He's intelligent, articulate and respected. He has been called an exceptional football mind and a great leader of men by both players and other coaches. This past NFL season he masterminded a defense that demolished opponents on the way to the Super Bowl. By all rights, he should be an NFL head coach by now. But Giants defensive coordinator John Fox isn't, because, more than anything, he was too good at his job.
In the days following New York's 34-7 Super Bowl loss to the Ravens, Fox's failure to land a head job was largely overshadowed by a similar snub of Marvin Lewis, his Baltimore counterpart. Lewis, an African-American, was considered a front-runner with Fox for the last two openings, with the Bills and the Browns. That the Ravens' assistant was passed over for those jobs stood out because white coaches have filled 44 of the last 47 vacancies. While we won't know how much Lewis's skin color counted against him, he and Fox were equally disadvantaged by another force: the absurd league rule that prohibits clubs from talking directly to a candidate until his team is eliminated from the playoffs.
In effect, the two Super Bowl defensive coordinators were victims of their success, as owners in dire need of help (why else were they sitting at home in January?) felt they couldn't wait until after Jan. 28 to get their houses in order. With as many as 18 staff positions to fill and the scouting combine and free agency looming, owners become understandably jittery, which is why retreads (this year, Dick Vermeil and Marty Schottenheimer) and big-name college types ( Butch Davis) so often get the January call-ups instead of the best candidates from the assistant ranks.
In explaining his hiring of Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as Buffalo's coach, Bills general manager Tom Donahoe raved about Williams's preparation for the interview, during which Williams deployed charts detailing everything from his game plans to his evaluations of potential assistants. How could Fox or Lewis—both of whom interviewed for the Buffalo job just hours after the biggest game of their lives—have competed?
"Marvin will end up in a better place," said Buccaneers coach and NFL rules committee member Tony Dungy, speaking of Lewis's being shut out this year. But, he added, "that doesn't let the league off the hook. There's something wrong with the process. It's flawed."
Here's a sensible fix: Allow teams to contact anyone they wish after the conference championship games. Interviews done during the off week, before preparation for the Super Bowl intensifies, can hardly be considered a distraction. But they will make the most attractive candidates—men like Fox and Lewis—more viable ones as well.