The Washington Commanders hiring Eric Bieniemy is a great move, just not for him — Andscape
The Washington Commanders have hired Eric Bieniemy as their new offensive coordinator, which is a great move for them.
For Bieniemy, not so much.
In Bieniemy, the Commanders get a top-notch offensive coach who has played a key role in the long-running success of the Kansas City Chiefs. Since Bieniemy was promoted to be head coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense, Kansas City has won five straight AFC West titles, hosted five consecutive AFC Championship games, played in three Super Bowls and won two Super Bowl championships. Oh, almost forgot: Bieniemy has helped quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’s only 27, already become an all-time great.
What does Bieniemy get from the Commanders? Yet another opportunity to prove that he should receive strong consideration to become a head coach, which his impressive ledger revealed long ago.
The fact that Bieniemy left the Chiefs for anything less than an opportunity to run his own shop is an embarrassment for the entire NFL.
Purportedly Bieniemy has been passed over for many head coaching openings because Reid does the lion’s share of work in directing the Chiefs’ league-leading offense. Make no mistake, Reid, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, sets the agenda for Kansas City’s offense and is the team’s primary playcaller. But both Reid and Mahomes have been effusive in their praise of Bieniemy.
Remember Kansas City scoring two touchdowns in Super Bowl LVII with receivers wide open? Those touchdowns resulted from something Bieniemy noticed in analyzing the Philadelphia Eagles’ game tape. That’s just one example of how Bieniemy’s eye for detail has helped the Chiefs remain far ahead of the pack.
Supposedly, Bieniemy had to make a lateral move to (possibly) get noticed by club owners. If he ever wants to be a head coach, the theory goes, he must get out of Reid’s shadow.
There’s so much to disassemble in that wrongheaded thinking. Let’s start with the notion that Bieniemy has made a lateral move.
Faced with immeasurable odds, team president Jason Wright is succeeding in transforming the Commanders into something they hadn’t been previously during club owner Daniel M. Snyder’s tenure: a professional, well-run organization. In terms of the Commanders’ corporate culture, Wright is doing big things.
On the field, however, it’s business as usual with Washington.
Washington hasn’t had a winning record since the 2016-17 season (8-7-1). Since winning the Super Bowl after the 1991-92 season, the Commanders have played in only 10 playoff games. During Bieniemy’s five years as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, he coached in 14 postseason games.
Next season will be head coach Ron Rivera’s fourth leading Washington. His best record with the team is 8-8-1. That’s not good. Barring unforeseen moves, Sam Howell, a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft, is projected to be the team’s starting quarterback. Howell has thrown a total of 19 passes in the NFL.
Conversely, the Chiefs have the league’s best organization, best general manager and best head coach not named Bill Belichick. Most importantly for an offensive coordinator, Kansas City has a generational talent at quarterback.
For all those reasons, Bieniemy leaving the Chiefs for the Commanders is no more a lateral career move than it would be for a sports columnist at The Washington Post to take the same position at the Loudoun Times-Mirror. All NFL offensive coordinator jobs aren’t created equal.
In fairness to Washington, even if Bieniemy left the Chiefs for the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals or Eagles, he would still be taking a step backward because Mahomes, among active quarterbacks, stands alone. At least with the Bills, Bengals or Eagles, however, Bieniemy would be working with a head coach who’s standing on firm ground and with a superstar passer.
Bieniemy received a promotion in title to assistant head coach and reportedly a raise. He will be the Commanders’ primary offensive playcaller. That’s great and all, but Bieniemy isn’t in it to have a comfy offensive coordinator gig. He wants to be a head coach.
Then there’s the stuff about Bieniemy’s career having stalled because he’s in Reid’s shadow.
Doug Pederson was Reid’s first offensive coordinator in Kansas City. He held the position for three seasons before being hired by the Eagles as their head coach. He now leads the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Matt Nagy followed Pederson. Nagy occupied the post for two seasons and then was hired by the Chicago Bears as their head coach. Except for a period during the 2017-18 season in which Reid ceded playcalling duties to Nagy, Bieniemy operated under the same playcalling structure in place when his two predecessors learned from Reid.
As the team’s senior assistant and quarterbacks coach this season, Nagy helped the Chiefs win their second Super Bowl title in four seasons. He’s expected to replace Bieniemy. Don’t be surprised if after the first season of his second stint in the role, Nagy winds up as an NFL head coach again someday soon.
The Chiefs’ offensive coordinator job is not a tenured position. Reid uses it, in part, to retain his top coaches until they leave for head coaching positions.
Neither Pederson nor Nagy were on the job long. Had things held to form with Bieniemy, Reid likely would have promoted Mike Kafka, formerly the team’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, to replace Bieniemy. Kafka just completed his first season as the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator.
Reid’s commanding presence in the Chiefs’ offense is merely a red herring as to why Bieniemy’s career has stagnated. The real reason is as obvious as it is reprehensible: He’s Black.
Zac Taylor of the Bengals and Kevin O’Connell of the Minnesota Vikings became head coaches after serving as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator. Head coach Sean McVay is the Rams’ playcaller. Pederson and Nagy reached the top rung while also serving as Reid’s apprentices. Taylor, O’Connell, Pederson and Nagy, as well as others who didn’t call plays and became head coaches, are white.
The NFL has only three Black head coaches. And this part always bears repeating: The league has 32 teams.
Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, hired recently by the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator, and two other coaches have filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. The three allege that pro sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices of coaches.
Fact is, even if Bieniemy fares well as the commander of the Commanders’ offense, it’s highly doubtful he’ll move up. If the Commanders’ offense struggles next season – and based on their current roster, it’s highly probable it will – franchise owners will have another excuse not to hire him.
Some NFL observers have suggested that team owners view Bieniemy as a risky hire because of his off-field issues from decades ago. On the face of it, that seems plausible.
Problem is, during the previous four hiring cycles, Bieniemy interviewed with 15 teams. That’s almost half the league.
If Bieniemy were truly considered a pariah because of his past, team owners wouldn’t even put him on their lists. There are plenty of other Black assistants available for sham interviews to satisfy the Rooney Rule.
As a head coach, perhaps Bieniemy would be as awful as Kliff Kingsbury (28-37-1). Maybe he would fail as badly as Matt Rhule (11-27). Heck, he could be a one-year disaster like Nathaniel Hackett (4-11).
Here’s the thing, though: Just like those white coaches, Bieniemy has earned the right to succeed or fail as a head coach. What’s more, Bieniemy has accomplished a lot more than all of them to warrant his shot.
In leaving the Chiefs for the Commanders, Bieniemy finished one chapter and started another. But in a story that’s all too familiar for the NFL’s frustrated Black coaches, he shouldn’t expect a fairy-tale ending.