Is perception of Eric Bieniemy's role with Chiefs keeping him from being next head coach from Andy Reid's tree?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Over and over again Sunday, as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense was pouring it on the Houston Texans in a stunning 51-31 win in the divisional round, the television cameras focused on Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
This is not unusual. Reid is a mastermind when it comes to offensive football, and he is correctly regarded as the engine that makes the Chiefs run.
But there are a lot of voices that go into these genius gameplans, a lot of collaboration. Always have been. Reid lacks ego, so over the years he has earned a reputation for creating his gameplans with a communal approach.
He has even opted to hand some of the play-calling duties to his offensive coordinators in spots. Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy both got that treatment, and when Reid admitted it publicly, it shifted some of the play-calling spotlight — and the TV cameras during games — to both men. Months later, both were hired to lead their own teams.
This is all relevant because the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator job has become a head coach factory, of sorts, and the next man up, current OC Eric Bieniemy, has had seven head coaching interviews over the past two years and has failed to land a job, despite the fact he helped groom the league’s reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes.
Despite the fact he’s helped the Chiefs build the league’s top-ranked offense in 2018, and the sixth-ranked offense in 2019.
Despite the fact he’s gotten little TV time along the way, as he stands next to Reid on the sideline and carries a play call sheet.
Despite the fact he’s doing (almost) everything Nagy and Pederson did in Kansas City, with the one thing he hasn’t done — actually calling the plays — not being his fault.
“Eric and I talk through all of the plays. He is the one that gives them to the quarterback through the headset,” Reid said Monday. “But we go through every series and talk through it and make sure that we are on the same page, which ends up being very important.”
What Eric Bieniemy contributes to the Chiefs
Like Nagy and Pederson did, Bieniemy contributes heavily to the installation of weekly gameplans. He does his own tape work and then meets with Reid, where he proposes plays and concepts he likes. If Reid agrees, they are inserted into the mix.
“We all check our egos at the door — if you have a good idea, we're rolling with it,” Reid said. “That's helped with our success here. Whether it was Doug or Matt or any of the other guys that have been here, they have all had input and have been able to put their name on a play. E.B. has done that, just like the other guys have done it.”
And while Bieniemy also doesn’t have the full-time role of play installer, which is critical for an offense, neither did Nagy or Pederson. It’s a responsibility that has primarily been Reid’s in Kansas City, much like it was for Reid’s mentor, Mike Holmgren, who learned it from his mentor, the great Bill Walsh.
“But Coach Holmgren would leave it open and ask you for an idea,” Reid said. “You're talking about a future Hall of Fame coach here. I know Bill Walsh did it the same way, likewise. That part hasn't changed here."
So Reid insists there should be no doubting Bieniemy’s contributions to one of the NFL’s prolific offenses, nor his ability to call plays. Bieniemy did call and install plays during his two-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Colorado from 2011-2012, and while Reid handed the play-calling to Pederson in 2015 and Nagy in 2017, the reason he did it was because those slumping offenses needed a jolt at the time.
That said, Reid does not think the fact Bieniemy hasn’t called plays should be used against him.
“I can use myself as an example, I never called a play until I got to [a head coaching position],” said Reid, who was a quarterbacks coach with the Packers before he was hired to be the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach in 1999.
And while some have cited the fact Bieniemy isn’t a former quarterback like Pederson and Nagy — he spent nine years as an NFL running back — neither is Reid, who played offensive line at BYU and has gone on to become one of the NFL’s winningest coaches.
Confronting the larger problem
So why has Bieniemy, a man who inspires rave reviews from his players despite the fact he’s tough on them, been passed over for head coaching jobs seven times?
The fact he’s an African-American coaching in a sport where the coaches are predominantly white — only four of the 32 head coaches are minorities, despite the fact the league is 70 percent black — has not been lost on many.
Among the hot coaching candidates who made formal interviews with teams in search of a head coach, Bieniemy and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh remain in this year’s playoffs.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works with the NFL to promote diversity, released a strong statement on Monday pointing out that the NFL’s latest hiring cycle, in which four of the five positions went to white men (the lone exception being Washington’s Ron Rivera). It was a painful reminder of the league’s diversity issue within its coaching ranks, and an example of the glass ceiling faced by coaches and front-office executives of color.
“The abysmal record of hiring people of color in high ranking levels of NFL management is a reminder of the dark periods of civil rights history,” the group’s statement read. “In 100 years of professional football, the NFL has moved from Fritz Pollard as its first African-American Head Coach in 1921 to four Head Coaches of color in 2020. The League has only one African-American General Manager. There are no African-American club presidents.”
The Alliance pointed out that it believes commissioner Roger Goodell “wants to be on the side of progress”, and recognized that “there are NFL teams that embrace diversity of leadership as good” for the league before calling for team owners and leaders to develop specific diversity action plans.
It’s unclear if those owners are listening, and things will eventually change. Until they do, all Bieniemy and the other snubbed coaches who look like him can do is continue to grind away and wait for the head coaching opportunity they’ve worked their whole lives for.
“We all know what he is all about and how good he is,” Reid said. “I'm saying that just as much as the coaches were disappointed for him, the players were, too. I think that probably says everything. The players, they know. They're around him every day and know what he is all about. They have that kind of respect for him.”
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