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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Anyone walking near the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice facility during the past six years might have unknowingly heard the man who has suddenly become one of the NFL’s hottest head coaching candidates.
Such is the bass and volume of Eric Bieniemy’s spine-straightening voice that it reverberates hundreds of yards away, prompting a fascinating mixture of chuckles, stares and compliance from all who hear his cornucopia of sayings, many of which range from the mundane — “Finish!” or “Go get it!” or “Go score!” — to the, um, more animated.
“Most of the stuff has cuss words in it,” fullback Anthony Sherman told Yahoo Sports with a laugh.
Players and coaches praise the role Bieniemy has played in helping the Chiefs, the AFC’s top seed at 12-4, finish with the league’s best offense in 2018. Few understand the scope of those contributions, given the presence of likely MVP Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid, who has called plays all season (his past two offensive coordinators who became head coaches, Chicago’s Matt Nagy and Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson, called the plays).
There is a distinct sense that aside from calling plays, Bieniemy does many of the same tasks as those two, while also inspiring devotion from players in the locker room. Add that to the football education he has undergone over the past 18 years as a coach, and it’s easy to understand why teams seeking a new head coach are intrigued by Bieniemy, who sources tell Yahoo Sports has been requested for interviews by the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals (he ultimately declined), Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins. The Cincinnati Bengals also expressed interest in talking with Bieniemy.
His potential hire could make him the latest addition to Reid’s vast NFL head coaching tree. To do so, he’ll have to buck the latest trend, which skews toward hiring the next Nagy, Pederson, Sean McVay or Frank Reich, all of whom guided their teams to the playoffs this season and are either a former quarterback or has a history of developing players at that position.
Not that Bieniemy is intimidated by that.
“I’m a football coach,” Bieniemy told Yahoo Sports.
A player’s coach who wields tough love
During his tenure as the Chiefs’ running backs coach from 2013-2017, no position group was consistently yelled at louder, prodded more or coached harder than the Kansas City runners were under Bieniemy. Yet, when Bieniemy was promoted to offensive coordinator in January, you would have been hard-pressed to find a group that was happier for him.
“I love him — he’s the best coach that I’ve ever been around,” said Sherman, who can be prickly and does not suffer fools. “He believes in you, and it helps you believe in yourself, and he’s not a bulls- – – – – – — he’s straight-forward. He’s going to tell you how it is, like it or not.”
Take the way Bieniemy used to grade the running backs’ performance, for instance.
“You might score a touchdown, but if you did three things wrong before you got there, he’s gonna let you know those three things, then give you that, ‘Hey, attaboy,’” Sherman said with a laugh.
Like any good coach, Bieniemy, 49, tends to save his candid thoughts for his players. In front of the media, he is thoughtful but cautious, quick to chuckle and smile while never raising his tone.
If the podium was the only place you saw him, you’d never know the decibels his voice is capable of reaching on the field.
“You hear [his voice] the same amount,” Sherman said. “But the biggest thing is, now everyone else gets to hear it.”
And yes, that includes quarterbacks.
Can he work with quarterbacks?
As a longtime running backs coach, Bieniemy is well-schooled on run-game concepts and pass protections. But when asked specifically about his greatest specialty as a coach, Bieniemy shook his head.
“You know what? It’s offensive football,” Bieniemy told Yahoo Sports in an interview at Chiefs headquarters. “I’ve been fortunate now to coach since 2001, and I’ve been blessed to work with a number of people … so one thing you pride yourself on is not putting yourself in a category.”
Bieniemy’s reticence to put himself in a box makes sense. As a former running back, Bieniemy has never been the quarterbacks coach — unlike the four aforementioned prototypes (Nagy, McVay, Reid and Pederson) — that teams seem to want these days. But as Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn — another former NFL running back with a similar resume to Bieniemy’s — proved this season, perhaps that’s not necessary. In Lynn’s second season at the helm, Los Angeles went 12-4 thanks to his leadership and football know-how, two areas where Bieniemy often earns rave reviews.
Along with Reid, Bieniemy visits with Mahomes after every series during games, and he can often be seen giving the quarterbacks instruction during practice. And while quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka runs the tape-watching sessions with the QBs during the week, Bieniemy also pops into those meetings at times.
“We have a lot of plays, but when he comes in — whether it be about protections or the kind of reads [we need to make] — he tries to simplify it and make it as easy as possible for the quarterback,” backup QB Chad Henne explained.
