What an opportune time for Eric Bieniemy to roll as a hot candidate while another hiring cycle looms for a fresh batch of new NFL head coaches.
Bieniemy, 51, coordinates the league’s top-ranked offense. His fingerprints are all over superstars Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. The Kansas Chiefs, defending Super Bowl champs, have the NFL’s best record at 14-1, longest winning streak at 10 games, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs and the most alluring, must-see TV appeal due in large part to Mahomes, the amazing quarterback. There's also Kansas City's offensive creativity demonstrated repeatedly as the wow moments pile up.
He’s been groomed by Andy Reid, one of the best coaches of this generation. Bieniemy is widely respected in NFL circles, with a reputation as an innovator and hands-on leader to go with the results.
If anyone is deserving of a shot to take over a team, it would be Bieniemy, right?
If only it were as simple as that.
“I’ll just say this: Anybody who works in any organization or any job, they want to be rewarded for the right reasons,” Bieniemy told USA TODAY Sports. “When somebody wants to hire me, that will be the best job that has found me and that will be the best job that I have found. Because we connected. So, when it comes to hiring, I can’t control what goes on in the owner’s head. I can’t force them to make the decision. My job is to make sure that when I’m in there giving that interview, I’m being my most authentic self. They get to see me, feel me for who I am and what I’m about.
“But on top of that, if they don’t see all the things that will help them grow as an organization, that’s okay. Because guess what? I have an opportunity here to work with a Hall of Fame head coach, we’ve got some great people here who happen to be great football players and we’ve had a great deal of success. I enjoy what I do.”
That was Bieniemy’s response when asked the inevitable question: Does he feel that being Black has prevented him from landing a head coaching job?
Bieniemy wouldn’t exactly go there.
Yet others will. During the past three hiring cycles, just three minorities — Ron Rivera, Brian Flores and since-fired Steve Wilks — were hired among the 20 openings.
Richard Lapchick, who composes a yearly report card on racial and gender hiring in sport for The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, gave the NFL a grade of "D+" in 2020 for diversity among its head coaches. NFL teams got an "F" for general managers, who often pick the head coaches. The grades were the same in 2019.
This leads to a potentially problematic situation for the NFL. Bieniemy is one of the most qualified head coaching candidates in recent NFL history. Imagine if he once again gets passed over.
That's why all eyes will be on the league when teams turn their full attention to the head-coach market Monday after the final regular season games. Already under pressure for the treatment of Black head coaching candidates in previous years, this will be the first offseason since racial equality became part of the national dialogue this summer.
It's also the first test since Commissioner Roger Goodell, owners and other team officials pledged in July that there would be a more diverse NFL, and the league would fight systemic racism across the nation.
But can the NFL be such a leader, and command such a fight, when its own racial head coaching house is in such shambles?
Bieniemy interviewed for seven jobs over the past two cycles — the Bucs, Jets, Dolphins and Bengals in 2019; the Browns, Giants and Panthers in 2020 — and will be back in line in the coming weeks.
“The most frustrating part has been the reasons that teams come up with for why he wasn’t hired,” Brian Levy, Bieniemy’s agent, told USA TODAY Sports. “Some of them are ridiculous.”
Levy said he’s been told that, for example, Bieniemy was passed over because he doesn’t call plays. That didn’t stop others who worked under Reid, including current coaches Matt Nagy (Bears) and Doug Pederson (Eagles) and former coach Brad Childress, from getting their shots. Nor did that stop the Bengals from hiring Zac Taylor from Sean McVay’s staff with the Rams.
“All of a sudden, it’s a problem,” Levy said.
Besides, Reid, who didn’t call plays as tight ends coach on Mike Holmgren’s staff with the Packers during the 1990s, insists that he shares play-calling duties with Bieniemy.
“He calls plays, I call plays,” Reid told USA TODAY Sports. “Or, ‘What do you think here?’ 'Okay, go with it. Let’s roll.’ That’s how we go. We check our egos at the door, all the way around. We’re trying to win. I have that relationship where it doesn’t matter who calls what. If you’ve got an idea and you’re strong about it, let’s go with it.”
