guy who’ll be playing for a payday (if he doesn’t get it before the season starts). The Seattle scheme should be good for him, and if they eventually bring in Jadeveon Clowney to play opposite him, even better.

A few guys who just missed: Joey Bosa, Chandler Jones and Von Miller. I think all three of those guys are in play here, with two of them (Bosa, Miller) are, yes, going into contract years.

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Colin Kaepernick

THE BIG QUESTION

What exactly does it mean to be on someone’s workout list?

Most of you probably know why I’m asking the question. For those who missed it, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said during his press availability on Wednesday that Colin Kaepernick is on the team’s workout list, and that he can’t imagine the quarterback wouldn’t be on other teams’ lists, too.

“I’m very confident and happy with the three quarterbacks that I have but you can never have too many people waiting on the runway,” Lynn added. “At the end of the day we have to put together a roster we have to feel good about. He has to make sense.”

OK, so we’ll get to that part in a minute. But first, I thought it’d be instructive to explain exactly what Lynn is referencing there—the actual workout list. What’s its significance?

Well, for different teams, it means different specific things. But for all, it’s basically a list of players that the team needs to get updated information on, because said player is on the team’s radar in one form or another.

“At this point, everyone has a potential workout list,” one AFC pro scouting director texted. “And it may be bigger this year, [because teams] would’ve spent part of May and June working out various guys. It doesn’t mean much really.”

It means more when it’s broken down into groupings, which are termed differently by different teams. One I talked to Wednesday said that, “Pretty much everyone with NFL experience is on a workout list,” with a “short list” and a “practice squad list” being subsets of the workout list. Another had the broad workout list, with a “ready list” underneath it—those being players that the team knows, who can be signed without a workout.

“Every team has an emergency list/workout list. It’s basically who is on the street and who you would consider if a need were to arise,” texted an exec from another team. “It’s more prevalent during the season because you have to replace injured players or [practice squad] players. We typically work out guys that we would sign immediately if an injury occurred, reserve/futures candidates, and potential [practice squad] guys, etc.”

Long story short: What Lynn was referencing is fairly broad.

And here’s the other side of it: I don’t know that the Chargers would be the right destination for Kaepernick anyway, even though he is, as Lynn said, a scheme fit. Much of what happens in the quarterback room there will be structured to develop Justin Herbert, and Tyrod Taylor’s on hand too with a $5 million base, and experience having been part of bringing along a young first-round pick before (Baker Mayfield in Cleveland).

Where does Kaepernick fit into that? As competition for Taylor? As a third-stringer behind the other two, both of whom will need their share of practice reps? If that’s the case, does Kaepernick get the chance to get back to where he needs to be as a player?

I’m just not sure it makes a ton of sense for either side. My feeling is he’d be better off going to a place with an entrenched veteran starter (Seattle, Houston, the Rams) free of complications within the quarterback room, where he could work his way back into pro football life, something that worked exceedingly well for Mike Vick a decade ago.

We’ll see if he gets a shot to do that.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The potential for a COVID-19 reserve list.

Lost among all the protocols has been the need for this—and it’s probably the biggest piece of non-financial business the league and union haven’t gotten into that needs to be addressed. In fact, GMs and coaches are actively waiting on it, so they’ll have an idea how they’ll be going about building their teams in the summer and fall.

It’s not too difficult to lay out why it matters.

Let’s say, for example, a team has a small outbreak, and 10 players test positive for COVID-19, and it’s November. Even if those guys are asymptomatic, it stands to reason that NFL rules will mandate a two-week quarantine for those players to prevent further spreading, either within the players’ own team or to opponents’ rosters. So now, you’ve gone from 53 guys on your active roster to 43.

And by that point of the season, most of the gameday inactive spots are being used for guys with football injuries. So let’s say six of seven gameday inactive spots for this hypothetical team are occupied, at this hypothetical point in November, by guys with sprained ankles and knees. Now, you’ve got those six guys out, plus the 10 COVID-19 cases, which means, absent some rules adjustments, you’re dressing 37 guys for the game.

That, obviously, won’t work, unless you ask teams to put every guy who gets COVID-19 on IR (which takes guys off the field for a minimum of eight weeks, and only allows for three designated guys to come off it at all). So there’ll need to be some sort of list here that allows for teams to backfill their rosters if there is an outbreak.

Now, we can update you on where the league is on all this. They’ve had a series of calls this week to address it, and another is scheduled for Thursday afternoon. The idea of expanding the practice squad to 16 has been proposed to give teams a larger safety net, in the case of an outbreak, with players that know their system and (this part is key) have been undergoing regular, mandatory testing, so they could step in right away.

Additionally, the league actually does have a contagious disease policy on the books. The policy mandates the disease be reported to the league and allows for roster exemptions if at least six players on the team have confirmed cases. The team can then get up to eight roster exemptions to replace players with confirmed cases, but only to pull players up from its own practice squad, and up until four hours before kickoff.

I’m told the NFL is discussing expanding that and putting the policy in full-scale for 2020. The league has also talked about how screening will work, with testing likely mandated just before the final roster is set (4 p.m., the day before the game), among other times during the week. And one important note: The NFL hasn’t gone to the union with any of this yet, and that’s an awfully important piece of the puzzle (particularly since the contagious disease policy is part of the CBA).

My feeling? The league should create a list that allows for only COVID-19 cases, and shelves guys for a minimum of two weeks. Expanding practice squads makes sense, too—even if there is an expense to it in a year in which a significant revenue shortfall is a near certainty. Add those two together, and you allow teams flexibility roster-wise that they’ll need, while having more guys prepared to play on short notice.

A couple GMs I texted with late Wednesday said they haven’t heard anything from the league on all this, but agreed that something like it will be necessary.

Will it be a little unusual to do something like this on a one-year basis? Sure it will.

But this has already been a most unusual year.

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THE FINAL WORD

With positive tests of guys like Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Jackson coming down the pike, we’ve got a pretty good reminder that, as much of a rush as we all are in to figure out what training camp’s going to look like, the NFL still has time to work with.

That July 28 report date is five weeks and five days away. By then, the NBA, NHL and MLB—assuming there aren’t any more union/league brushfires in those sports—will have given the NFL weeks of evidence on what to do and what not to do. And right around that report date, those leagues will either be in full swing or about to start up, which will give the NFL around six weeks of game-condition data before its own season starts.

So while we all speculate, the people who run pro football have a nice advantage over the other sports that will soon come into play.

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