When interviewing with coach-needy teams, Bieniemy will also mention the fact he called plays for two seasons as the offensive coordinator at the University of Colorado, his alma mater. And while the Buffaloes ranked 92nd in total offense in 2011 and 119th in 2012, Bieniemy says he learned a ton, especially when it came to installing gameplans and working with quarterbacks.
“If you know anything about me and what I did at Colorado as the offensive coordinator, people would be shocked and surprised,” Bieniemy said. “People look at me sideways because I’m a running back, and they think I always want to run the ball. No. I understand the importance of the passing game and I understand the importance of making sure we’re pushing the ball down the field.”
Bieniemy says he tried to be inclusive and collaborative, and that’s something he has continued in Kansas City, where Reid calls the plays and Bieniemy has a crucial role in crafting gameplans that have contributed to Mahomes’ MVP-level season.
How the Chiefs’ game planning works
The true power in a team’s offensive play-calling hierarchy lies with the man who is installing and teaching the plays to the team on a daily basis, and in Kansas City, that responsibility has primarily been Reid’s.
Bieniemy doesn’t have the full-time role of play-installer, but it’s worth noting that neither did Nagy or Pederson. Bieniemy installed plays at Colorado, and Reid gives him opportunities to present to the team in a similar way every Friday and Saturday before gameday.
“When you’re installing, you’re talking about every position,” Bieniemy explained, “so you’ve got to know the entire route concept — what we’re putting in the pass game — you’ve got to understand [tight end] splits, receiver splits, coverages, obviously, and how it all ties in. We want to talk about the quarterback’s drop, his reads, the importance of route depth discipline, getting the ball out on time … it’s a number of things.”
Bieniemy has also played a role in formulating the weekly gameplan. Preparation for the next opponent starts with him doing his own tape work then meeting with Reid, where he proposes plays and concepts he likes. If Reid agrees, they are inserted into the gameplan. Eventually, Kafka joins them and the process repeats itself.
“He always allowed me to have input on what he wants to do, and how he wants to do it, and he’s allowed me to be flexible,” Bieniemy said of Reid. “Again, he gets 51 percent of the vote [about the gameplan]. But he allows me to be me, he allows me to present.”
This type of collaboration is not a given in the NFL, especially when the head coach is as accomplished as a play-caller as Reid. Nagy and Pederson have mentioned that it’s part of the secret sauce that has allowed Reid’s massive coaching tree to sprout.
“We have a set plan [with] how many plays we like to have, so when it’s all said and done, there are no hurt feelings,” Bieniemy said. “It’s about the best plan for the team.”
What about his lack of NFL play-calling experience?
Some will surely knock Bieniemy as a candidate due to the fact he hasn’t called plays in Kansas City, unlike his predecessors Nagy and Pederson.
The Chiefs’ killer season could actually hurt Bieniemy, as the only reason Reid relinquished play-calling control to Pederson in 2015 and Nagy in 2017 was due to slumping offenses that needed a jolt. Reid believes in Bieniemy’s ability but he has been hesitant to rock the boat when things have been going so well all season.
“I think you guys know I am a big fan of his,” Reid recently said of Bieniemy. “I think he would be phenomenal [as a head coach].”
If this turns out to be true, some of the credit will go to Reid, who has taught him a ton over the past six years from X’s and O’s to how to teach players and manage people.
The biggest lesson Bieniemy took from Reid — the eighth-winningest coach of all time and second longest-tenured active coach — is how to present himself to his players and fellow coaches. That should help him as he interviews for head coaching jobs in the coming days and weeks.
“Always be who you are,” Bieniemy said. “Sometimes the message can be uplifting, sometimes it may be a little harsh, but I’m about making sure you understand that you don’t take the message personal, because you know the person. We want to hold each other accountable and hold each other up to a higher standard.”
Hence the reason Bieniemy can scream and prod players with that booming voice, and they end up swearing by him anyway. When you’re as passionate about people — and winning — as Bieniemy is, it’s hard not to be.
And while it remains to be seen if he’ll be entrusted to run a team (this year, at least), it certainly didn’t hurt that Bieniemy got an endorsement from Mahomes, the league’s brightest new star, on Monday.
“He’d be an awesome head coach,” Mahomes said. “He has that mindset, that work ethic, and that determination that you need to be a head coach in this league. I know that he’s had the interest and stuff like that … and I’m excited that I still have him right now on this playoff run.”
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