Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, one of the few men of color who are running NFL teams, spoke for many this week when he called the league’s lack of diversity a “joke” during an NFL Network interview.

Tomlin’s candid remarks speak to the moment we are in as a country, with voices being heard and recognized in ways we have not seen before, and the NFL and its teams now among those championing the Black Lives Matter movement and other social causes. Tomlin was also speaking for his franchise in many ways, with the Rooney family long pushing for more equality in how NFL teams hire coaches and executives. The Rooney Rule is named after their patriarch, and in the wake of Tomlin’s comments I reached out to the Steelers to see if ownership had any further comment.

Art Rooney II, president of the Steelers and chairman of the NFL’s Diversity Committee, supported his coach’s assessment:

“I understand the frustration of Coach Tomlin and others around the NFL as it related to diversity issues,” he said. “I think our Diversity Committee took some important steps this past offseason to improve our policies and processes in order to enable more equitable opportunities for minority candidates in the league. We hope to see some results in the near future. However, we also understand that more work needs to be done.”

Which teams will be impacted the most by opt outs? John Breech and Ryan Wilson join host Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to break down that and more; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness. 

The expansion of the Rooney Rule in terms of the number of candidates and expanding it to cover more assistant coaching and executive titles was long overdue. The league’s trend toward fewer minority coaches and executives remains a critical issue for the NFL, and the fact that in 2020 men like Maryland head coach Mike Locksley feel the need to create their own development group for minority coaches shows the depth of the problem.

Tomlin is on the executive board of Locksley’s National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, which was formally announced on Thursday but has been a long time in the making. The nonprofit will create a list of diverse coaches who Tomlin, longtime Ravens exec Ozzie Newsome, Alabama coach Nick Saban and others will vet and advocate for as openings arise in the pro and college ranks.

It will take time, unfortunately, to get the numbers going in the right direction. And the pandemic, which may wipe out the college season entirely and could cause drastic changes to the NFL landscape, too, may lead to a firing/hiring freeze of sorts, which is already a topic of conversation in NFL circles. If the season is postponed in, say, November, and restarted in spring sometime, you will not have the usual hiring and firing patterns in January. Many teams will ride it out, keep costs down, and the expectation is that any big changes would be pushed until the summer or whenever the 2020 season was concluded under such circumstances.

But the more people of prominence speak about these issues and work to provide ways to improve the situation, the more pressure will continue to build on owners to hire coaches and executives who look more like the majority of the workforce in their locker rooms.

Big Ben ready for rebirth

Listening to all of the Steelers Zoom calls this week has me feeling a Big Ben rebirth. 

He looks good in the limited practice videos we have seen, and other than a minor, slight, nuanced change in his throwing motion, he looks like the same Hall of Fame QB to people in that organization. Tomlin mentioned a slight change in Ben Roethlisberger’s spiral, but that was about it, and this quarterback has always been at his best when having to overcome injury or a setback, even if it was of his own making. If you are looking for a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, I’d start in the ‘Burgh.

“I just didn’t feel like I was done playing football,” Roethlisberger said this week of the elbow injury that ended his 2019 campaign last September. “I really felt that I wanted to come back. I was excited about this team, and I just didn’t feel like I was — I don’t feel like I’m done playing football yet. If it was a thought, it wasn’t a long one to really stop.”

Navigating through a 16-game season could prove tricky, and that offensive line is not as airtight as it once was (and losing offensive line guru Mike Munchak hurt last year and will remain a factor as well). But I have no doubts at this point that Big Ben will be ready to go in Week 1. At age 38, and in this of all seasons, how these guys finish could prove to be a different topic entirely.

More NFL insider notes 

  • Continue to hear from people I speak to from NFL teams that there is a very real sense within the league office about the Super Bowl being played before a full crowd. Obviously, the timing of a vaccine will be paramount but there is a real hope that will be the case, if not an expectation …
  • Also hearing more chatter about perhaps having to adapt to a bubble environment of some sort for the postseason, depending on how COVID-19 is impacting various parts of this country at that time. Several GMs have talked among themselves about it, and some football people think it could work. Whether that would end up being one bubble per conference or one for the entire playoffs is a topic of some debate. To be clear, there has been nothing formal at all from the league office about any sort of bubble whatsoever, but if something like that went down I don’t think teams would be shocked … 
  • If the league does end up having to go to a 12 or 10 game schedule, I feel comfortable saying doing away with the out-of-conference games would have strong support among the teams themselves. “If anything, move them all back to the final four weeks, and then if we have to go to the playoffs without playing them, so be it,” as one AFC exec put it to me. “Those games would have to be the first to go, right?” another AFC exec said … 
  • If 2021 becomes a difficult year for sales and marketing people in some NFL cities, it won’t come as a surprise. How elastic is the bond with some fanbases? In some places where tickets are already far too easy to come by, will people be racing back into stadiums in 2021 if they watched a full season of bad football on their couches? Not that the NFL model is overly reliant on attendance, but it could be a very tough sell in some parts and the projections by some marketing analysts about this league eventually going to a model of lower capacity and more viewing options within the stadiums themselves (including onsite gambling houses) may prove to be even more prescient over time.

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