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8 Upper

The Best Man

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/7/2001

Now that the 2000 Ravens' defensive performance is complete, it's time to consider its larger significance in NFL history. Set aside for the moment the comparisons to the 1970s Steel Curtain or the '85 Bears. Forget the four Super Bowl interceptions, the Giants' inability to score on offense. Here's the real question: How good does a defense have to be to win a black man a head-coaching job?

On paper, Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis is indisputably qualified to take over a team. Through Lewis' first four years here, his defense grew steadily tougher and smarter--the young players developing into Pro Bowlers, the Pro Bowlers meshing into a tight, cooperative unit. And then, this year, they rose up and throttled the rest of the league.

All season, as the Purple Legion tightened the screws on the opposition, a promotion seemed imminent. Lewis' name was everywhere, every time a head coach's job was in jeopardy. After the Super Bowl, Brian Billick simply assumed his defensive coordinator was gone, letting the press know that linebackers coach Jack Del Rio was ready to step in.

But four days after Lewis hit the market, the market closed. There were seven head-coaching vacancies when the regular season ended but, perversely, five were filled while Lewis was still busy winning playoff games and was unavailable to interview. And the Ravens' victory parade was barely over before the last two slots, with the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills, snapped shut, with what the casual observer might describe as haste. When everyone said that someone had to hire Marvin Lewis, it turns out they meant someone else had to hire him.

Just when the NFL seems to be burying its flagrantly racist history, the old ways rear up from the grave. We have solved the Black Quarterback Problem, right? Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper, and Donovan McNabb went to the Pro Bowl. But Trent Dilfer went to Disney World.

Of course, Disney had good reasons not to invite Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis to promote its theme park (though the claim that race isn't involved is nonsense; Buckhead and its aftermath were completely entangled in racial perceptions and realities). Still--Trent Dilfer? What about Jamal Lewis, Jermaine Lewis, Chris McAlister, Sam Adams? There are at least 20 players on the Ravens, including the punter and the place-kicker, who had more to do with the championship than Dilfer did. Billick could have sent a Shetland pony out to play quarterback in Tampa and the Ravens would have won 20-7. With a quarterback who didn't consistently over- or underthrow the deep ball, they could have broken 50 points.

So Dilfer is a hopeless pellet. How come he went 11-1 and gets a Super Bowl ring? Because Marvin Lewis' defense is good enough to carry Trent Dilfer to the football championship of the world.

And yet Lewis is not a head coach. He was supposed to be the front-runner for the Bills job, which looked like a perfect fit: a tough, fairly talented team with a sturdy defense and a lingering air of dysfunction. Who better to straighten them out than the man who kept the Ravens' D from mutiny when the offense went five games without a touchdown? The answer, according to Bills management, is Gregg Williams, former defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.

This is not, in and of itself, an unreasonable choice. The Titans defense was the main rival of the Ravens' unit, allowing fewer yards and finishing second in scoring defense. Williams went to the Super Bowl last year; Lewis went this year. But Williams wowed the Bills in his job interview, so much that they gave up on Lewis without even bringing him to Buffalo.

For decades, though, white guys such as Williams have been wowing other white guys in job interviews. It's not race hate, it's just . . . the white guy seems to fit. (The alternative-newspaper industry, I hasten to add, is not immune to this.) But all these decisions add up to something that might as well be deliberate bigotry. Of the NFL's seven new hires, six are white; with the Jets' hiring of Herman Edwards, there are now all of three African-American head coaches among the league's 32 teams.

And there's no excuse for Lewis not getting the chance to be the fourth. The expansion Houston Texans won't even be playing till 2002, yet they hired Dom Capers a week before the Super Bowl. The Browns threw $3 million a year at Butch Davis, who'd sworn he didn't want to leave the University of Miami. The Chiefs gave St. Louis two draft picks and half a million dollars for the right to hire ancient ex-Rams coach Dick Vermeil, who did win a Super Bowl but has twice quit from burnout.

Then there are the Washington [racial slur]. After a Sturm und Drang 8-8 season, Washington--under orders from owner and long-lost Angelos-family member Daniel Snyder--turned for rescue to Marty Schottenheimer. For a team whose whole problem was overreliance on expensive has-beens, this is indefensible. Schottenheimer has played or coached through four decades and won zero Super Bowls. He peaked with the Browns in the '80s, choking away two AFC championship games, and has been coasting since. Since he joined the [racial slur], his main accomplishment has been hiring his son and brother as assistants. In that same span, Marvin Lewis shut down three of the best teams in football and won a ring. But somehow, by the NFL's standards, Lewis is the lesser man.

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