The Eric Bieniemy narrative has been shattered with the Washington Commanders
Only two games into the season, the Commanders’ new offensive coordinator is already on a roll
Making snap judgments early in an NFL season is done at one’s own peril, because things often change quickly in pro sports’ most dangerous workplace.
The Washington Commanders, however, already have something good cooking, and new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is on a roll. It’s definitely not too soon to focus on Bieniemy’s impact both on Washington’s offense and the team overall, which improved to 2-0 after rallying for an impressive 35-33 victory on the road against the Denver Broncos. Hired by head coach Ron Rivera to energize the club’s lethargic offense, and truly empowered by Rivera to make the changes he deemed necessary in that effort, Bieniemy revamped the Commanders’ approach and ruffled a whole lot of feathers in the process.
But at the franchise’s Ashburn, Virginia, headquarters, the converts are growing. And as for Washington’s long-suffering fans, well, many are all-in. How could they not be?
In only a little more than seven months (the Commanders introduced Bieniemy on Feb. 18), the hard-charging former NFL running back disassembled a hot mess of an offense and rebuilt it on a foundation of the core principles he believes in most as a coach: effort, precision and accountability. Bieniemy is producing big-time results while working with a 23-year-old quarterback who made all of one start entering the season.
During visiting Washington’s thrilling comeback victory over reeling Denver on Sunday, Bieniemy and second-year passer Sam Howell were in sync as the team overcame an 18-point deficit (the Commanders trailed 21-3 with 9:01 remaining in the second quarter). In overcoming adversity, the Commanders displayed mettle not seen in Rivera’s first three seasons at the team’s helm, and there’s no mystery as to what’s different.
Commanders franchise president Jason Wright summed it up best to Andscape recently, explaining, Bieniemy is “the single biggest accelerant to the culture change Ron was brought in to do” on the field.
Washington’s assistant head coach as well as its offensive playcaller, Bieniemy quickly identified areas in which players could step it up a bit. An old-school drill sergeant, Bieniemy isn’t in this for “participation trophies.” This is the NFL. Bieniemy is all about winning, and the players in his charge will be as well.
Before Bieniemy had even settled into his Ashburn office, Wright and others in the organization noticed that the difference in the players’ approach was like night and day. With Bieniemy demanding a higher standard of preparation than they were familiar with, many players were in the film room earlier and longer. On the practice field, Bieniemy made in-the-moment critiques clear to players, both frequently and loudly.
Understandably, some players bristled privately at being coached so hard, which Rivera revealed to reporters. But there was a method to Bieniemy’s unpopular approach, which was revealed in the comeback against the Broncos.
Over the course of many nights in the offseason and preseason when Bieniemy turned off the lights at the team complex, he studied Washington’s offensive personnel in film sessions. On the practice field, he solidified his understanding of the players’ strengths and weaknesses. First and foremost, the person who calls the offensive plays must believe in the team’s quarterback. Bieniemy is confident he can rely on Howell.
It’s not only that the young man possesses arm talent, people familiar with Bieniemy’s thinking on Washington’s starting quarterback will tell you, it’s also that Howell has “that dog in him,” which means Howell won’t buckle during tough times. Repeatedly in Washington’s first two games, Howell has displayed toughness.
Great offensive playcallers such as Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan talk about getting into a great rhythm with a team’s starting signal-caller. After a rough start Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High, Bieniemy and Howell were dealing together. Correctly, Bieniemy identified ways to attack Denver’s defense, he understood what to call for Howell in the moment and Howell, starting for the first time on the road, delivered, which is the way that key partnership is supposed to work.
No one enjoyed the show more than Rivera.
Bieniemy “had some real good opportunities,” Rivera told reporters. “And we missed a couple of things.”
So many things were working, it “was a combination of everything” the players and Bieniemy did together, Howell observed. “We were kind of rolling on offense. We were doing some good things on the ground and in the air.”
It’s called offensive nirvana, which is a state of mind Bieniemy experienced regularly in his previous position.
Formerly the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, Bieniemy was an integral part of the NFL’s most successful organization of the past five seasons.
During Bieniemy’s run as coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense, the Chiefs won five consecutive AFC West division titles, hosted five consecutive AFC Championship games (a first in NFL history), played in three Super Bowls and won two Super Bowl championships. What’s more, Bieniemy helped quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’s only 28, already become an all-time great in pro sports’ top position.
Although Bieniemy, who is Black, is the NFL’s most successful offensive coordinator of the past five seasons, he was passed over repeatedly for head coaching openings while far less accomplished white assistants reached the top rung of the coaching ladder. In many respects, Bieniemy is the face of the league’s inclusive hiring crises at the club level.
Purportedly, Bieniemy hasn’t received an offer to fill one of the NFL’s 32 jobs because Reid does the lion’s share of work in directing Kansas City’s offense. The thing is, that didn’t stop Bieniemy’s two predecessors in the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator role from advancing in their careers.
Doug Pederson was Reid’s first offensive coordinator in Kansas City. He held the position for three seasons before being hired by the Eagles as their coach. He now leads the Jacksonville Jaguars. Matt Nagy followed Pederson.
Nagy occupied the post for two seasons and then was hired by the Chicago Bears as their coach. Except for a period during the 2017-18 season in which Reid ceded playcalling duties to Nagy, Bieniemy operated under the same playcalling structure in place when his two predecessors worked under Reid. Nagy is back in Kansas City as the team’s offensive coordinator.
This is relevant to the situation: Pederson and Nagy are both white.
Bieniemy left Kansas City in hopes of burnishing his already impressive résumé and, perhaps, convincing club owners that he’s ready to run his own shop.
In Week 2, Bieniemy called a heck of a game for the undefeated Commanders. And his mentor wasn’t on Washington’s sideline.
Granted, two games do not a season make. Moreover, because of the inordinately high rate of major injuries in the NFL compared to other sports, the bottom can fall out for any team at any moment.
Even after only two games, though, the narrative that Bieniemy is a buffoon who merely held Reid’s clipboard for five years has already been shattered. Perhaps NFL team owners will soon open their eyes, too.