The NFL has spoken. Sort of.
In response to a question first posed last week regarding whether the league permits a team to reach an agreement in principle with a new coach before firing the current coach, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart tells PFT, “There is no league rule or policy on this.”
It’s unclear what that means as it relates to the question of whether the Raiders violated the Rooney Rule by, as owner Mark Davis has admitted, striking a deal with Jon Gruden before firing Jack Del Rio. While the league has no rule or policy preventing a team from entering into an agreement in principle with a new coach before firing the current one, the Rooney Rule requires at least one minority candidate to be interviewed in connection with each head-coaching vacancy. If the job is never vacant, it seems that it would be impossible to comply with the Rooney Rule.
It’s possible that the league’s position will be that, as long as at least one minority candidate is interviewed at or around the time a change is made, that’s enough to comply with the Rooney Rule. After all, that approach still gives the minority candidate an opportunity to interview for a head-coaching job and to be regarded publicly as a head-coaching candidate.
The problem, of course, is that neither the interview nor the candidacy are real, if the team already has struck a deal with its next coach.
As one league source pointed out on Thursday morning, it’s possible that the Raiders and the NFL will try to tiptoe around this problem by claiming that the Raiders pre-complied with the Rooney Rule, by interviewing at least one minority candidate before agreeing to terms with Gruden. The league authorized this approach in 2010, when Washington interviewed assistant coach Jerry Gray for Jim Zorn’s coaching job, before firing Jim Zorn and inevitably hiring Mike Shanahan.
If that’s the play, it’s critical that the fact back it up. Travel records are very hard to forge after the fact, and if the Raiders’ interviews of Bobby Johnson and Tee Martin actually occurred after Gruden struck a deal with the team, the NFL could come down on the Raiders even harder.
The lingering question is whether the league wants to come down on the Raiders at all. The core problem presented by this situation could be the selective enforcement of rules, a habit of inconsistency that has plagued the league in recent years, with some teams getting slapped and others getting a pass for non-compliance with a variety of provisions and regulations.
This failure to act fairly and even-handedly at all times with all teams has done as much or more to undermine the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football as anything that any of the periodically punished teams has done.