As the Chicago Bears contemplate major change throughout their organization, one key date is approaching fast: Tuesday, Dec. 28.
For the first time ever, NFL teams can begin to interview head coaching candidates during the final two weeks of the regular season, provided they have an “open” head coach vacancy. This significant change was made official at this week’s league meetings in Dallas after being recommended by the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee.
Over the last few hiring cycles, the committee identified a significant problem as it researched ways to increase opportunities for minority coaching candidates: the hiring window is too short.
“Once we get into that playoff window, there is a condensed amount of time in terms of opportunities for interviews, particularly for division winners and so forth. There is that initial window during the week where some interviews can take place and others can’t,” said Rod Graves from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which consults with the NFL to champion diversity throughout the league. “I think giving this opportunity two weeks before the season ends increases that exposure or availability for exposure to candidates that some otherwise didn’t get, particularly in the last hiring cycle.”
Graves spoke to reporters at this week’s league meeting, along with NFL chief people officer Dasha Smith and Steelers owner Art Rooney, who chairs the NFL’s diversity committee.
“I do think this is one of the greater moves that we’ve seen in a while,” Graves said. “We’ll see how it plays out. Obviously, we have to have respect and stick to the spirit of the proposal, but I think if done the right way, it does provide opportunity for greater exposure to people who may not have a chance to enjoy that during the playoff window, so I think it can be a big factor.”
Interestingly, the change is the exact opposite of what the Buffalo Bills proposed, which was to delay coaching and general manager interviews until after conference championship games, and hirings until after the Super Bowl. Both Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier interviewed for head coaching jobs last season, but were not offered one. The Chargers hired former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley the day after the Rams lost in the divisional round and the Bills won, which extended their season by a week. Daboll was the other finalist for that job.
The problem with the Bills’ proposal was that it would have delayed hiring teams from getting on with offseason business and filling out their coaching staffs. Instead, the rule that was passed still addresses the same concern that it’s tough for candidates coaching in the playoffs to juggle head coaching interviews and postseason preparation at the same time. And, typically, the majority of head coaching candidates are coaching in the playoffs.
“I think part of what we’re trying to do is ensure that we have as many top candidates competing for a role,” Smith said. “One of the things we’ve seen is that the timing, and rushing through the process, has been something that hasn’t allowed the clubs to see and interview as many candidates.”
While this new rule affects all coaching candidates, the committee believes it will have a positive impact on minority candidates who might receive more consideration.
“This is not just for diversity efforts but it’s also just to ensure that we have a process that is as thorough as possible, where clubs have time to see as many top candidates as possible,” Smith said. “We think at the end of the day that will also help our diversity efforts.”
But what are the specifics of the new hiring rule and how will it potentially affect the Bears? It might not help them as much you think. Here are some of the key points from “Resolution JC-9” that was passed earlier this week:
- At 8 a.m. local time on Tuesday, Dec. 28, teams with an “open” head coach position can request permission to interview a head coach candidate employed by another club.
- The interview must be conducted virtually and cannot last more than two hours.
- Teams cannot request an interview with a current head coach, but they can request an interview with an interim head coach.
- Teams can deny permission for requested head coach interviews during Weeks 17 and 18, but if they allow one team to interview a candidate, they must grant permission to any other requesting clubs as well.
- A head coach position is considered “open” if the head coach that started the season is no longer employed by the team or has been given notice that he will no longer be with the team next season.
For the Bears to take advantage, they would have to fire head coach Matt Nagy before 8 a.m. CT on Tuesday, Dec. 28 or at least inform him and the league that he won’t return in 2022. At that point, they would have an extra two weeks to request virtual interviews. While teams can deny those requests, it seems unlikely they would do so because head coaches generally like to promote opportunities for their assistants and can’t deny requests during the league-mandated windows during the playoffs. They would only be delaying the inevitable while creating a potential conflict during the postseason.
On the other hand, the benefits for the hiring team during the early-interview window are limited. A team searching for a new head coach would likely want more than a two-hour interview over Zoom before making an offer. And that’s why the stipulations are in place. The point of the rule change wasn’t to promote earlier firings and earlier hirings — it was to expand the time frame in which candidates can be interviewed and considered.
“We understand there are some competing interests here we are trying to deal with,” Rooney said. “We came to the conclusion that opening up this window wider, for more people to have the time to interview, outweighed the negative of possibly seeing coaches being let go earlier. Obviously, we are not interested in encouraging coaches being let go earlier but it does happen, and so this is somewhat in response to the reality of how it has been happening.”
As it stands, there are already two openings, as Raiders coach Jon Gruden resigned earlier this season and Jaguars coach Urban Meyer was fired Wednesday night. Both teams will be able to participate in the new, extended hiring window.
It remains to be seen if the Bears will join them. They have never fired a head coach before the end of the regular season, but if their plan is to fire Nagy anyway, you’d think they would want to get a jump start on the process. On the other hand, they would be limited to two-hour virtual interviews, which minimizes the benefit of the jump start.
And there are other complicating factors, the most important of which is rookie quarterback Justin Fields. If the organization feels like a coaching change would have a negative effect on Fields’ development in the final two games, then they might be hesitant to move on from Nagy early. There’s also the strong possibility that the organizational changes go well beyond the head coach. In that case, who would be conducting the virtual interviews during Week 17 and 18?
There’s a lot to consider, but this is a new tool available to the Bears if they choose to use it. And we already know they’ll be competing with two other teams who will have access to earlier head coaching interviews.