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Changes to Rooney Rule Could Make Steelers Assistants Hot Commodities

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On Tuesday, the NFL made sweeping changes to its hiring policies, expanding the Rooney Rule to include coordinators, assistant general managers and front-office executives, requiring teams interview multiple minority or female candidates for head coach and general manager openings and preventing teams from blocking coaches and staffers from interviewing for any of those positions.

The idea is to get the Rooney Rule protections to trickle down a level. After all, the prime candidates for coaching jobs are coordinators, and if the coordinators are overwhelmingly white, the hiring pool for head coaches will be, too.

But with teams having the ability to block assistants from interviewing for coordinator positions, quality assistant coaches have stacked up at some places in the league.

Teams with long runs under the same head coach have seen a familiar dynamic play out. Coordinators either leave for head coaching positions or get fired for poor performance and are then replaced internally from the pool of positional assistants.

Four of the Steelers’ last five offensive coordinators have been internal hires, with Randy Fichtner, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey all being promoted. Todd Haley coming from Kansas City in 2012 was the lone exception. 

The same goes for three of the last four defensive coordinators, with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Tim Lewis all promoted from assistant coaching positions (LeBeau left and later returned) and Jim Haslett coming in from elsewhere.

Have the Steelers been blocking their assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions? It doesn’t seem like it. Butler interviewed for at least one other defensive coordinator job before ascending to follow in LeBeau’s footsteps in Pittsburgh. So there probably won’t be a big change on that front.

But perhaps unlike some other teams, the Steelers do have a diverse coaching staff. Half of the Steelers’ 10 position coaches are black, as is assistant head coach John Mitchell. Mitchell is 68 and isn’t likely to be a prime candidate elsewhere at this stage in his career.

That isn’t the case for running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard and most especially, senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin.

Austin is a Sharon, Pa. native and Pitt alum that came to the Steelers ahead of the 2019 season after spending five seasons as defensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers went from the No. 10 pass defense in 2018 to the No. 3 unit in the league under Austin in 2019. More impactfully, they went from No. 28 in turnover percentage to No. 1, with most of that improvement coming from 12 additional interceptions.

Some of that undoubtedly came from having Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson added to the secondary, but Austin will and should get some of the credit, as well.

With the changes to the Rooney Rule making it harder for teams to hold on to assistants, and forcing teams to interview minority candidates for their coordinator openings, Austin could very well be a hot commodity next offseason with another strong performance from the Steelers secondary.

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NFL

Roger Goodell Continues NFL Reopening; Expects Coaches in Facilities Next Week

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has announced the next phase of league reopenings in a memo to teams Thursday.

Starting Monday, June 1, clubs will be permitted to reopen box offices, retail shops and other “customer-facing” locations “as long as the operation of such facilities fully complies with state and local regulation.”

Employees working in these newly opened location will count towards the limit per team set by the league. Clubs are permitted 50 percent of their normal staff, and cannot exceed 75 employees in facilities.

Rehabbing players will continue to be allowed access to team facilities, but healthy players and coaches are still not in the clear to return. Goodell added that the expectation is that coaching staffs can come back to facilities next week.

“We are actively working with Governors and other state and local authorities in those states that have not yet definitive plans and will confirm the precise date on which coaches can return to the facility as soon as possible,” Goodell said.

Coaches have been barred from team facilities in an attempt to ensure competitive equity around the league, considering different states are at different stages in their respective reopening processes.

Goodell added that the league is working alongside the NFLPA to develop protocols that would allow players to return to club facilities in a limited fashion.

The first phase of reopening began on May 19, and it appears to have been successful thus far.

“Clubs that have reopened their facilities have done so in a safe and effective way,” Goodell said.

The league is utilizing three different criteria as it continues with its reopening plan: state and local regulations must be followed, reopening must be consistent with protocols created by NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills and competitive fairness must be a priority throughout the process.

The NFL has not yet made announcements regarding training camps, or if games will be played without fans during the 2020 season.

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NFL Adds to League Officiating Department; Alberto Riveron Remains Top Replay Official

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The NFL has drastically altered the structure of its officiating office, but Alberto Riveron will remain the man in charge of league replay reviews.

The league announced on Thursday that longtime referee Walt Anderson and former NFL coach Perry Fewell have joined the NFL officiating department.

Fewell, 57, will oversee the officiating department, including communications with head coaches and general mangers, and be the league’s liaison to the NFL Referee Association and the NCAA.

He joins the league office after last serving as the Carolina Panthers’ interim head coach in 2019. He was also interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2009. Fewell was the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills from 2006-09 and New York Giants from 2010-14 and was a defensive backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars (1998-02 and 2017-18), the St. Louis Rams (20030-04), Chicago Bears (2005), Washington Redskins (2015-16) and Carolina Panthers (2019). Fewell also worked as a collegiate assistant at North Carolina, Army, Kent State and Vanderbilt.

Anderson, 67, spent 24 years as an NFL official and the last 17 seasons as a referee before moving into the league office as senior vice president of officiating training and development, where one will oversee game officials, their development, training, education, recruitment and more.

That will leave less on the able other than his role as the league’s lead replay official, a role he will return to for his eighth season.

Each of Anderson, Fewell and Riveron will report directly to NFL executive vice president of of football operations Troy Vincent.

“Our intentions are to implement meaningful improvements to the game and officiating,” Vincent said in a press release. “We will continue to make every effort to improve officiating and pursue officiating excellence.”

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NFL to Allow Three Players to Return from Injured Reserve

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The NFL owners have voted to expand the number of players that can return from the injured reserve list during the virtual 2020 owner’s meetings, the second session of which was held virtually on Thursday.

NFL teams will now be able to place three players on injured reserve and allow them to return to competition in the same season. Teams had been allowed to return two such players since 2017. When the rule was first installed, only one player could return and he had to be identified beforehand.

Now, players are eligible to return from injured reserve after missing eight weeks, which was clarified in the updated rule for 2020 to mean eight missed team games, and not eight calendar weeks. A regular-season bye week will not count in the eight weeks required to be served. Postseason bye weeks will continue to count toward the minimum.

Players will still be allowed to practice with their teams for two weeks preceding their eligibility to return from the reserve list, and a total of 21 days before he must be added to the roster or remain on injured reserve for the rest of the season.

The proposal, which was submitted by the league office, was the only modification to the league’s bylaws approved during Thursday’s meeting. There were several changes made to the league’s playing rules.

The Steelers placed 10 players on the injured reserve list in 2019: defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and LT Walton, fullback Roosevelt Nix, linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph, safety Sean Davis, tight end Xavier Grimble and wide receiver Ryan Switzer. None returned from the designation to play in 2019.

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