When Mecole Hardman muffed a punt in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game, the Super Bowl favorites found themselves down 9-0 to the Buffalo Bills. The Kansas City Chiefs sideline was chill – except for Hardman himself. But Hardman’s teammates and coaches approached him with a message: Forget it.
“ ‘Hey, man, listen, keep playing,’ ” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy told Hardman after the turnover. “ ‘The ball is going to come to you.’ And a few plays after that, he makes a hell of a play – we’re in scoring position.”
Sure enough, on the next drive, Hardman caught a 3-yard pass from Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes to score a touchdown, then ripped off a 50-yard run on the drive that put the Chiefs ahead for good.
That exchange, and the way Hardman responded to it, embodies everything that Bieniemy stands for as a coach: “We have faith and belief in our guys. Just like our players have faith and trust in us,” he said. “We don’t care if they make mistakes. If something happens, you know what? S— happens in life. Keep it moving, right? You have another opportunity to correct that mistake. Let’s make sure we’re focused on that next play.”
In football and in life, our safety, success and happiness are never ours alone. All of it relies as much on the actions of our communities and teams as much as our own behavior. Never has that been more evident than now, as we prepare to watch a masked man hoist the Lombardi trophy in a quarter full stadium.
Football, more than any other sport, requires its players to rely on one another, because the roles and responsibilities are so distinct and specialized. But reliance isn’t trust. Reliance is a burden. Trust is the factor that can turn reliance from burden to boost. When someone wants you to do something, it hangs over you. When they trust that you will get it done, it gets under you. That’s the empowering trust that Bieniemy fosters between him and his players. “It is a very sensitive issue,” Bieniemy said, “but that’s why we work the way we do.”
Back in 2018, head coach Andy Reid entrusted the Chiefs’ offense to then-running backs coach Bieniemy. Shortly after, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach traded away their starting quarterback, Alex Smith, to give the job to their previous first-round pick – and set into motion one of the most outstanding offenses the NFL has ever seen.
As the Chiefs prepare for the chance to become just the ninth team to win back-to-back Super Bowls, Bieniemy’s name has been in the news – not for his playcalling, but because no NFL team is willing to trust him with a head-coaching job. (A fact that feels particularly hard to believe when you know that Reid’s previous two offensive coordinators got offers after seasons that pale compared with what the team has accomplished since Bieniemy and Mahomes took over.)
But for Bieniemy, the focus stays on his players, and the relationships he’s built: “My job is to make sure that I’m doing everything under the sun to get our guys ready and prepare to play in the world’s biggest stage come game day, to have that opportunity of becoming a back-to-back champ.
“The beauty of it is, is if teams are not going to hire me, and [instead] we’re chasing our dreams every year of chasing the championship, you know what? I’m going to choose chasing my dream.”
Bieniemy learned everything he needed to know about Mahomes in one post-draft conversation with Patrick Mahomes Sr. “If he ever steps out of line,” Mahomes Sr. said to Bieniemy, “you put hands on him. You got my blessing.”
“You know what? I have never had to do that,” Bieniemy says now, laughing. But the off-the-cuff comment meant a lot to the offensive coordinator, and speaks to what he wants to build with his players: It told Bieniemy that Mahomes Sr. trusted him. There was a built-in understanding between the two: both Black men, born just a year apart, both professional athletes in the early ’90s. It facilitated a quick connection, and Bieniemy’s relationship with Mahomes Sr.’s son didn’t take much longer to develop.
For Mahomes Jr., that relationship pays off on the sideline every week. “Every time I go to the sideline, it’s the constant communication,” he said. “Especially after timeouts.”
Asked for details, Mahomes recalls a recent example with a big payoff: “The last timeout we called before the game-winning touchdown against the Raiders.” It was Week 11, the Chiefs were down 31-28 to the Las Vegas Raiders – the only team to have beaten them in more than a year. With the ball on the Las Vegas 22 and 0:34 left in the game, the Chiefs called a timeout. They had been in an almost identical situation, just before halftime – and Mahomes threw a red zone interception.
This time, as Mahomes limped to the sideline, Bieniemy thought of how to make the most of the 30 seconds. “He’s so competitive, sometimes I just have to calm him down,” he said. Attention quickly turned to strategy: Bieniemy suggested a play. “What you think about this?” “He was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah, I got it,’ ” Bieniemy remembered. “Boom. Next play? Touchdown.”
“It just makes it easier,” Mahomes said.
Bieniemy isn’t the only one in those conversations about X’s and O’s. Reid is one of the best offensive coaches of this generation. But Bieniemy is the one Mahomes spotlights.
Working under Reid has been a valuable resume line for aspiring head coaches. It’s a promising credential, working under a master, but in Biemiemy’s case, it also seems to have led to an inference that any offensive coordinator could succeed with this team, given the combination of talent and Reid’s strategic acumen.
