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NFL teams hiring a new head coach must follow these rules

Interviews for head coach vacancies are underway, and here’s what teams have to adhere to in the hiring process.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Black Monday, the day after the conclusion of the regular season when NFL coaches who haven’t lived up to expectations find themselves unemployed, has come and gone. With the postseason in full swing, teams are moving forward with interviewing candidates to fill those vacancies.

The Jacksonville Jaguars hired interim head coach Doug Marrone, so right now, the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, and San Francisco 49ers are all in the market for new head coaches. While teams have arranged interviews and some talks with candidates have already taken place, there are rules that every team must follow when going through this process.

The Rooney Rule

Teams can’t just interview one coach and hire that person right off the spot. Franchises have to follow the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule, which was enacted in 2003, is a policy that mandates teams looking for a new head coach interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior football operations positions.

This policy was named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. Anthony Lynn, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator and one-week interim coach, has said he avoided interviews last year because he believed teams were only arranging them to satisfy the Rooney Rule.

"I think sometimes people do that to check the box,” Lynn, who is black, told ESPN. “I don't agree with it."

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, named after the NFL’s first African-American coach, is an organization that works with the league to promote diversity.

It identified seven minority candidates it recommends for this year’s coaching search: Lynn, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards, Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, and Falcons wide receivers coach Raheem Morris.

Some of these coaches are already in the mix for available jobs.

Assistant coaches not in the playoffs

Teams can interview any assistant coaches from other teams who are not in the playoffs. They must, however, request permission if a coach is under contract with another team.

Teams can block a candidate from interviewing for a position that would be a lateral move, but can’t stop assistant coaches from interviewing for a position that is a promotion.

For example: Anthony Lynn was free to meet up with teams right after the regular season ended because Buffalo’s playoff drought is still going strong. Lynn has been a popular candidate for teams looking for a new coach. He had, or will have, interviews with the 49ers, Bills, Rams, Chargers, and Jaguars.

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was also available to interview because Carolina couldn’t make it back to the postseason this year. McDermott has already interviewed with the Bills and Chargers, and has another one set with the 49ers. The Panthers couldn’t block any from happening because head coach is a step up from defensive coordinator.

Assistant coaches with first-round bye in playoffs

Teams are also allowed to interview assistant coaches who have a first-round bye in the playoffs. However, the interview must take place that week. Candidates can choose to decline the interview to focus on preparing their current team for the postseason.

For example: When Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks during the 2015 playoffs, the Falcons interviewed him during Seattle’s first-round bye. The Falcons were not permitted to actually hire Quinn until after Seattle’s run had concluded with the Super Bowl XLIX loss to the New England Patriots.

This year, Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub were two candidates who participated in a little interview speed-dating while their teams enjoyed a bye. Both interviewed with the Broncos, while Shanahan met with the 49ers and Toub got together with the Chargers.

Assistant coach following a win or loss in the Wild Card round

If an assistant coach’s team loses in the Wild Card round, the candidate can interview with any team that goes through the proper channels to secure an interview. However, if the assistant coach’s team wins, teams need approval for an interview, which has to take place before the divisional round.

For example: Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph had to wait until their teams were knocked out of the Wild Card round before they could interview. As soon as their seasons were over, there were reports that Austin had interviews lined up with the Rams and Chargers, while Joseph had one set with the Broncos.

On the other hand, Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richard needed the OK from the Seahawks to interview with the Bills after his team beat the Lions. Richard met with the Bills one day later, on Sunday night.

Interviews after the divisional round

No initial interviews can be requested or granted for candidates whose teams are still in the playoffs after the divisional round, i.e. anyone from the four teams vying for a conference championship.

For example: If the Patriots beat the Texans during the divisional round, no team with a vacancy could suddenly decide that they’d like to set up a first interview with Josh McDaniels or Matt Patricia. Teams wouldn’t be able to interview of those two for the first time until after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs.

Assistant coach with a team that advances to the Super Bowl

Teams are typically only allowed to interview a candidate one time while the candidate’s team is in the playoffs. However, there’s an exception to that rule for teams playing in the Super Bowl thanks to the two-week window between the conference championships and the big game itself.

If an assistant coach’s team advances to the Super Bowl, teams again need permission to schedule a second interview.

Once the assistant’s team has arrived to the Super Bowl site, the candidate can’t participate in an interview. The interview must take place the week after the Conference Championship, but before the team travels to the Super Bowl.

For example: If the Falcons win the NFC title game, the Broncos would be able to ask for permission to set up a second interview with Kyle Shanahan the week after the conference championship but before the team travels to the Super Bowl site.

* * *

When the dust settles, several NFL teams will have new head coaches heading into the 2017 offseason. Teams want to get head coaches in place as quickly as possible, because for teams that are out of the postseason — as all of the teams with head coach openings are — preparation for 2017 begins now.

But locking up their preferred candidates may take longer than teams would prefer, as they’re bound by these rules for the hiring process.