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Inside Slant: Final frontier for Rooney Rule

This is not the story I planned to tell.

I scheduled a Midwest training camp tour through Cincinnati and Indianapolis mostly because of the proximity of their facilities. The Bengals and the Colts are training about two hours away from one another, but as it turns out, they are connected in a way I hadn't anticipated.

Namely: They employ the only two African-American offensive playcallers in the NFL. Hue Jackson is entering his first season in that role for the Bengals, while Pep Hamilton is in his second year with the Colts.

We all yearn for the day when race is an afterthought in discussing hiring practices, and as we have noted, the NFL reached an important milestone in February. It's clear, however, that the league still has vital work to do in maintaining and increasing the pool of attractive head-coaching candidates.

If you're vested in the success of the Rooney Rule, which seeks to ensure that qualified aspirants are given genuine consideration for jobs, these figures should concern you. Arguably the quickest way to jump onto the NFL's annual list of hot head-coaching candidates is to be the playcaller of a top offense.

It has happened five times in the past two years alone, but in 2014, African-Americans represent only 6 percent of that pool. (Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin is African-American, but he doubles as the offensive line coach and does not call plays. Aside from Goodwin, Jackson and Hamilton, the NFL's 29 other offensive coordinators are white.)

Worse, the direct pipeline is bone dry. The traditional incubator for playcallers is the quarterbacks coach position. In 2014, all 32 of them are white.

Those are the facts. What's more difficult to determine, of course, is the explanation. And before you assume the worst, you might be interested to hear Jackson's thoughts on the matter. It's time, he said, for African-American assistant coaches to push harder for advancement.

"I think there are so many more very talented coaches in this league that deserve the opportunity," Jackson said. "But I'm just being very honest. I think some of them are afraid to step out and become coordinators, because where do you go from there if it doesn't work out?

"It's hard to go back to being a position coach or to have an opportunity to ascend to be a head coach [after an initial failure]. They're not willing to make that jump. It's frightening, because if it doesn't work, where do you go? Starting over is not easy. I was fortunate and blessed to be part of an organization that believed in me. That doesn't happen a lot."

Indeed, Jackson, 48, spent two years working as a Bengals assistant before climbing his way back into playcalling, a role he first reached in 2010 with the Oakland Raiders. (The Raiders promoted him to head coach in 2011 and fired him after that season.) I suppose you could read his comments as a "fear of failure" pep talk to contemporaries, and it's fair to wonder how much they can be blamed for decisions made by others. But overall, I find Jackson's point reasonable. It takes two ingredients for an organic promotion: Interest from the employer and ambition from the candidate, and it's too simple to blame only one or the other for a disparity.

The good news is that Hamilton, 39, has managed to jump unimpeded on the classic fast track. He was the Chicago Bears' quarterbacks coach from 2007 to '09, then spent three seasons as an assistant at Stanford -- including the final two as offensive coordinator -- before the Colts hired him in 2013 to reunite with quarterback Andrew Luck. Vanderbilt made him a candidate for its top job this winter, and with a few strong seasons alongside Luck on his resume, Hamilton could jump into the NFL's head-coaching discussion.

Speaking after a practice last week, Hamilton acknowledged what seems to him a race-less ascent.

"I feel like football is the greatest meritocracy in our society," he said. "I still feel like the game is color-blind. I haven't spent any time thinking about anything other than how to put our guys into position to be successful.

"I feel if you respect the game and you do the best job that you can of doing your job, that the opportunities to continue to coach in the NFL, which is a tremendous honor and privilege, will continue."

At the moment, however, Hamilton is the stark exception to the rule. It's difficult to project extended diversity when such an important pool -- young offensive minds -- is so numerically limited. There are plenty of ways to build a head-coaching resume in football, but 10 of the past 14 NFL hires have been from offensive backgrounds. It's what the league is looking for. Whether the fault lies with the candidates, the teams or (most likely) both, the next step in ensuring diversity is to raise the numbers in this field.