There was a time, not all that long ago, when the Cincinnati Bengals were a team to emulate when it came to diversity.
They made Marvin Lewis just the seventh Black head coach in NFL history, and helped Leslie Frazier, Hue Jackson and Vance Joseph on the path to that rare fraternity. Jackson was the rare Black offensive coordinator when he held that position in Cincinnati in 2014 and 2015. Katie Blackburn, the Bengals executive vice president and daughter of current owner Mike Brown, chaired the NFL’s diversity committee.
The Bengals were so intentional about breaking down barriers for coaches of color that the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a non-profit organization that champions diversity in the NFL, even gave Blackburn an award for the family’s efforts.
Now, the Bengals are the worst in the NFL, their staff a reflection of why the league is still struggling with systemic racism in hiring almost two decades after the adoption of the Rooney Rule.
The Bengals have the least-diverse staff in the NFL this season, with non-white coaches making up 24% of Zac Taylor’s staff. No other NFL staff has less than 30% non-white coaches.
Cincinnati also has more than three times as many white coaches (16) as non-white (five), including Taylor and his three coordinators. Compare that with the league's most diverse team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, where non-white coaches outnumber white coaches 12 to 7.
This isn’t an anomaly, either. Since Taylor replaced Lewis before the 2019 season, his staffs have had five or fewer non-white assistants every year. Each of his coordinators, who have been with him all four seasons, is white.
“It takes vigilance. Many people celebrate change, and a few years later you notice the backsliding,” said Pamela Newkirk, who devoted an entire chapter to the NFL in her book, “Diversity, Inc: The Fight for Racial Equality in the Workplace.”
“It takes intention to first implement the change, and then vigilance to sustain the momentum. You need both. You can’t just check a box and be done,” Newkirk added. “It’s not just a linear path. You have to keep your foot on the gas to keep the momentum going.”
USA TODAY Sports collected demographic information on the league’s 722 on-field coaches at the beginning of this season, and then independently verified their racial identification. But the Bengals said USA TODAY's data analysis “reflects a snapshot in time and does not represent the full picture.
“This organization and its founders have a long-standing history of supporting diversity in the NFL dating back to 1946 when (team founder) Paul Brown signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, breaking pro football’s color barrier,” the Bengals said.
Asked at the Super Bowl whether he thinks systemic racism exists in the NFL, Taylor said, "I certainly think that we have a ways to go."
"I know we’ve worked really hard here at the Cincinnati Bengals, and our ownership has done a great job of that," Taylor added. "We’ve got some great coaches of a lot of different races that I think are very deserving of opportunities and I look forward to seeing them get those."
And yet, Taylor’s staff has all of five non-white coaches. He's never had more than five non-white coaches on his staff. If this is what happens when the Bengals are working “really hard,” imagine how bad things would be if they weren’t.
What jumps out about the Bengals isn’t simply their numbers. It’s that Taylor’s staff is a veritable bingo card of reasons why minority coaches don’t advance in the NFL.
Family ties? Agent connections? Six degrees of Sean McVay? Head coach ascent from quarterbacks coach? White coaches at the “thinking person” positions and Black men in the running back and wide receiver rooms? A wunderkind white coach making a quick rise from offensive assistant or the scouting department to positions that lead directly into the head coaching pipeline?
The Bengals have ‘em all. Multiple examples, in some cases.
► Taylor’s father-in-law is Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay Packers coach, and Sherman hired Taylor for his first coaching job at Texas A&M. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan’s father, Bill, is a longtime NFL coach whose resume includes a two-year stint as head coach of the Raiders. Assistant wide receivers coach Brad Kragthorpe’s father and grandfather were college coaches.
► Taylor, Callahan, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and linebackers coach James Bettcher are represented by Professional Sports Representation, which also is the agent for McVay, Taylor’s former boss, and Sherman.
► Taylor, now 39, became a head coach without ever being a coordinator in the NFL. The Bengals hired him when Taylor was the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach, a position that has become a main entry point for head coaches and is almost exclusively held by white men.
► Quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher went from a scout to assistant quarterbacks coach in four years. Secondary/safeties assistant Robert Livingston also got his start in the personnel department.
If you wanted a case study of why the NFL’s diversity woes continue, the Bengals would be it.
Yet no one’s going to say too much or look too hard because Taylor led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1989 last year, so whatever he’s doing — and whoever he’s doing it with — must be working.
“(League officials are) trying to eliminate that bias, promote trust, develop skills and present opportunities. But we don’t hire,” said Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations.
“Our institutions are the finest institutions in the world,” Vincent said. “Why we’re sitting here in 2022 giving them practices on things to look for and the interview process is troubling.”
Especially when the Bengals once were a team — again, not that long ago! — the NFL could tout as a sign of progress rather than being an example of all that is still wrong.
“No one can draw a conclusion, based on their support of Marvin Lewis over the period of time that he was head coach, that that organization is a racist organization because they don’t have a Black head coach or Black coordinators,” said Rod Graves, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
“I’m more concerned about those who have not shown a propensity for sensitivity in those areas throughout their history.”
As Newkirk said, however, championing diversity must be an ongoing priority. And that no longer seems to be the case in Cincinnati.
Now, this isn’t to say owner Mike Brown, who also acts as the Bengals GM, or Taylor are racist. Or even aware of the biases and stereotypes reflected in Cincinnati’s staff.
That, however, is the whole point. The NFL is the ultimate private club, and unless decision-makers at the clubs are intentionally opening the door for minority coaches, those coaches will continue to be locked out.
Is that white candidate really the best quarterbacks coach? Or is his time as a quality control staffer under McVay — or Kyle Shanahan or Matt LaFleur or whoever the current hot coach is — blinding you to a Black candidate who would be an even better option? Are you assuming that because someone’s father — or father-in-law or brother or next-door neighbor in kindergarten — is a good coach that he will be, too? Do you give white coaches credit simply for who they are while judging coaches of color on what they have — or haven’t — done? Do you hire people you have worked with before because you're comfortable with them and know their track records — not stopping to realize all those people are white?
Unless owners, front offices and head coaches keep questions like that front in their mind when they’re hiring, the NFL will still be having the same problems in 20 more years.
“There is no pipeline problem. The candidates are out there,” said N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at American University and author of “Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.”
“We’ve seen example after example that diversity on the whole strengthens organizations,” said Duru, speaking about the NFL in general, not a specific team. “So pursuing diversity is something that is the right thing to do and, as a bottom-line matter, is good practice.”
The Bengals recognized that not so long ago. Now they're just another team standing in the way of the NFL's progress on opportunity and equality.
USA TODAY Sports writers Tom Schad and Steve Berkowitz contributed to this column. Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cincinnati Bengals show NFL coaching diversity is matter of priority