It is Bieniemy’s voice that Mahomes hears in his helmet when the plays are relayed from the sideline. Each week, Bieniemy memorizes the play-call sheet and sometimes sending the play to Mahomes involves quickly translating what Reid is thinking as the play-clock ticks.
Explained Bieniemy: “He’ll say, ‘E.B., give me 34 Webster.’ Well, the play might be ’34 Webster Read Easy.’ So, I’ve got to call it. Here’s the formation: 'It’s Trips right. Bunch nasty. F left O. 34 Webster. Read easy.’ But the thing is, it’s a collaborative effort.
“He can finish my sentences and I can finish his,” Bieniemy said of Reid. “That’s how tied to the hip that we’ve become.”
Levy said he’s also been told that Bieniemy wasn’t the choice because the team was looking for someone with previous head coaching experience.
“You don’t ever get it, if you don’t get it,” said Levy, who has represented coaches for 19 years.
Now think of some of the NFL’s best coaches. Start with Super Bowl winners Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh. There's also McVay who took the Rams to Super Bowl LII. And don't forget Flores, who has quickly turned the Dolphins into a playoff contender. What do they all have in common? They landed their jobs without previous head-coaching experience.
Levy was also stunned by what he felt was a lack of due diligence by the three teams that interviewed Bieniemy during the most recent cycle.
“None of the teams called on any of his references last year,” Levy said. “Eye-opening for me. I can’t tell you who they were told to call, but they didn’t call the top-of-the-food-chain guy that they should have been calling."
'All you want is an opportunity'
It's unfair that Bieniemy’s candidacy seemingly involves a layer — and some would call it a dominant layer — attached to race. It is also one of the burdens that aspiring minority coaches too often are forced to assume in a league where more than 70% of the players are Black. Certainly, becoming a head coach isn’t easy for white coaches, either. There are only 32 of these jobs.
Yet for decades Black coaches in the NFL have believed head coaching opportunities are unequal due to a myriad of suspected reasons, including stereotypes, an old-boy network, nepotism and old-fashioned racial discrimination.
“All you want is an opportunity,” a former NFL assistant coach who is Black told USA TODAY Sports under the condition of anonymity. The former coach did not want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
The former coach rose through the ranks to the level of coordinator and interviewed for multiple head coaching jobs. But he retired like many before and after: frustrated at being passed over for white coaches with lesser qualifications.
And the ex-coach was incensed earlier this year when Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who is white, contended in the days following the death of George Floyd that racism and discrimination doesn’t exist in the NFL — a league with only two Black general managers and one Black team president, Washington's Jason Wright, in its 101-year history.
Fangio, who served 32 years as an NFL assistant before landing his first head coaching job in 2019, apologized after receiving a torrent of criticism, including dismay from Black players and Black game officials.
“I was so mad at him,” the former assistant coach said of Fangio. “You don’t see it? That’s because it doesn’t happen to you. But it’s like gravity. It’s there. I can’t see it, but I know it keeps me on the ground.”
Such perceptions, on top of the hiring results, have kept the issue on the front burner in the NFL, which currently has four minority non-interim head coaches. Goodell said in mid-December, following a virtual league meeting, that diversity and inclusion was discussed as has been during each meeting this year.
In 2003, the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule. Originally, it required every team to interview at least one person of color for head coaching vacancies. It was expanded in 2009 to include key front office positions. It had some success, helping lead to eight Black head coaches from 2011 to 2017.
The rule has been expanded to mandate that teams interview at least two minority candidates for head coaching jobs, and one minority for coordinator, GM and other senior executive positions.
Since the mid-2010s, though, the Rooney Rule has had little impact. Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, admitted to reporters last month that his league, and others, are failing in attempts to diversify front office and coaching ranks.
