Down to a single game in the 2015 NFL season, the ultimate headline from the year in football is soon to be revealed. Will the Carolina Panthers win the first Super Bowl in franchise history behind their MVP quarterback? Or will Peyton Manning earn his second ring and ride off into the sunset after a Hall of Fame career? Will the Broncos defense make one last championship stand on the goal line? Or will Superman dazzle, dance, and dab in Santa Clara?
As always, the season featured a smorgasbord of compelling storylines. No one will forget the triumphant return of cancer survivor Eric Berry or two astounding Hail Mary touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers. Tony Romo’s broken collarbone and Greg Hardy in Dallas, the end of the Chip Kelly experiment in Philadelphia, and the Redskins’ surprise division title–the NFC East never fails to deliver drama. How about Adrian Peterson’s third rushing title at 30-years-old or the painful playoff demise of the Vikings and Bengals? We’ll remember the emergence of rookie quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota and the meltdown of Odell Beckham Junior. It was also the Year of the Backup Quarterback where 19 of 32 teams used multiple QBs because of injury or ineptitude.
Beyond all that, the season featured a significant piece of history. The importance of the sport’s first female coach cannot be diminished. When Dr. Jen Welter was hired by the Arizona Cardinals to work with linebackers during training camp, she broke through a massive gender barrier that spanned generations. She turned into a household name overnight and introduced football and its fans to a world of endless possibilities. After months of trying to book her on my radio show, I finally caught up with her at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. She was in a room full of coaches and scouts, all men; and she laughed when she told me that’s typical of her life.
With a PhD in sports psychology and a 14-year playing career herself, Welter is a fierce combination of wisdom and experience. She’s thrilled to carry the banner as a pioneer in the country’s most popular sport. She raves about her time with the Cardinals and the history they made in the desert. And she’s confident more and more female coaches will find homes in the NFL in coming years. Welter couldn’t say enough about the Buffalo Bills making Kathryn Smith the league’s first full-time assistant coach, and she’s happy for her role in blazing that trail in Orchard Park, New York.
“Kathryn Smith has been very qualified and doing her job for a very long time for that very same staff. And yet the fact is that she didn’t get her shot to be a coach in the NFL until we proved in Arizona that guys in the NFL would not only respect but would love a coach who was female as long as she could make them better. I feel honored to know that what we did opens the door for another female. There’s no better compliment,” admits Welter.
Along with Welter and Smith, Sarah Thomas served as the league’s first female referee in 2015. While some scoff and point to these hirings as publicity stunts or PR moves, the exact opposite is true. The NFL and its franchises don’t pay employees for show. In a league where the bottom line is chief and winning is big business, teams aren’t bringing women on board to garner attention. They don’t need the headlines; the NFL is already a behemoth. So WHY will we soon see more women on the sidelines and in meeting rooms? The easy answer is Bruce Arians. One of the most respected head coaches in the game, he took a risk that resonated with his peers. Before promoting Smith, Rex Ryan even consulted Arians.
Welter gives all the credit to her former boss. “He is one of the best men in the game. He is 100% authentic. And I love him with my whole heart. I believe in Bruce Arians. He has one of the best minds in football. But beyond that…what makes him unstoppable is that every guy who plays for him and every guy who coaches for him…and ME…knows that Bruce Arians is gonna’ put you in 100% the spot for success. When you have somebody like that, you play different than you would on any other level.”
Of course, the players in NFL locker rooms must be willing to morph, change, and respect women in whatever capacities they fill. It was only for a month during camp, but the Cardinals laid out the blueprint. From the top down, they embraced and supported Welter unconditionally. “These guys were all in. They’re great people. They’re great men, and they’re great friends to this day. They still call me ‘Coach,’ and that’s the best compliment I could get.” Welter points to the veteran leadership in Arizona as the reason for her success, and she believes that atmosphere can be recreated with other franchises down the road.
The 2015 NFL season will be remembered for its Super Bowl champion, its road to the playoffs, its star power, and its feats of strength. It should also be remembered as the year the glass ceiling was shattered for women in the league. If others are bold enough to follow the lead of the Cardinals and Bills and hire females for their knowledge and coaching ability, we can anticipate a day in the near future when the same story is barely news.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.