The idea that the offensive coordinator is just a passenger on this rocket ship seems impossible to believe, but maybe it’s true. The Chiefs have only gotten better since their previous two offensive coordinators left for head-coaching jobs. So, sure, it would be crazy to believe that Bieniemy is the sole driver of this Chiefs juggernaut, that whichever team hires him will immediately become the Chiefs. Bieniemy can’t do that, and that shouldn’t be the expectation.
What he can do is connect with people and bring the best out of players and members of an organization. In other words: He can lead – and Reid agrees. “He’s been unbelievable,” Reid has said of his offensive coordinator since 2018. “I couldn’t give bigger praise for him.”
In the short phone conversation I had with Bieniemy, I understood why people from all over the Chiefs organization love him. He had a blunt charm and was intense in a way that felt authentic. For a moment, when his answer to my question about a miked-up video from 2019 sounded just like a locker room speech, he even awakened the dormant player in me: “I always talk to the players about this, each and every year: The life of an NFL season is very, very challenging. It is physically demanding, and it’s a tough mental journey, right? Throughout the season, you will be faced with a series of tests, and many great opportunities will be presented to you along the way. I always tell the guys this: If you want to help us to achieve our goals, we as a group must learn by embracing the day-to-day process. …
“There is no such thing as perfection. We all want to be perfect. But you know what? I just want our guys to play as hard as they can. To strain as much as they can because, you know why? If they’re doing that and we’re blessed with the talent, OK – we’re giving ourselves the best opportunity to win.”
When I asked Bieniemy to speak to the communication that Mahomes talked about, I was expecting him to talk about a former coach or teammate. Instead, he credited a surprising yet obvious source. “I’ve always been a people’s person, but I will say this: I’ve been married now going on 27 years,” he said. “I learned this a very long time ago: Communication is the key to any successful relationship.”
The Bieniemys never leave an issue undiscussed or unresolved. “You have to be an effective and efficient communicator,” Bieniemy said. “Because if you’re not, that’s when relationships are torn. That’s some of the things that have been destructors of NFL teams, when the communication is broken.”
It’s the same with his players, he said. For Bieniemy, coaching starts with “getting to know the person, and also being very vulnerable and allowing them to get to know me.” But before you start to think of Bieniemy as some sort of Generation Z, everybody-gets-a-trophy coach – he is the exact opposite. “I’m always going to be upfront with guys, whether they like it or not,” he said.
Bieniemy often reminds players of the imaginary sign on the front of the building. “When you walk into that building, you got to make sure every single day that you understand the sign reads like this: ‘Hiring all applicants,’ ” he said. “So, make sure that you’re applying for a job every single day. When they walk into this building, I expect them to work a certain way.”
That’s one reason Bieniemy refuses to “test” his players. “I learned a long time ago, early in my career when I was coaching in college, the only thing that you do is frustrate yourself” that way, he said. “I don’t want to find out what they don’t know. It’s our job to make sure we’re providing them all the information that is needed to help them to be the best player.”
So the expectation from the coaches is that the players will be prepared. And in return, the players can expect that their coaches will work to give them the best plan. Because, to Bieniemy, that “hiring” sign is not meant as a threat: It is a fact of life in the NFL. As he knows as well as anyone. And they all need each other to stay on the right side of that sign.
“I’m one of them old-school guys,” Bieniemy said. “I tell these guys each and every year when new faces come into the building: I coach hard, but I coach fair. I’m going to be your biggest fan, but I’m also going to be your harshest critic.”
No one enjoys harsh criticism. But between Bieniemy and his players, there is a genuine connection and a filter of trust through which his words are received. “So my job is to make sure I’m making that connection with the people,” Bieniemy said. “Once you get to know the person, now you can reach the player better.” Because of that, Bieniemy’s harsher coaching is taken in the spirit it’s intended: “When I’m on you, I’m on you for a reason. It’s because I want you to be the best god damn player that you can be.”
In the week of practice leading up to the Super Bowl, Bieniemy has stressed to the players living in the now, a cliché that, from most, might sound disingenuous. But from Bieniemy, who has just endured another empty head coach hiring cycle, it doesn’t sound like corny coach speak.
What hasn’t happened is no concern of Bieniemy’s and what will happen is yet to be decided. Right now, Bieniemy said, “we’re chasing our dream. So, what better way to have my time occupied? To schematically get our guys ready, and make sure that we can put our players in the best position, have the best opportunity to go out and be at their best.
“At this particular time, it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that we can go out and be a part of history and wear that ring. Be another team that has had that opportunity to repeat.”
One day at a time, one play at a time, a wholly unoriginal sentiment that would drift away out of the mouths of most. But, to Chiefs players, from the mouth of Bieniemy, those words hit with the weight of trust.