"The facts are the facts," said Vincent, who is Black. "None of the sports leagues are doing this well. When you look at the mobility of Black men and Black women in professional sports, so it's poor. So what we (have) to do is control what we can control, and look at and examine what we're doing. ... We have done a thorough examination of what we're doing wrong, what doesn't work. But there's no best practices in sports. Let's be straight. Let's be honest. We can go to every sport from basketball, hockey, baseball, here. Diversity, we're not seeing what we all hope for. We're not seeing true inclusion."
In addition to the Rooney Rule, the NFL adopted a resolution in November that incentivizes teams to develop minorities who advance. Teams that lose a member of their staff who becomes a head coach will receive third-round compensatory picks in the following two drafts. Losing multiple staff members who become head coaches and GMs would net three third-round picks.
“I think as a group, there’s a belief that we can do better, we need to do better than where we’ve been the last few years,” Steelers owner Art Rooney II, chairman of the league’s diversity committee, told USA TODAY Sports. “With all the changes we’ve been discussing, we really haven’t had push back."
The Rooney Rule was named for Art’s late father, Dan, who chaired the diversity committee.
“How will this impact the individual clubs when they are making that hiring decision?” Rooney said, referring to policies adopted this year. “Obviously, that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
In other words, we’ll see.
The Mahomes whisperer
With three teams — the Falcons, Texans and Lions — finishing the current season with interim coaches, the upcoming hiring cycle is expected to be robust. After just four teams switched coaches last offseason, Levy and others in league circles project there will be at least eight vacancies.
As usual, the NFL’s in-house diversity committee and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that monitors and promotes minority hires, have formulated extensive lists that illustrate there is no shortage of minority candidates.
Then again, such lists have existed for years.
In Bieniemy’s case, his credentials should be enough, with or without a Rooney Rule. With or without resolutions tied to incentives.
It should be incentive enough for, say, Houston to grasp whether Bieniemy can take star quarterback Deshaun Watson to a higher level after playing such a key role in Mahomes’ development.
“Nobody is looking for a stimulus-response type of hire,” Levy said. “We’re not asking for any head starts or incentives. Just a fair process.”
Levy describes Bieniemy as a passionate, disciplined leader with strong messaging. When he talked up “CEO qualities" that would enable Bieniemy to connect with all players, regardless of positions, and various departments throughout an organization, it brought to mind the analogy used this year when the Giants hired Joe Judge, a former special teams coach.
The profile for the ideal head coach, though, is a moving target. Bill Belichick was a defensive whiz before expanding to become one of the greatest head coaches in league history. Yet a certain pattern has evolved. Over the past three cycles, 13 of the coaches hired had made their marks running offenses — as Bieniemy does.
No, that doesn’t explain why the Lions dumped Jim Caldwell, who is Black and took Detroit to the playoffs in three of his four seasons at the helm, and in 2018 replaced him with recently fired Matt Patricia. Caldwell had an extensive track record on offense and in working with quarterbacks; Patricia, a defensive strategist, had a connection to since-fired GM Bob Quinn, forged while both worked for the Patriots under Belichick.
Nonetheless, in a pass-happy league on the verge of setting the single-season scoring record, Bieniemy has what many of the recent head coach hires possessed.
“Once you work with the quarterback — he’s in that room every day with Patrick — you have the whole picture,” said Reid, who promoted Bieniemy from running backs coach after Nagy left for Chicago in 2018. “You understand everything about offensive football. You teach it, your demands go up in dealing with the whole group.”
Mahomes, breaking records at a dizzying pace in his fourth season, can vouch for that. He has repeatedly touted Bieniemy’s potential as a head coach, in part due to the standards that include perfection on “every single rep” in practice.
“He does not let me miss any detail of what the play is supposed to do, what the protection is supposed to be,” Mahomes told reporters in 2018. “That helps me a ton. When I get to the game, everything is a little bit easier.”
When Reid became the Eagles coach in 1999, he brought Bieniemy in for the final season of his nine-year NFL playing career not just to be a backup to running back Duce Staley and special teamer. Reid was trying to establish a culture and wanted Bieniemy as a locker room influence.
