Lewis: NFL hirings aren’t a black-and-white matter

NEW ORLEANS — Somewhere along the way, the NFL developed a social conscious.

Pro football being the most popular sport in America (why soccer rules in the rest of the world is a story for another time), it comes with the territory.

And that makes Super Bowl week one when social issues are given equal heft as decoding Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos, at least until Sunday’s kickoff.

Foremost of late has been that no black head coaches filled any of the eight vacancies created since the end of the season — especially since two of those who were fired, Lovie Smith in Chicago and Romeo Crennel in Kansas City — are black. That leaves only three others: Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, Leslie Frazier of Minnesota and Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati.

Nor have any of the seven available general manager positions gone to minorities.

Twenty-five years after Doug Williams became the first — and to date only — black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, it remains a tricky subject.

The Rooney Rule, which requires clubs to interview at least one minority for their top positions, was meant to equalize opportunity, not produce guaranteed outcomes.

And while the league officially has wrung its hands over the matter, who’s to say that any of those eight new coaches worked any less hard to rise to top of their profession and aren’t deserving of the shot?

These are not inherited positions. The NFL may not be a perfect meritocracy, but a coach’s ability to put a winner on the field generally trumps everything else.

From the outside, Mike Singletary seemed like a great choice when tabbed by San Francisco in 2008. But he was found wanting, and now Jim Harbaugh has the Niners in the Super Bowl after they reached the NFC Championship Game last year.

Similarly, Sylvester Croom drips integrity. But since 2008 when he was fired at Mississippi State after five seasons, Croom has not had an interview for even a coordinator’s job at the college or pro level, where he has spent 20 seasons.

That can’t be racism. Sometimes, it’s a matter of timing.

This year’s trend for teams in need of a coach was to look those whose forte is offense. Seven of the eight hires went to coaches with offensive backgrounds and, for whatever reason recently, black coaches have tended toward a concentration on defense.

There are exceptions. Jim Caldwell, who as offensive coordinator guided the Indianapolis Colts to Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints, is given major credit for sparking the Baltimore offense since replacing Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator late in the season.

But because Caldwell’s star faded when he didn’t have Peyton Manning last year in Indianapolis, he wasn’t on many interview lists. And with teams sometimes desiring speed over being through while searching for a coach, the Ravens’ playoff success hasn’t helped him, either. If things are fair, Caldwell will get his turn a year from now.

And it’s important to point out that David Shaw, who has done a magnificent job replacing Harbaugh at Stanford, turned down at least two opportunities to interview for NFL jobs. Shaw could change his mind next time.

Another black coach who has had success on the college level, Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, is considered a hot prospect for the NFL in 2014. And if Tony Dungy ever expresses interest in returning to coaching, he’ll be at the top of every list.

Still, there are changes that could unclog the pipeline, such as requiring teams to interview minorities for coordinator jobs.

The Saints shouldn’t need that kind of prodding to give Crennel serious consideration as their new defensive coordinator. The franchise has never had a black coordinator, head coach or general manager.

“(The Rooney Rule) has been a great rule, and it worked in the past,” Caldwell said. “But just like anything else, after a certain period of time, you have to revisit and see if it needs a little tweaking.

“For me, it’s just the way things are. We have to be able to make the best of it.”