As the coaching carousel makes its annual spin, let’s take a look at the rules that apply to NFL teams as they search for new leadership and how those rules have impacted past decisions. The NFL’s Anti-Tampering Policy contains most of the limitations that come into play in head coaching searches. According to the policy, “tampering” includes interfering with a coach’s relationship with his current NFL team or other unpermitted actions to induce a coach to seek employment with another team. The tampering rules for coaches mostly deal with contact between a team and a coach or his representatives, but they also limit what a team may say about a coach under contract with another team.

For example, in 1998 Carmen Policy, CEO of the new Cleveland Browns franchise, was looking for the team’s first head coach. At a community luncheon that November he was asked about Green Bay’s Mike Holmgren, who was rumored to be considering leaving the Packers. Policy replied, “I’m not permitted to refer specifically to Mr. Holmgren – because that would be tampering.” He should have stopped there, but decided instead to get cute, continuing, “Let’s just say if a head coach who’s out there, who’s won a Super Bowl, who’s been to another Super Bowl, who is coaching a team in contention for the playoffs this year, who is an offensive-minded coach, looking to perhaps move when the season’s over, were to be interested – I’d take a look at him.” This “hypothetical” perfectly described Holmgren. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was not amused, fining the Browns $10,000.

An NFL team may only talk to a coach under contract to another team about a head coaching position with that team’s permission. The specific rules that apply to a particular situation depend upon whether the coach in question is the head coach or an assistant with his current team.

An NFL team can’t talk to the head coach of another NFL team about employment for the current or future seasons during his team’s playing season, which begins at the start of training camp and ends after his team’s final game of the season including the playoffs (but not the Pro Bowl). This applies even if the coach’s current team is willing to let him talk. In the offseason the interested team still needs his current team’s permission if he’s under contract.

A head coach is still considered under contract if he voluntarily resigns or retires with time left on his contract, unless he and the team agree otherwise. For example, in 2001 Washington had to send two draft picks to the Chiefs when they hired Marty Schottenheimer because the coach was still considered under contract with Kansas City even though he had resigned after the 1999 season. If a coach has been fired or his contract expires, he’s fair game for other teams. A coach may also negotiate the right to talk to other teams under certain conditions into his contract. Holmgren was allowed to talk to and join the Seahawks in 1999 even though he had a year left on his contract with the Packers because the contract contained a provision that allowed him to leave to take a position where he had authority over player personnel decisions. Seattle named him their executive vice president, general manager, and head coach but had to send the Packers a second-round draft pick as also specified in Holmgren’s Green Bay contract.

The relationship between Baltimore Colt owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Don Shula, his head coach, began deteriorating when Rosenbloom said Shula had been “outcoached” in the team’s upset loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. A year later Shula resigned from the Colts, claimed that Rosenbloom’s son had released him from the last three years of his contract while the owner was out of the country, and signed with the Dolphins. The Colts argued that Shula was still under contract and the Dolphins had tampered with their coach. Commissioner Pete Rozelle agreed, and while he allowed Shula to stay in Miami, he sent the Dolphin’s first-round draft pick to Baltimore as compensation.

Dick Vermeil retired as head coach of the Rams after winning Super Bowl XXXIV. He and the team agreed to tear up his coaching contract, which had two years left, and replace it with a four-year consulting contract. The next year, when the Chiefs hired Vermeil as their head coach without getting the Rams’ permission, St. Louis charged Kansas City with tampering. Tagliabue awarded two of the Chiefs’ draft choices to the Rams and ordered Vermeil to repay the money he had received from the Rams under the consulting contract.

In 2002 Bill Parcells signed a contract to become head coach of the Buccaneers, but quickly changed his mind and opted to not return to coaching (yet). A year later, when Parcells met with the Cowboys to discuss their head coach opening, the Bucs accused Dallas of tampering. Tagliabue ruled that no tampering had occurred because the NFL didn’t officially recognize the Parcells-Tampa Bay contract since the Bucs had never filed it with the league office.

An NFL team can’t talk to an assistant coach under contract with another team about a head coaching opportunity during his team’s playing season except with his current team’s permission during limited windows in the playoffs. If his team has a bye in the Wild Card weekend, the interview must occur before the end of the Wild Card games. If his team is playing in the Wild Card round (and wins), the interview must occur after the Wild Card games and before the end of the Divisional Playoff games. The time and location of the interview has to be acceptable to his current team, and if the team grants permission to one team then it must grant permission to all interested teams – it can’t be selective in what teams it allows talk to the coach. It can be selective, though, in who it allows to talk to other teams – a team may give permission to interview one assistant but deny permission as to other members of its staff.

Each interested team may, in general, interview an assistant only once during the playoffs, and may not have any other contact with the coach or his representatives until his team’s season is over. The coach can’t sign a contract or officially accept the position until his team’s season is over. In seasons where there are two weeks between conference championship games and the Super Bowl, a team may, with the assistant’s current team’s permission, have a second interview with the coach no later than Sunday before the Super Bowl.

When Holmgren was the offensive coordinator of the 49ers, his contract (signed in 1990) contained a clause that prevented him from leaving for a head coaching position unless he had been bypassed for a head coach opening in San Francisco. In 1992, the Packers wanted Holmgren to be their head coach. The 49ers sought to block the move based on Holmgren’s contract, but Green Bay cited a recent directive from Tagliabue stating that teams could not prevent their assistants from becoming head coaches. The two franchises also had hard feelings over the trade of linebacker Tim Harris from the Packers to the 49ers for a pair of draft choices during the 1991 season – San Francisco believed that Green Bay had concealed a drug investigation involving Harris. The league office stepped back and told the two sides to work something out, and they eventually resolved both disputes with Holmgren going to Green Bay and the Packers returning one of the picks from the Harris deal to the 49ers.

In 1995, there were no exceptions for assistants on teams in the playoffs. Despite that, the Steelers, who were still alive in the playoffs, allowed the Panthers to talk to Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dom Capers about becoming the expansion team’s first head coach. While none of the parties made any official comment about the meeting, it was reported that Capers would be named Carolina’s coach. Tagliabue fined the Panthers $150,000 and stripped them of two draft choices for tampering, fined the Steelers $50,000 for agreeing to being tampered with, and ruled that any interested team could interview Capers after the season and no team could sign him to a contract for at least five days after that. Carolina general manager Bill Polian admitted that the team had broken the rules out of concern that a college team would snatch Capers before the Panthers could talk to him. Capers joined the Panthers after the Steelers’ season ended.

After the assistant’s team’s season has ended, an interested team must still request permission to talk to (and hire) the coach about a head coaching job but, through March 1, the current team must grant that consent.

The tampering rules only apply to interactions between NFL teams, so an NFL team’s dealings with a college coach are not covered. The primary limiting factor on an NFL team being able to pry a coach away from a college is his contract, which may require him to pay a substantial buyout if he leaves. Even interviewing with an NFL team can have harsh consequences for a college coach – in 2009, Boston College warned Jeff Jagodzinski, its head football coach, that if he talk to the Jets about their head coach vacancy he would be fired. Jagodzinski went ahead with the interview, didn’t get the job, and was greeted back in Boston with a pink slip.

Coming soon we’ll discuss what has become an important step in the process of hiring an NFL head coach – the Rooney Rule.

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