ASHBURN, Va. – After only a few days of training camp, Washington Commanders team president Jason Wright had seen enough to make a call: New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is a rock star.
Not only had Bieniemy led the Commanders’ offense with aplomb, displaying the expertise befitting a veteran leader with his championship credentials, he remained at the forefront of an ongoing culture change within an organization that’s emerging from the nightmarish tenure of former club owner Daniel Snyder. In fact, Wright said, no Washington assistant coach on offense during Wright’s time with the franchise has done more to move the ball in the right direction both on and off the field, which is what head coach Ron Rivera envisioned when he hired Bieniemy.
As the Commanders strive to return to prominence under new ownership (a group led by billionaire Josh Harris completed its purchase of the franchise in July), Bieniemy begins his new role after having helped the Kansas City Chiefs, in the same capacity, succeed spectacularly. Although Bieniemy, who is Black, is the NFL’s most successful offensive coordinator of the past five seasons, he has been passed over repeatedly for head coaching openings while far less-accomplished white assistants have reached the top rung of the coaching ladder. In many respects, Bieniemy has become the face of the league’s inclusive hiring crises at the club level.
Bieniemy left Kansas City in hopes of burnishing his already impressive resume and, perhaps, convincing club owners that he’s ready to run his own shop. Wright’s verdict is in.
“He’s been the single biggest accelerant to the culture change Ron was brought in to do,” Wright said. “Ron is allowing E.B. to operate like a head coach in many ways, and that’s because E.B. has the skill set of a head coach.”
From the moment he arrived at the club’s headquarters here in February, Bieniemy has generated positive energy palpable throughout the building. Empowered by Rivera to command the offense as he sees fit, Bieniemy moved quickly to remake a group that ranked 24th out of 32 teams in points and 20th in yards.
The onetime NFL running back has employed the same approach that served him well during his time in Kansas City as head coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense. Bieniemy leads by example and demands the best from everyone under him. On the practice field, it’s clear who’s directing the Commanders’ offense.
“The level of intensity and preparation and the focus, in both meetings and practice, is on a level that has not been, since I’ve been here, on the offensive side,” said Wright, also formerly a running back in the NFL and the league’s first Black team president.
“[Players] are in the film room early and his coaches are in the film rooms early because the standard of preparation has gone way up. It is a night-and-day difference with him at the helm. And the accountability and attention to detail are being discussed and executed with a new level of rigor that gives me so much confidence and excitement about what’s coming.”
At the outset of camp, Bieniemy established there will be consequences for repeated mental mistakes. Among other things, he has yanked the first-string offense from the field for miscues such as having consecutive false starts. Bieniemy has experienced benefits from running a tight ship.
During his five seasons as Kansas City’s OC, the team hosted five consecutive AFC Championship games, played in three Super Bowls and won two Super Bowl championships. What’s more, Bieniemy helped quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’s only 27, already become an all-time great at professional sports’ top position.
With such an impressive ledger, Bieniemy would appear to be an ideal candidate to become a head coach.
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, which has been second to none in the league since Mahomes became the team’s starter. But that didn’t stop Bieniemy’s two predecessors in the Chiefs’ OC 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 head 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 head coach. With the exception of a period during the 2017-18 season in which Reid ceded play-calling duties to Nagy, Bieniemy operated under the same play-calling structure in place when his two predecessors worked under Reid. Nagy is back in KC as the team’s OC.
This is relevant to the situation: Pederson and Nagy are both white.
The bad optics are not lost on top executives in the league office.
“Coach Bieniemy is a two-time Super Bowl winner and one of the most decorated OCs in the last decade,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, wrote to Andscape in a text message.
“All of Coach Reid’s OCs during his time in Kansas City have went on to be head coaches. Yet we are still looking for [Bieniemy] to receive the same grace and opportunity. Coach Bieniemy’s body of work and coaching resume speaks for itself.”
Reid – a future first-ballot Hall of Famer – sets the agenda for Kansas City’s offense and is the team’s primary playcaller. But both Reid and Mahomes have been effusive in their praise of Bieniemy. With Washington, Bieniemy will be the team’s primary offensive playcaller.
Many on the front lines of diversity, equity and inclusion in the NFL are frustrated that Bieniemy hasn’t moved up. Rod Graves, the executive director of the independent organization that advises NFL leaders on matters of DEI in hiring, said Bieniemy has already done more than enough to prove his bona fides.
“Eric Bieniemy is one of the league’s finest coaches. Spend any amount of time with him and … his readiness for leadership rises from a notion to a strong belief,” Graves, who leads the Fritz Pollard Alliance, wrote in a text message to Andscape. “His credentials are already impressive. Requiring him to repeatedly reach a new standard is a flaw in our system.”
If the Commanders’ offense thrives this season, the theory goes, owners may view Bieniemy more favorably because he would have succeeded out of Reid’s shadow. But the NFL has only three Black head coaches among 32 overall: Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and DeMeco Ryans of the Houston Texans.
Even if Bieniemy were to engineer a historic turnaround on offense for Washington, there’s no guarantee he would get any closer to the position he most covets. Fact is, NFL club owners rarely hire Black men to guide their teams.
For years, N. Jeremi Duru has expected Bieniemy to become one of the few who is picked. A professor of sports law at American University and an observer of the NFL’s hiring practices, Duru hopes it all comes together for Bieniemy in his new post.
“By all assessments, Eric Bieniemy is an outstanding coach, and … most people in the league would agree that he is under-employed as an offensive coordinator,” Duru wrote to Andscape in a text message.
“That said, he is working with an outstanding head coach in Ron Rivera, and the club is a lot more stable than it was just a few weeks ago before the sale. The work he does with the Commanders’ offense this season could propel him back into the head coach conversation. He shouldn’t have to prove himself yet again, though. He should already be a head coach.”
Washington hasn’t had a winning record since the 2016-17 season (8-7-1). Since winning the Super Bowl after the 1991-92 season, the Commanders have played in only 10 playoff games. In comparison, during Bieniemy’s five years as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, he coached in 14 postseason games.
Barring unforeseen moves, either Sam Howell, a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft who has thrown a total of 19 passes in the league, or journeyman Jacoby Brissett will be the team’s starting QB. This much is certain: Bieniemy won’t be coaching the league’s best QB and player as he had the past five seasons with the Chiefs.
“Eric’s chances of accumulating wins at Washington or anywhere else will depend on many factors, a number of which may be out of his control,” Graves wrote. “One thing for certain, the places where he exists will be better as a result of his presence.”
Quickly, Wright learned he could attest to that.
“[Bieniemy] is shaping and molding the culture of the offense and thereby the whole team,” Wright said. “We’re lucky to have him.”
Immediately, Bieniemy’s big move from Kansas City paid off for the Commanders. Whether their new union benefits him, however, remains to be seen.