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Jerry Gray’s take on the Rooney Rule

The Redskins’ intense and lengthy pursuit of Mike Shanahan to be their head coach, along with Seattle’s recent recruitment of Pete Carroll, has resurrected some long-standing questions about the NFL’s so-called Rooney Rule. Most notably, how can a team that sincerely wants a specific head coach conduct a legitimate interview of a minority candidate?

Some (here, here and here, for example) believe that the Redskins, with their in-season interview of secondary coach Jerry Gray, violated the "spirit" of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for any head coaching or general manager vacancy. It’s apparent that Shanahan was the Redskins’ top candidate all along, and Gray surely was fighting some long odds when he agreed to interview.

However, this didn’t seem to bother Gray or John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group that monitors minority hiring practices in the NFL. Shouldn’t their opinions matter?

Gray said late last month that he believes the Rooney Rule helps minority candidates despite the notion of token or sham interviews.

"I think it does because No. 1, it gets you in front of the owner," he said. "It gets you in front of the guy who more than likely you would never meet. I’ve been to one in Detroit, one in Houston and one in Buffalo. You get a chance to actually give him your ideas. And if your ideas are good enough, then it’s a decision that he has to make. To me, I think it’s the same thing that happened in Pittsburgh with Mike Tomlin. It’s going to happen again, probably, somewhere this year to where guys are going to get a chance and say, ‘OK, this might not be an actual interview,’ and the next thing you know the guy gets the head job. So then what was it? Was it an actual interview or was it not an actual interview?

"I got a chance to get in front of Mr. [Bob] McNair in Houston, who I think is an incredible guy," Gray continued. "I probably would never have met him if I hadn’t. And then I had a chance to get in with Martin Mayhew, who’s the GM over at Detroit. So again, those things only help you down the road because if you don’t get the job, now they say, ‘OK, let me look back through the guys I brought in and let me see if this guy has actually grown, got better or can we bring this guy back in to give him another interview?’"

So perhaps Gray entered his interview with the Redskins knowing that he had practically no shot at the job because Shanahan was going to get it. But if he believes it will ultimately help him get a head job somewhere else, either by honing his interviewing skills or by getting his name out there, is the "spirit" of the Rooney Rule really violated? Haven’t we all benefitted in some way from an interview that didn’t directly result in getting the job we interviewed for?

The Tomlin case in Pittsburgh also significantly impacted Wooten’s thinking. You’ll recall that after Bill Cowher retired following the 2006 season, most league observers figured Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm would be promoted to head coach. However, Tomlin, the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator, ended up getting the job and won the Super Bowl two seasons later.

"That’s why I believe in the interview process," Wooten said last month. "I feel if you are a good, solid candidate, you go in there and lay it out to the point where that owner really sees and knows what he’s doing, he’s going to pick the best guy."

Remember that Wooten recommended to the NFL that Gray’s in-season interview for the Redskins’ head coaching job complied with the Rooney Rule. He based his belief on conversations with Gray and Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache about the details of the interview. Gray has not publicly admitted to interviewing.

"Jerry has interviewed before," Wooten said. "So consequently, he knows whether this is a real-chance interview or whether this is just some sham. Greg felt that it was excellent. Based on what they told me I was very satisfied. …Based on the information they gave me, based on my questions, charts and so forth in terms of what he should have had to present."

I pressed Wooten about Shanahan’s candidacy as it related to Gray’s chances, and he was undeterred.

"Would you not consider Mike Shanahan to be a top flight candidate?" he asked.

Well, yes. It’s tough to argue against Shanahan’s NFL head coaching resume. He’s got two Super Bowl titles, three division championships and 146 career wins. Gray has zero in all three categories.

The counterargument, of course, is that maybe Gray could build such a resume if an owner or GM were to give him a chance to be a head coach.

But the Redskins were looking for a proven coach. They didn’t hide that fact. Heck, even players said that’s what the team needed after the failed Jim Zorn experiment. The Redskins’ specific situation (hands-on owner, high-priced veterans) seems to require an established coach with clout. The last decade is proof that such coaches are the only ones that succeed with the team under owner Daniel Snyder. Marty Schottenheimer and Joe Gibbs were relatively successful when compared to Zorn and Steve Spurrier.

With that in mind, can you blame the Redskins for targeting Shanahan? Over time, hopefully the exclusive list of established, proven coaches includes more minorities. For now, only three African-Americans have coached in the Super Bowl (Tomlin, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith). It’ll be a while before teams intent on hiring a proven coach have a diverse group of candidates to choose from.

In the meantime, perhaps the Rooney Rule needs some tweaking. It’s always going to be difficult to ensure the legitimacy of a minority candidate’s chances when a team has a specific target in mind. But those efforts could be enhanced by requiring teams to interview minority candidates not already on the payroll and by waiting until the head coaching position actually is vacant. That would widen the networking process and provide a greater sense of immediacy to a person’s candidacy.

It’s worth examining because we’ll never know if Gray is, in fact, the next Tomlin or Dungy until someone gives him an opportunity. Perhaps we’ll find out sooner rather than later, though, if Gray’s interview with the Redskins taught him something that could hlep his candidacy for another team down the road. If it did, you could understand why he and Wooten believe it complied with the Rooney Rule.