Eric Bieniemy has waited long enough to become an NFL head coach
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator consistently leads one of the best offenses in the NFL. So why isn’t he leading his own team?
Beginning his fifth season as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy is off to another spectacular start.
Bieniemy helped devise a sharp game plan that the Chiefs executed flawlessly in Sunday’s 44-21 season-opening rout of the Arizona Cardinals. Nothing surprising there.
Since being promoted to be head coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense, Bieniemy has performed admirably, helping Kansas City win four consecutive AFC West division titles, two AFC championships and one Super Bowl trophy. The Chiefs’ offense has been among the most productive in the league, and Bieniemy has contributed to the development of superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
By any measurement, no NFL offensive coordinator has been more successful during Bieniemy’s tenure in the position. But while many of his formerly less-accomplished counterparts have moved up to become head coaches, Bieniemy still has not received an offer to run his own shop.
For the NFL, that’s a big problem.
As the Chiefs host the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday night at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, Bieniemy, who’s Black, is the face of the league’s inclusive hiring crisis at the club level. In a league in which assistant coaches on offense from winning teams – and especially those who work closely with quarterbacks – are the most sought-after candidates to fill openings for head coaches, the 53-year-old Bieniemy has remained stuck in place.
Each hiring cycle, Bieniemy has emerged as candidate to fill vacancies. And yet, inexplicably, he continues to be passed over.
The answer as to why Bieniemy’s career has stagnated may be as obvious as it is reprehensible: He’s Black.
On Twitter and Internet message boards, theories abound as to why Bieniemy hasn’t reached the top rung of the coaching ladder as many other onetime Reid assistants – including Bieniemy’s two white predecessors in the Chiefs’ O-coordinator role – have throughout the years. The speculation runs the gamut from Bieniemy performing poorly in interviews with other teams to Bieniemy being considered a risky hire because of off-field issues he faced decades ago.
Of course, the answer as to why Bieniemy’s career has stagnated may be as obvious as it is reprehensible: He’s Black.
Bieniemy, Pep Hamilton of the Houston Texans and Byron Leftwich of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the league’s only three Black offensive coordinators, the NFL has 32 teams and only three Black head coaches, and only four Black men were hired in the last 36 openings for head coaches.
Moreover, the NFL is being sued by three Black coaches who allege that professional sports’ most powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices based on race.
On the matter of Bieniemy still being an assistant coach, something simply isn’t adding up correctly, said N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University and a longtime observer of the NFL’s hiring practices.
“Bienemy coordinates one of the most innovative, explosive, and effective offensive units in the NFL,” Duru wrote to Andscape in a text message. “His work is time-tested and it represents sustained excellence.
“His players have great respect for the job he has done, as does head coach Andy Reid, who has vouched for him again and again as someone who should be a head coach in the NFL. Yet, he remains on the outside of the head-coach circle looking in.”
During the previous four hiring cycles, Bieniemy has interviewed with 15 teams. That’s almost half the league.
At the commissioner’s office in New York City, people have noticed.
“Year after year, coach Bieniemy has been one of the highest ranked OCs and head-coaching candidates. Yet we are still looking for coach to receive the same grace and opportunity that has been afforded to others with a significantly less of a résumé,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, wrote to Andscape in a text message.
“He’s gone to multiple championship games, [won] several divisional titles, a Super Bowl winner. [Many of] Andy Reid’s tremendously successful coaching tree protégés have had opportunities as head coaches. … No question [Bieniemy] is ready – and his body of work is the confirmation.”
Clearly, the situation appears downright bleak for Bieniemy, who nonetheless remains optimistic, at least publicly, about achieving his goal of leading a team one day.
“In reality it’s tough,” Bieniemy acknowledged to reporters in June. “But I don’t let that keep me from doing what I do. I’m still alive, I’m breathing, and I have an opportunity to work for a championship team. That’s the beauty of it.
“I don’t want any pity. This is who I am. I’m going to keep pushing, keep knocking, because when it’s all said and done with, I know who I am and I am comfortable with the person I’m striving to be.”
In an effort to improve his chances of landing a job, Bieniemy was part of the inaugural class of the league’s accelerator program in May.
Each of the NFL’s clubs chose two participants (one assistant coach and one front-office staffer) for the program launched at the league’s spring meeting in Atlanta, which is intended to accelerate the rise of qualified minority employees in coaching and front-office management. Participants attended sessions on subjects tailored to continue their growth in their current jobs, with an eye toward helping them be at their strongest when, hopefully, they enter the hiring pipeline to be head coaches and general managers.
The potential merits of the program aside, it sure says a lot about where things stand for Black assistants when someone with Bieniemy’s credentials felt obligated to participate in a program in hopes of improving his job prospects. Bieniemy has helped Reid accomplish much more than both Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, respectively, did when they were the Chiefs’ offensive coordinators. And Pederson and Nagy didn’t have to go schlepping around the country during the offseason to get noticed before they became head coaches.
Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion, believes Bieniemy has done more than enough to get his shot.
“He knows the game. He has the respect of his players. He has made staunch contributions as an offensive coordinator of a championship team. Those three factors have led many others to become head coaches in the National Football League,” Graves wrote to Andscape in a text message. “Eric has met the standard for which opportunities are given to be a head coach in the NFL.”
Despite that, Bieniemy still isn’t one. And with each passing year, it becomes less likely he ever will be.