ASHBURN, Va. — Now that new Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris has completed his purchase of the franchise, he’ll surely begin the process of making changes to put his stamp on it.
Here’s a suggestion on where he should start: Get tougher players.
Because after many have had their feelings hurt by new, hard-charging offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, it’s clear this team will continue to founder as it had in the decades before Harris arrived. Having so many sensitive players on the team’s roster indicates continued failure on the field. Harris can count on it.
Only weeks into training camp, the Commanders have chafed at Bieniemy’s coaching style, decrying how harshly he speaks to them during practice. They’re so offended by being called out by Bieniemy that many have tattled on him to head coach Ron Rivera.
“One of the biggest things is … I had a number of guys come to me and I said, ‘Hey, just go talk to him,’ ” Rivera told reporters Tuesday at camp. “I said, ‘Understand what he’s trying to get across to you.’ … They just were a little concerned.”
Nothing better sums up the state of this organization on the field.
In the past six seasons, the Commanders have not had a winning season. In seven seasons, the team has qualified for the postseason only once. Last season, Washington ranked 24th out of 32 teams in points and 20th in yards. With that level of success, no wonder many Commanders players believe they’re beyond reproach.
Then there’s Bieniemy.
Formerly the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, he was an integral part of the NFL’s most successful organization of the past five seasons. During Bieniemy’s run as head coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense, the Chiefs won five consecutive AFC West division titles, hosted five consecutive AFC Championship games, played in three Super Bowls and won two Super Bowl championships. What’s more, Bieniemy helped quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’s only 27, already become an all-time great at pro sports’ top position.
By all means, Bieniemy should tiptoe around guys who have been the foundation of a team that’s 22-27-1 since Rivera took command of the Commanders’ entire football operation. Instead of complaining about Bieniemy to Rivera, players should have been praising him for bringing some toughness and accountability to a bunch sorely in need of it.
To their credit, some players have praised Bieniemy. “That’s what you want in a coach, someone who gives you constructive criticism, but when you earn your flowers, he gives them to you,” said wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
Said running back Antonio Gibson: “Sometimes some people can come off a little more softer, more caring, but sometimes you need somebody to get into you. It just helps you. That shows they really care and at the same time it’s like, ‘Get this done so he ain’t yelling at me.’ “
Commanders team president Jason Wright, for one, is all in on how Bieniemy rolls. Wright praised Bieniemy to Andscape recently, saying, among other things, that Washington is “lucky to have him.”
In terms of the Commanders’ corporate culture, Wright is doing big things, and Bieniemy is “the single biggest accelerant to the culture change Ron was brought in to do” on the field. Bieniemy has brought accountability to the Commanders’ offense, Wright said.
“The level of intensity and preparation and the focus, in both meetings and practice, is on a level that has not been, since I’ve been here, on the offensive side,” said Wright, also formerly an NFL running back.
“[Players] are in the film room early and his coaches are in the film rooms early because the standard of preparation has gone way up. It is a night-and-day difference with him at the helm. And the accountability and attention to detail are being discussed and executed with a new level of rigor.”
Well, mic drop on that.
With Rivera having struggled in his first three seasons and the franchise under new ownership, his future with the Commanders could hinge on the team’s performance this season. For a head coach in Rivera’s situation, there are worse things than having a new O-coordinator light a fire under underperforming players.
Maintaining control of a locker room is a balancing act for head coaches, so one could understand why Rivera has been diplomatic, to say the least, in addressing the situation with players. The fact that he used kid gloves, however, also indicated Rivera knows the makeup of the guys upon whom he’s relying to remain employed.
“You’re getting a different kind of player from the players back in the past, especially in light of how things are coming out of college football,” Rivera told reporters. “So, a lot of these young guys, they do struggle with certain things.
“And a lot of it … is from where they’ve been. I mean, guys coming from certain programs are used to it. Guys coming from other programs aren’t as much. … Eric has an approach. It’s the way he does things. And it’s not going to change, because he believes in it.”
In a perfect world, you know what Rivera should tell the team’s offended players. “Listen, guys, we haven’t been very successful around here. E.B. has been a big part of the best franchise in the NFL. Let’s try his way for a change.”
While coaching Mahomes in Kansas City, Bieniemy sometimes butted heads with the NFL’s best player. Once, when a reporter asked about the nature of his relationship with Bieniemy, Mahomes explained that the desire to win burns inside each of them, and he welcomes being coached hard by Bieniemy. Mahomes punctuated his thoughts, saying, “If you look at the results, I think they’ve been OK.”
And in the NFL, obviously, results are paramount. Except in Washington. There, making sure all the players have their bottles matters most.