At NFL women's forum, head coaches share trade secrets, find antidote to ‘anticompetitive’

INDIANAPOLIS — Brian Daboll wanted to replicate a live interview.

So the New York Giants head coach, meeting with members of the 2023 NFL women’s forum class in February, scanned his list of think-on-your-feet questions.

“The lead offensive line coach got sick on the first day,” he told 22-year-old Ashley Cornwell, who has coached offensive linemen as a University of Wisconsin student assistant, Tennessee Titans intern and NFL International Player Pathway program position coach. “You’ve got 30 seconds to just brief the room before we go into a walkthrough.”

Cornwell needed just 15.

“Hi, my name is Coach Ashley and I’m going to be the assistant offensive line coach for you this season,” she began. “We’ve only got a few minutes, but I just want to say: All we want out of you guys is to be smart, fast and physical.

“And to leave no doubt in everything you do.”

Cornwell would later elaborate when Titans head coach Mike Vrabel surveyed her offensive line philosophy. Linemen must be smart, she reasoned, to identity fronts, safety rotations and assignment changes from pre- to post-snap. Linemen must be fast with their hands, feet and eyes to ensure they’re ready to punch and pick up the proper linebacker on a combination-block. And linemen must be physical because, well, what wins in the trenches if not moving people against their will?

“The thing about coaching — it’s about what you believe in and what you can get the players to believe in,” Vrabel told Yahoo Sports. “You need to be able to say things in a concise manner that the player’s going to understand.”

So at the NFL’s seventh annual women’s forum, the two most recent head coach of the year honorees helped young female coaches hone their responses.

The league selected 41 total candidates for the forum’s 2023 class, including women pursuing roles in football administration, analytics, scouting, operations and player engagement. Nine women, including Cornwell, aspire to coach.

Mike Vrabel offered advice and his own perspective on coaching at the 2023 NFL women's forum. (AJ Mast/AP Images for the NFL)
Mike Vrabel offered advice and his own perspective on coaching at the 2023 NFL women's forum. (AJ Mast/AP Images for the NFL)

They’re part of a talent pool the league is eager to develop, as women’s opportunities in coaching lag behind those in other NFL realms. While the forum has created more than 225 opportunities since its inception in 2017, just 15 women have been hired to full-time or full-season NFL coaching roles since the Arizona Cardinals’ Jen Welter became the first in 2015, per league data shared with Yahoo Sports. Only six teams carried a woman on their coaching staff the entirety of the 2022 NFL season.

The league hopes the expansion of the forum, which this year attracted representatives from all 32 teams, can change that.

“Because if you can crack the nut of women coaching professional male football in the United States, no business, no corporation in this country has an excuse for not hiring women in key roles that were dominated by men,” said Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “So it’s a very important mold to break. And we’ve broken it.

“And we’re going to continue to break it.”

Inside Mike Vrabel’s interview course

Rapoport estimates Vrabel called her five or six times while preparing for the forum. In his 45-minute interactive learning session, what would most help women seeking NFL coaching jobs?

Vrabel wanted prospective coaches to understand their candidacy hinged not just on what they say, but also how they say it. Did a coach’s tone and speed of response breed confidence in her conviction, or did she take 5 minutes to answer a question that dictated more like 5 seconds? Did a response clearly communicate a coaching philosophy and teaching progression?

Edie Worthington, a 23-year-old Air Force Academy offensive graduate assistant, answered Vrabel's request to teach a ball security drill.

She detailed how her team’s triple-option offense emphasized mesh points and the importance of making immediate contact after catching a pitch.

“So I talked about a drill in which immediately you either pitch or hand off the ball, and how we like to use different equipment to make it seem like someone’s trying to come at you to punch the ball,” Worthington said. “Using [a boxing glove on a stick] and two shields to whack ’em and make sure you’re keeping the ball high and tight at all times even when you’re trying to let loose and run. How to still keep it in the pocket at every single point of contact.”

Vrabel explained how he’d want both a clear explanation of the drills — “five points of pressure, claw the ball, wrist above the elbow” — as well as the hook to compel players to buy in.

“It’s got to be boom-boom-boom-boom,” Vrabel fired off. “Or, ‘There’s nothing more important than ball security. Whatever team wins the turnover margin wins the game 75% of the time.’ OK, BOOM. That’s tangible evidence you can tell your players on why ball security’s critical. ‘If you fumble, you’re not going to be able to play. Here’s how we’re going to keep you from fumbling. This is the technique. These are the drills.’ Boom-boom-boom.

“All things I sucked at when I was a young coach, and now I’m much better at,” he said.

Vrabel gave each coaching participant a packet of how-to-interview-in-the-NFL tips.

“A packet which I still have,” Worthington said, “and probably will for a long time.”

Giants head coach Brian Daboll (left) said he called teams on behalf of women looking for jobs in the NFL. (AJ Mast/AP Images for the NFL)
Giants head coach Brian Daboll (left) said he called teams on behalf of women looking for jobs in the NFL. (AJ Mast/AP Images for the NFL)

NFL targets more progress for women in coaching

Rapoport’s goal of seeing a woman on every NFL coaching staff remains far from complete. Including interns, only 10 teams employed a female coach on their staff even temporarily last season. (Fifteen women in total received opportunities.)

And yet, Rapoport notes that the past four Coach of the Year honorees have each fielded a woman on staff. She doesn’t purport that hiring a woman automatically improves win totals or merits accolades. Rather, she believes coaches who understand the power of inclusive hiring practices often run organizations that welcome diverse perspectives — a cultural belief that breeds success.

Daboll hired director of football operations Laura Young as the first woman on the Giants' coaching staff last year, followed soon after by offensive quality control coach Angela Baker. He estimates he met with half a dozen women this year who impressed him at positions he didn't have open. So he called colleagues working for other teams.

“Hey, I don’t know if you’re looking for someone in this department,” Daboll told counterparts. “But I’d say this is a very good, qualified candidate that you should at least talk to.”

Six forum participants, including three coaching candidates, had received offers from teams as of this week, per Rapoport. Teams often wait until after the draft to announce staff updates.

Rapoport hopes that before long, every coaching staff will include a woman – even, at first, if just for training camp. The more coaches and teams see the model unfurl smoothly, the more Rapoport expects progress to accelerate. She works to ensure enough candidates are ready.

“We’re focused on flooding the pipeline, on both sides of the ball, to make sure we have enough women to fill these jobs if [teams are] open to hiring from the entire population,” Rapoport said.

“If you’re not considering the other half of the population, it’s anticompetitive.”