Eric Bieniemy, fair or not, needed this Commanders challenge for himself

It sounded a lot like the typical Eric Bieniemy I’ve encountered in recent years – driven, passionate, upbeat – as he assessed his current situation and another vision of constructing a high-powered offense.

“If you’ve heard me in the past,” he said, “you know I’m always going to say this: 'We’re always going to find a way to drag our ass across the finish line.' "

Of course, while that standard of excellence is intact for the former running back, this is a whole different deal.

Bieniemy, 53, has gone from coaching the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback in Patrick Mahomes to breaking in the unproven Sam Howell. From coordinating a No. 1-ranked Kansas City Chiefs offense that led the way in February to a second Super Bowl triumph in three years, to putting together a scheme for the Washington Commanders, who haven’t had an offense ranked in the top half of the NFL (20th last season) in at least six years.

It’s undoubtedly much easier to get across the finish line – and the goal line – with Mahomes, Travis Kelce and others in tow. But never mind remaining in the comfort zone of Chiefs Kingdom, with a shot to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Bieniemy, fair or not, needed this challenge for himself.

"It wasn’t a tough decision," Bieniemy told USA TODAY Sports. "Is it something that you think about? Yes. Is there a potential reward for any decision you make? Yes, there is.

Eric Bieniemy talks with Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin after being introduced as the new Commanders offensive coordinator.
Eric Bieniemy talks with Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin after being introduced as the new Commanders offensive coordinator.

"But you’ve got to understand: I was there 10 years. It was a great 10 years. I’ve had the opportunity to accomplish a lot with a number of people who I consider family. So why not go out on a limb, hit the reset button and try something new? I’m not worried. At the end of the day, you have to have the confidence and belief in betting on yourself."

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No knock on the opportunity or chance to join forces with Commanders coach Ron Rivera. Bieniemy has moved out of the long shadow of Andy Reid, the coaching mentor with whom he still talks regularly. He will call his own plays, rather than getting that duty in small doses in Kansas City.

Still, it’s shameful that Bieniemy left Kansas City for the post in Washington rather than a head-coaching opportunity. Despite all of the success with the Chiefs – and the head-coaching opportunities afforded the coordinators who preceded him in Kansas City, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy – Bieniemy became the face of the struggle for Black coaches to land the top jobs.

Bieniemy interviewed for 16 head-coaching positions with 15 franchises (the Jets interviewed him twice) and was passed over each time. It didn’t seem to matter that key figures with the Chiefs, including Reid, Mahomes and Kelce, often vouched for his impact. Although there were rumblings that Bieniemy didn’t interview well, it’s striking that when Washington hired him in February, Rivera (who interviewed eight times before landing his first head-coaching job) and others raved about his presence during the interviews.

And questions about limited play-calling duties under Reid didn’t stop Pederson or Nagy from becoming head coaches (although Nagy, fired by the Bears, returned to Kansas City and will fill the coordinator role vacated by Bieniemy).

So while the NFL will stage its second “Accelerator” networking program for minority coaches during league meetings in Minnesota next week, aimed to bolster opportunities, it is juxtaposed against the reality that two white coordinators from the Philadelphia Eagles squad that lost in Super Bowl 57 against the Chiefs – Jonathan Gannon (Cardinals) and Shane Steichen (Colts) – landed head-coaching opportunities while Bieniemy and other candidates with more extensive resumes were bypassed.

If Bieniemy is bitter about the patterns that suggest barriers against Black coaches, he does a marvelous job of hiding it when the topic is broached. Instead, while a discrimination lawsuit headed by Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores is pending, Bieniemy danced away from any criticism of the NFL’s hiring patterns.

"I’m breathing," Bieniemy said. "Knock on wood, I’m healthy. So that’s how you handle it. You’re just grateful for every opportunity that you get. I can’t worry about certain things. My focus is clearly making sure that I can do everything under the sun to help us become the best team that we can be."

Perhaps Bieniemy’s best response can come with action. While others – proponents of equal opportunity in the NFL universe, current and former coaches, players, media – can provide voices of pressure, Bieniemy can try to prove a point with performance.

No, he doesn’t have Mahomes. Howell started one game last season as a rookie and threw 19 passes. Bieniemy hails Howell’s competitiveness and ability to “make a lot of different throws on a lot of different platforms,” which might be another way of saying that you’ve got to start somewhere.

There are legitimate questions about the O-line, but there’s an impressive collection of talent at the skilled positions, including receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson, and running backs Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson Jr.

If Bieniemy, following the woeful three-year reign of predecessor Scott Turner, can create a potent offense with a West Coast-based system in Washington, there would be no denying him for the next level.

Or would there? Time and performance will tell. Yet it stands to reason that Bieniemy should not have been denied for this long in crossing the finish line of opportunity.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Eric Bieniemy, fair or not, needed Commanders challenge for himself