This past week, the NFL added another layer to its Rooney Rule, which to this point hasn’t had the desired effect of markedly increasing the number of non-white men in head coaching and general manager roles in the league.
And as frustrating as it is that the league’s franchise owners still need rules and incentives to hire minorities in those roles, the mind-boggling, out-of-nowhere story of Jack Easterby illustrates why those efforts are still necessary.
If you follow the NFL, you’ve probably heard of Easterby by now. His official title with the Houston Texans is executive vice president of football operations, and with the firing of head coach and de facto general manager Bill O’Brien, he is essentially running the franchise.
On Sunday morning, NFL Network had a report from sources “inside the building” in Houston that there is “strong” consideration being given to keeping interim head coach Romeo Crennel in that role through the 2021 season.
The reason given: COVID-19, and the fear that the pandemic could make it impossible to visit with candidates in-person. That, of course, is as flimsy as wet Kleenex. If the Texans were actually concerned about COVID, they wouldn’t even be playing right now, and they certainly wouldn’t have an obese 74-year-old Black man — as in the target zone for getting the virus as an American could be — as their interim head coach.
No, the most telling and only relevant part of the report was in the final words: “It would allow Easterby to remain in charge for a couple of years.”
Easterby to remain in charge.
He’s inexplicably the last man standing after one of the most bizarre sequences of front-office shakeups in recent memory. On Jan. 1, 2018, Houston announced that GM Rick Smith was taking a leave of absence to help care for his wife, who was battling breast cancer, the culmination of a power struggle between Smith and O’Brien that saw the team owners side with O’Brien. The Texans hired Brian Gaine as the new GM, supposedly with O’Brien’s blessing.
Then in April 2019, Easterby was signed to head “team development.” Four months after Easterby’s hiring, Gaine was surprisingly fired, while Chris Olsen, promoted to interim GM, was himself given the boot in January of this year. At that time, O’Brien took over personnel duties and Easterby was promoted to director of football operations. Six weeks ago, with the Texans 0-4, O’Brien was fired.
And Easterby stood alone.
Some have written that Easterby has followed an “unconventional” path. That’s putting it kindly and doesn’t tell the full story. He has no relevant experience with contract negotiation, salary cap intricacies, talent evaluation or on-field football coaching, and if you do even a little bit of digging into his resumé, you’ll find even the experience he has isn’t what he purports it to be.
Let’s put it this way: If you were a Texans fan and saw a report that the team was bringing in as a general manager candidate someone who entered the NFL less than a decade earlier as a team chaplain, and whose professional experience previous to that centered on ministry and character development, would you look up from your screen and think, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly the person we want putting together the roster so we can maximize Deshaun Watson’s talent and finally get to the Super Bowl”?
Probably not. And yet as of this moment, that’s who is running the football side of the Texans.
Those trying to climb the front-office ladders all over the league, Black and white, are confounded and angered by Easterby’s station, and how so many of them who have worked tirelessly for a GM position, have taken nearly every chance and interview that comes their way, only to see a man whose career in the NFL began in earnest nine years ago basically get one by attrition.
A career that began as a team chaplain at that.
This isn’t to disparage the role of team chaplains. They serve a necessary purpose, providing spiritual guidance for those who seek it, and often personal counsel as well, for players and families.
They never go on to become general managers or hire high-powered agents, as Easterby did last year. But as one source with the New England Patriots, for whom Easterby served as director of player development, told Boston Sports Journal in 2019 after Easterby’s departure, “Jack likes power. And maybe even more than that, he likes being around power.”
If you’ve gone from that job to vice president of team development in Houston and then vice president of football operations in roughly 18 months, maneuvers that put you front-and-center with one of the most influential families in one of the largest cities in the country in the McNairs, you’ve not only gotten yourself power, you’re associating with it, too.
One note, in the interest of fairness: O’Brien was fired in October, which is a weird time in terms of bringing in a new GM from outside the organization. But in-house, Houston has director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan and director of pro personnel Rob Kisiel, each of whom have well over a decade of talent evaluation under his respective belt, making either vastly more qualified to be interim GM.
For now, the person in that position is Easterby, and it might be for a while.
Other media members were quick to push back on Sunday’s report, with longtime Houston Chronicle writer John McClain tweeting, “The Texans will hire a new GM and a new coach.”
Yet that doesn’t solve the question of how a man with little relevant experience came to run an NFL franchise.
There is a sizable pool of white men across the league who have the skills to be a general manager, and they all got passed over for Easterby. And for the non-white men who desire such a role, who spend years putting in the work to get to a management level, they’ve had to watch as the NFL came up with another rule to encourage their development and promotion and see Easterby skip past every step they’ve had to climb.
As if we needed another reminder of how much work the NFL has left to do.
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