Like dozens of NFL players who pressed the pause button in 2020, Kris Richard opted out of this pandemic-enveloped season of uncertainty. But the decision for the former Dallas Cowboys defensive play-caller had nothing to do with COVID-19.
Richard, 41, has taken a pass because he’s betting on himself.
Jettisoned by the Cowboys in the sweep that included the firing of coach Jason Garrett, Richard interviewed for several jobs early this year – including two head coaching positions – but was offered nothing with a rank higher than defensive backs coach.
“It’s kind of like knowing your worth, knowing your value,” Richard told USA TODAY Sports. “What’s the difference between the two? Do they coincide? Are they interchangeable? Cutting through all of that, I wasn’t willing to take anything less than I am. I know what I am and I know what I am capable of.”
Richard, a former NFL cornerback, has been a budding star in coaching ranks. He’s a strong communicator and solid strategist with a reputation for relating well to players. When he joined the Cowboys in 2018 as passing game coordinator/secondary coach, he assumed play-calling duties while working under then-coordinator Rod Marinelli. And during the past two hiring cycles, he interviewed for five head coaching jobs – including a three-in-one-day marathon following the 2018 season and the Giants job that went to Joe Judge this year.
Dallas Cowboys passing game coordinator Kris Richard on the field prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at AT&T Stadium. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
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Yet despite being on that particular radar, there’s risk to Richard’s bold stance. Against the backdrop of historical barriers for minority coaches – just three were hired amid 20 head coach openings over the past three cycles – and with the fickle nature of who’s hot or not among candidates, Richard seeks to advance while coming off a hiatus.
“He should be able to come back and get top consideration,” Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told USA TODAY Sports. “I believe he deserves consideration – especially for a coordinator job. One year off shouldn’t grossly affect him. But the standards we are evaluated on as minorities are sometimes different.”
Richard held out during this year’s cycle for the coordinator job that never came. While the Cowboys retained Kellen Moore to coordinate an offense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season (and this year, too, until Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending compound fracture and dislocated ankle in Week 5), new coach Mike McCarthy brought in Mike Nolan, his former boss with the 49ers, to run the defense.
Garrett joined the New York Giants as offensive coordinator and Marinelli became defensive line coach for the Las Vegas Raiders, while Richard drew interest from “six or seven teams,” he said, to run their secondary. Some might advise staying in position by at least being active with a team. But Richard concluded that he would be doing himself an injustice by taking a role for which he felt overqualified.
“How many times did I hear, ‘Aw, man, come in, coach the back end, we’ll use all of your stuff, we’ll add in a little bit of ours and we’ll be great,’ “ Richard said. “Wait a minute. All of my stuff? But you don’t want to make me coordinator?
“A lot of the reasoning behind it was that people wanted to be loyal to people they already had in the building. I respect that. But you can’t expect to bring me in. What sense does that make? Historically, we’ve always had to make moves like that (as minority coaches). Like, ‘Just have a job.’ At what point do you draw the line?
Richard’s case exemplifies the frustration many minority coaches have expressed when it comes to opportunity on an ultra-competitive landscape with only so many head coach and coordinator jobs among the 32 teams. Sure, after last season, when the Cowboys came off a division title to miss the playoffs with an 8-8 finish that sealed Garrett’s fate, Richard didn’t have the leverage of winning. Yet win-loss records don't always dominate hiring decisions. Look at struggling New York Jets coach Adam Gase, for one example, hired for his current job just days after getting fired by the Miami Dolphins.
Coordinator roles, meanwhile, can be just as elusive as head coaching jobs, with the same type of barriers for minority candidates – including nepotism and the old-boy network.
“I was taught a long time ago: You’ve got to be 10 times better to go just as far,” Richard said. “That doesn’t drive me, but I’m driven. My standard is that I want to be the best who’s ever done it.”
Before his two years with Dallas, he climbed the ladder on Pete Carroll’s staff with the Seahawks. After aiding in the emergence of The Legion of Boom secondary, he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2015 when Dan Quinn left to become Falcons coach.
“The title’s not important to me, but it’s important to me,” Richard said in Yogi Berra-esque fashion.
In other words, the title may matter in how decision-makers view him as a candidate and in the actual responsibilities.
In any event, the unit he coached last season is failing to historic lows under Nolan. The Cowboys’ 24th-ranked unit has allowed an NFL-high 266 points, on pace to shatter the franchise’s record for most points allowed (436 in 2010) as the team flounders (2-6) in the NFC East, the NFL’s worst division. Richard didn’t take any shots as the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, nor did he blast the Seahawks (6-1) for its last-ranked defense's lapses that have put tremendous pressure on the Russell Wilson-fueled offense.
But you can believe he notices. While the hiatus has provided Richard with quality family time and a chance to recharge his battery, it has allowed the opportunity to employ a big-picture, critical eye.
“I’m on the verge of burnout on game day,” he said, alluding to hours watching games simultaneously on “Sunday Ticket," providing mental reps for defensive strategies. “I’ve always watched football critically. It’s not about what anybody else is doing. It’s about, ‘What would I do?’ Always being prepared, situationally.”
There has also been much time to think about interviews – past and future. He’s hardly the first to search for clues while replaying the questions and his responses from previous interviews. The upcoming cycle could include several head coach openings (including Atlanta and Houston, now using interim coaches), with numerous coordinator jobs potentially become available as well.
“I don’t think there’s anybody I can’t work with,” he said. “But those interviews and this last hiring cycle prepared me better.”
In the coming months, we’ll see whether he can convince NFL teams that he’s ready for a bigger opportunity.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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