Reid is now invested in Bieniemy’s next move. He is compelled to share insight, he said, into issues that assistant coaches generally are not involved in. It sounds like a head coach finishing school.
“When you become a coordinator here, I want you to move on and have that opportunity,” Reid said.
Reid reflected on his years with the Packers, crediting Holmgren, offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis and Ron Wolf, the general manager, for grooming him.
As he mentioned Wolf trusting him with personnel evaluations, Reid quickly circled back to Bieniemy, who had a role in Kansas City’s first-round selection this year of star running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
“Eric is one of the best evaluators we have as a coach,” Reid said. “He knows what to look for and when he gets it, he can bring out the best in it.”
Count Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, among those bullish on Bieniemy. Dungy says Bieniemy has the energy and passion to be a head coach, and has even made Reid a better coach.
“I think Eric has helped Andy evolve,” Dungy told USA TODAY Sports. “There’s no way, five years ago, they would have gone to Buffalo and run the ball 46 times. That’s just not Andy’s nature.”
In Week 6, the Chiefs rushed for 245 yards and held the ball nearly 38 minutes during a 26-17 victory. Dungy recalls that the Bills sold out to defend the pass, prompting Kansas City, with Edwards-Helaire running for 161 yards, to pound on the ground.
“The fact that Eric was a running back, he values the running game,” Dungy said. “I think he’s helped Andy become a little more patient, probably made Patrick a little more well-rounded. It’s not just every minute for the big play. I think (Mahomes has) learned that the short passing game and the running game can be just as effective.”
Like Bieniemy, Dungy was once the rising assistant constantly mentioned as a potential head coach.
“Now you just have to work through being patient,” Dungy said. “Wait on the right opportunity. He couldn’t be in a better spot for that. I just hope it comes sooner rather than later. It should.”
Overcoming a controversial past
Bieniemy, who began playing football at 6-years-old while growing up in New Orleans, doesn’t sound like a man consumed by the prospects of what could occur in 2021. He admits that from the moment he entered the coaching profession nearly 20 years ago, he envisioned becoming a head coach. Yet that dream is deferred.
Sure, there was disappointment when he didn’t move up during the past two hiring cycles. Reid will tell you of Chiefs players upset that Bieniemy didn’t land a head coaching job.
“When I wasn’t hired, it was time to go back to work,” Bieniemy said. “I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself.”
It’s likely that Bieniemy could have become a head coach earlier this year on the college level. When Mel Tucker left Colorado to take over at Michigan State, Bieniemy was contacted by his alma mater but opted to continue pursuing his NFL career.
“When your former school reaches out, it’s hard not to listen to what they want to offer,” Bieniemy said. “Did I consider it? It was nice to listen to all the kind words. It feels good to be wanted. But in reality, I feel that this is the place I need to be at this particular time.”
That Colorado had Bieniemy on its short list says much about his standing these days in Boulder, Colorado nearly three decades after he was banned from the campus for a year following a 1993 incident in which he was accused of harassing a female parking lot attendant. During his late teenage years and early 20s, Bieniemy was arrested several times in Colorado, the episodes including a bar fight that was ignited when he says he was called a racial slur, a DUI charge and an exchange where he shoved a firefighter responding to an emergency at his mother’s house.
Asked if he thinks the arrests have hurt his candidacy for head-coaching jobs, Bieniemy said, “I don’t think anything in my past is an issue.
“I’ll tell you what I believe: It helped me grow," he said. "It’s helped me establish relationships with guys that I coach, to show and talk to them about the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s helped shape me.
"All of that stuff that took place, it happened for a reason. And without the University of Colorado, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. That’s where I started. I had some highs and lows there, but I’ve had more highs."
Former Colorado coach Gary Barnett had no qualms about Bieniemy’s character when he hired him as running backs coach in 2001, shortly after Bieniemy had returned to complete classes to earn his undergraduate degree.
“When he came back, he had matured so much,” Barnett told USA TODAY Sports. “He gained so much knowledge after nine years in the league.”
