During the NFL’s latest media briefing on Friday, I posed this question to league spokesman Joe Lockhart: Is a team permitted to reach a deal in principle with a new head coach before firing its current head coach?
The question was relevant at the time because it appeared that the Raiders had done precisely that, working out an agreement with Jon Gruden before cutting Jack Del Rio loose. It’s even more pertinent now, because Raiders owner Mark Davis has admitted to that timeline.
In response to the question, Lockhart said he didn’t know the answer to the question off the top of his head, and that he’d get back to me. Five days (and multiple follow-up emails) later, that hasn’t happened.
There possibly has been no answer to the question because there’s no good answer to the question. If it’s not permitted, the Raiders clearly broke the rules by striking a deal with Jon Gruden before firing Jack Del Rio. If it is permitted, it’s the clearest possible path for teams to consistently avoiding the Rooney Rule.
In this case, the comments from Davis confirm that the Raiders necessarily violated the Rooney Rule because a pair of minority candidates interviewed for a job that was never actually open. But the NFL isn’t inclined to expose any of its teams as being in violation of the rule, because that would run against the persistent narrative that the NFL is ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity in hiring practices.
Either way, the Raiders aren’t inclined to care; Davis wanted Gruden, and Davis wasn’t going to fire Del Rio until Davis knew he could get Gruden. If the NFL eventually punishes Davis for not complying with the Rooney Rule and/or for improperly hiring Gruden, Davis will pay the parking ticket and move on.
After all, the Raiders got two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and $8 million for letting Gruden leave on 2002. If they have to give some of that back as part of the effort to get him back sixteen years later, Davis will be the last one to complain.