Every year around this time, the NFL coaching carousel winds down. And every year around this time, the league’s stunning lack of diversity in its front-facing leadership positions rears its ugly head.
This year is no different. Oh, we’ve got a bit of a respite at the general manager spot, as two African Americans — Brad Holmes and Terry Fontenot — have been named general managers of the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, respectively. That brings the league-wide total of Black GMs to *checks notes* four.
Yeah, that’s still not good enough for a league that’s 69 percent Black.
But the lack of diversity on the head coaching side? After everything the NFL has done to improve in this area, including the recent tweaking of the Rooney Rule, this remains a flat-out embarrassment. Of the five head coaching jobs that have been filled this cycle, only one — the Jets’ hire of Robert Saleh, an Arab American — has gone to a minority.
Only two head coaching jobs, Houston and Philadelphia, remain open. So there remains an opportunity that Black coaches won’t be shutout again this cycle. The danger is definitely there, especially considering that of the 18 head coaching positions filled in the past three years, only one has gone to a Black coach. Yikes.
What’s more, Saleh, Washington’s Ron Rivera, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, and Miami’s Brian Flores are the league’s only minority head coaches at the moment, and if you don’t see a problem with that, you simply don’t want to see it. Especially since a prime candidate — Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a Black man — keeps being passed up for these jobs.
“I mean, everybody knows what I think of Eric and what kind of head coach I think he’d be,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Monday. “Maybe the best I thing I can tell you is I hope he goes to the NFC when he has that opportunity. Whoever gets him, I think, is a very lucky organization.”
“[He’s] one of the few people that I’ve come across with the leadership skills that he has, the ability to lead men in this crazy game that we’re in, and for those guys through his leadership to play at a Pro Bowl level,” Reid continued. “When he gets his hands on you, figuratively, he does wonders with athletes, and he’s able to maximize their abilities on the field, and he gives them that extra boost to be a productive person off the field and somebody I would have loved for my son to have played for.”
Eric Bieniemy has outperformed previous big-name Chiefs coordinators
Reid offered these words with a mix of sincerity and befuddlement, joining the litany of people I’ve spoken to in and around the Chiefs who don’t understand why Bieniemy isn’t a head coach yet.
The fact Bieniemy, who has been the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for three years now, has interviewed for nearly a dozen jobs over that time frame and not been hired remains absurd.
He’s in a pipeline position. The two men who were Chiefs OC before him, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, became head coaches, with Pederson spending three years in the job before he was hired by Philadelphia and Nagy lasting over two before he was hired by Chicago.
In the three years since Bieniemy took over the position, the Chiefs have gone a combined 38-10 in the regular season, with a Super Bowl title last season. During that time frame, the Chiefs have finished first, third and second in offensive DVOA, according to Pro Football Outsiders. Those marks are all better than they finished the five years prior, which ranked from fourth to 15th.
And yes, much of that has to do with the maturation of Patrick Mahomes into the league’s next generational quarterback. But Mahomes’ rise as a starter has coincided with Bieniemy’s guidance — Mahomes destroys blitzes, in part, because of an understanding of the protections that Bieniemy specializes in and has helped him learn.
Some people will point out the fact Bieniemy doesn’t call plays. It shouldn’t matter, because the Chiefs’ play-calling mechanism remains the same as it was when Nagy and Pederson held the position.
Reid is the primary play caller because he’s an offensive genius, but the offensive coordinator chips in considerably with the formation of the game plan, and assists (and sometimes makes) gameday calls. And Bieniemy is the one who speaks to Mahomes in the headset before every play.
While Nagy and Pederson each had short stints where it became publicly known they were calling the Chiefs’ plays, they received that responsibility only because the team’s offense was struggling those years and desperately needed a shakeup. Since Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018, the offense has never come close to struggling to that degree.
If anything, that should be seen as a boon to Bieniemy’s head coaching candidacy. People also conveniently forget that Reid never called plays outright before he became a head coach, either.
Why Bieniemy would be an excellent hire by the Texans
The fact Bieniemy hasn’t been hired yet is leading to assumptions about other possible reasons why, like questions over whether he’s interviewing well. As far as that goes, it’s hard to believe Bieniemy hasn’t refined his presentation to teams after three years of doing this, especially since multiple players have touted him as a forceful speaker who commands attention and respect when he addresses the offense.
The fact we even have to wonder whether that’s an issue — as well as his past arrests, many of which happened nearly three decades ago — is frustrating. Bieniemy recently told USA Today he doesn’t believe anything in his past has held him back. For another, many coaches without spotless backgrounds (see: Urban Meyer) get hired all the time based on their overall body of work as football men, leaders and culture setters.
The same should apply here to Bieniemy, especially for a team like Houston, whose star quarterback Deshaun Watson reportedly wanted him to be interviewed for the Texans’ vacant head coaching job. Bieniemy finally interviewed with the Texans recently, but it took him a while to even receive the interview request, and the Texans’ inaction reportedly angered Watson.
I get Watson’s anger. I suspect he knows that Houston would be fortunate to have Bieniemy, as there’s a belief among some who know the coach best that his hire would give the Texans a shot to fix that fractured relationship
“It would be over in five minutes,” one league source recently told Yahoo Sports.
In many ways, Bieniemy is the coach the Texans need, not the one they deserve.
Still, there are only 32 of these jobs, and it’s hard to imagine Bieniemy turning down an opportunity to work with a top-five quarterback entering his prime at 25 years old, provided he can diffuse the situation.
Will he get that opportunity or the one in Philly? Who knows.
To Bieniemy’s credit, his focus has stayed resolute on helping the Chiefs win another Super Bowl. Like many other African American coaches I’ve talked to, he regularly deflects questions about how unfair it all is, and focuses on doing the best job he can in the job he has.
But I also believe this: When Eric Bieniemy does get a head coaching job, he’ll be ready, prepared and (most of all) extremely motivated to prove some lucky team right, as Reid suggested.
I hope his chance comes sooner than later, which would be at least one positive step toward helping the NFL end this same sad yearly cycle.
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