Barnett and Bieniemy have remained close, with the former coach quick to express pride in his former pupil’s coaching journey, which also included a second stint at Colorado as offensive coordinator before he joined Reid’s staff in 2013.
Barnett also believes that Bieniemy possesses the most important characteristic needed to excel as a head coach: empathy.
That trait, too, has been emboldened by life experiences. The oldest of Eric and Mia Bieniemy’s two sons, Eric III, has cerebral palsy.
Bieniemy was in his playing career when Eric III, now 25, was born. “The first five years of his life, we lived in and out of a hospital,” Bieniemy said.
“He’s confined to a wheelchair, but he doesn’t ask for any sympathy. Beautiful kid. He’s the backbone of our family. He’s the energy that we feed off of. But what it also allows you is the sense to not take some of the things that we as people take for granted because our son doesn’t have blessings like others.”
Interview lessons learned
Head coaching candidates such as Bieniemy straddle a fine line between present and future aspirations. Certainly, they must be prepared for the interview process, which includes devising details of how they would proceed on a new job and targeting members of their potential staffs. In that respect, the experience that Bieniemy gained over the past two years has been beneficial.
Yet he also realizes that spending too much energy plotting a move could be a major distraction on the current mission. The Chiefs can become the NFL’s first repeat champion in 16 years since the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX.
“Our focus is solely on what we do in-house,” Bieniemy said. “My sole purpose is to make sure that we’re good to go. Let’s make sure the game plan is right. When it comes to all of that stuff (with the head coach market), that process will take care of itself in time. Right now, I’ve got so much on my plate dealing with these guys and making sure we’re focused.
“I’ll tell you: It’s a different dynamic due to the pandemic because you never know how people are coming into the building. You want to make sure that everybody’s mind is in the right place.”
Even the hottest coaching prospects can only engage in so many interviews with potential suitors — especially while in the playoffs. Candidates from teams that play on wild card weekend can’t have an initial interview until the following week, which could still be a bit complicated if a coach is preparing for a divisional playoff game. Candidates whose teams advance to the Super Bowl, though, can engage in second interviews during the bye week after the conference title games.
It’s a strange dynamic of the hiring cycle: Prospects with the most successful teams are at a disadvantage. They can’t fly to the headquarters for lengthy initial interviews. Interested teams are put on hold, which could lead to choosing another candidate. There’s a musical chairs-type competition for coordinators and position coaches, who may have other options beyond waiting out the decision on the head coach.
Chalk up the tight interview windows among lessons learned. In 2019, Bieniemy interviewed with four teams over a five-day span but declined a request to interview for the Arizona job that ultimately went to Kliff Kingsbury. Although he was crushed by the calendar — an interview with one team extended into the evening with an interview with another team scheduled to begin at 8 the next morning — it’s striking that he would have turned down a request. Kingsbury went on to land Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick in the draft and in his second season the Cardinals can earn a playoff spot by beating the Rams on Sunday.
Levy defends the decision to not interview with the Cardinals, maintaining that they capped interviews at four teams.
“The teams that we committed to were the first teams that called,” said Levy. “At that point, we couldn’t do any more. Even last year, we were like, ‘We’re just doing three.’ He can’t do more than that. Four was too many and five would have been absurd.”
That could be interpreted as a message for teams interested in Bieniemy. If, say, eight teams are in the market, there’s no guarantee that he will be interested in interviewing with every team. Factors such as the existing quarterback (or plan to acquire a quarterback), salary cap space and the chemistry with the GM amid the organizational power structure will be weighed in ranking teams.
The past two cycles, Bieniemy conducted his interviews in hotel suites or airplane hangars. Yet there will be a key difference this time around, at least from the onset. In accordance with the league’s COVID-19 protocols, interviews can only be conducted virtually for candidates whose teams are in the playoffs.
So much for a strong handshake and reading body language. Candidates with the best video presence stand to gain an advantage.
“You know what the cool thing is?” Levy said. “Eric gets to do his Zoom interviews with the Super Bowl trophy in the background.”