INGLEWOOD, Calif. — At some point after the NFL season ends, Los Angeles Rams offensive coach Kenneth “KJ” Black says, he will reflect on the greatest opportunity of his professional life.
Now, though, his focus is elsewhere.
The Rams have a Super Bowl title to defend — and Black has a role to play in that effort.
“I have a job to do. And if I don’t do it, it’s gonna hurt everybody else,” Black said before the Rams kicked off the league’s regular-season schedule Thursday night with a 31-10 loss to the visiting Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium.
“There’s so much work that goes into getting ready here, just the volume of everything that goes on [behind closed doors] is so much more than they [fans] know, and I’m gonna make sure I’m doing everything that’s expected of me. I owe that to all the coaches and players I’m working with, and I owe that to myself.”
During Thursday’s lid lifter, Black worked from the coaches’ booth, sitting alongside and assisting Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen. The plan is for Black to work with Coen high above the field all season while they both support Rams head coach and offensive playcaller Sean McVay, who roams the sideline during games.
After completing his first training camp and preseason as part of McVay’s coaching staff, Black is reveling in taking the next step of his journey as an NFL coach.
“When I first got here, I did wonder, ‘Would I just be a nuisance and get in the way?’ But it hasn’t been like that at all,” Black said. “I really feel like I’m a part of the staff. I’ve had the opportunity to be included and I’ve been included.
“It hasn’t been just, ‘Hey, they just wanted to put a Black coach in the office.’ No. Not at all. I’m actually coaching. I have responsibilities I have to [fulfill] each day. And coming in, being given opportunities to contribute and show what I can do, it has been great.”
As part of the league’s wide-ranging effort to address its inclusive hiring crisis at the club level, the Rams in the offseason hired Black, who’s African American, as a coaching fellow on offense (NFL fellows can either be female or a member of an ethnic or racial minority group). The former college quarterback and college offensive coordinator works with Coen and McVay primarily, performing myriad duties and gaining experience at the game’s highest level.
Generally, assistants on offense — and especially those who work closely with quarterbacks — are the most sought-after candidates to fill openings for head coaches. The hope, high-ranking league officials say, is that Black and the other fellows in the new program will continue to climb the coaching ladder and, eventually, enter the hiring pipeline for top-rung positions as NFL offensive coordinators and head coaches.
The program is the first hiring mandate in the league’s history. The NFL launched it about two months after former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who’s now a Pittsburgh Steelers assistant, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against professional sports’ most successful and powerful league.
Flores alleges that the NFL commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices based on race. Two other longtime coaches have since joined Flores in court against the league.
During training camp and the preseason, Black began building his relationship with McVay, Coen and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson. Already, Black has spent countless hours with them in the team’s quarterback room, learning and working as Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford and his backups, John Wolford and Bryce Perkins, readied for the season.
“Each day, I’m talking with Liam, Zac and Sean,” Black said. “Just being there, doing whatever they need. I’m always in their pocket.”
On game days, the Rams plan for Black to be in the booth. From that vantage point, Black will record the plays McVay calls and monitor the pre- and post-snap alignment of each opponent’s secondary.
“I have to make sure I’m sighting coverages, relaying it down to him [McVay] and making sure that we’re seeing it, he’s seeing it, properly,” Black said. “And if he has any issues or questions, he’ll ask me what I saw or what I thought the coverage was.”
Formerly the co-offensive coordinator at historically Black Florida A&M University, Black also played quarterback in college, first at Western Kentucky University and then at historically Black Prairie View A&M.
Black is used to partnering with a head coach and quarterbacks to help create and implement an offensive plan, and for the last 10 years he has been coaching players at the most important position in sports.
“That has definitely helped in the whole transition [to the NFL], but the volume of everything is the biggest difference [from college],” Black said. “Really, it’s not necessarily schematically. It’s not like there are things that I’ve never seen.
“I mean, you can recognize things defensively, what a defense is trying to do, and draw plays for days. A lot of that is the same [at every level of the game]. But the volume of everything, what we’re asking these guys to know and be on top of on every single play is really just remarkable. There’s so much knowledge they have to have, so much information that they have to [retain]. As a coach, trying to help them with all of that, it’s the biggest adjustment.”
The best part about working under McVay, Black said, is that the Rams leader seeks input from his assistants and welcomes dissent to advance the team’s efforts to win.
“Sean just doesn’t want guys to be yes men, ” Black said. “If you have a suggestion, if you have an idea, you can give it to him. He’s not one of those guys who wants to do it all on his own. He’s really making me feel welcome.”
And in a league struggling to change the narrative around its record on inclusive hiring, that’s the type of news the NFL’s top leaders are eager to hear.