On opening night of Super Bowl week in downtown Phoenix, a particular crowd of reporters ignored a gallery of star players concentrated inside the Footprint Center and instead migrated to the corner to surround one of the Chiefs’ assistant coaches.
For more than an hour there, Eric Bieniemy answered questions that tiptoed or delved into the same subject, a subject for which, ironically, he hasn’t been able to provide an actual answer for the last half-decade.
Why can’t you find a job as a head coach?
The elephant in the room is the face that stared back at them. You don’t need me to tell you that the NFL has a race problem, and if you do, saying it won’t change your mind.
Bieniemy didn’t ask to be the face of this storyline, but it came to him and stuck with him for half a decade.
Instead of leaving it behind, she now takes it with her to the nation’s capital.
Bieniemy, dropped out for head coaching jobs Indianapolis, New Orleans, Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, New York, Houston, other New York, Carolina, Cleveland, first New York again, Miami, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, is headed for a lateral move to Washington DC
To be honest, I think it’s more than the color of his skin that has led to this long and still unfinished journey that Bieniemy desires. But it’s NFL game stats that drive this narrative, and that’s their problem.
They’ve gotten themselves into this mess—one they’re not given the benefit of the doubt—and they deserve to be in it. A league where the player workforce is 70 percent black employs only three black head coaches.
It’s an embarrassing statistic, and if it means that every successive qualified black man has gone on to a bigger job — or, ahem, 15 of them — it attracts national skepticism, criticism and scorn, that’s their fault, not you or me. And I’m not going to feel sorry for them.
Truth? There are some valid questions about Bieniemy’s head coaching type, as there are with most candidates. There has never been a clear enough explanation for all that his role in Kansas City entails. This is Andy Reid’s offense, Andy Reid’s plan, and Andy Reid’s play-call. Well, let’s think. Teams these days are looking for more than a “man leader” in their next coach. Of course, this didn’t really matter to his predecessors.
Truth? There’s a healthy skepticism that many coaches might enjoy shooting Andy Reid into a Patrick Mahomes quarterback offense. Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson were both lucky enough to skip the pass Bieniemy will do next, but that was never the apples-to-apples confrontation some want it to be. Yes, they literally occupied the same position under Reid, but they led attacks that placed Alex Smith at quarterback, not Patrick Mahomes. When an owner looks at the potential fit, it occurs to them at one point that: Well, our offense doesn’t have THAT quarterback.
All early head coaching hires, however, require some form of leap of faith, and NFL owners have been more willing to put their trust in men who look like them. This is what the numbers not only suggest but prove.
And so are the black men – the Eric Bieniemys – who must prove that they are a little more than their counterparts. Or much more than their counterparts.
While acknowledging the holes in Bieniemy’s resume, the real point is that most applicants are not required to check Everything is fine box. The NFL’s racial problem is often viewed too simplistically as keeping minorities in check. Often, however, it is also the absence of raising them.
They are not the subjects of those leaps of faith, but rather the ones that are leapfrogged, over and over again.
An offensive coordinator for a two-time Super Bowl champion who has never been ashamed to reach at least the AFC Championship Game can’t find a promotion and, believe me, he’s scoured the country for one. His offenses have never been ranked lower than third in the Football Outsiders DVOA metric.
So Bieniemy has to quit a job with the best team in football for the same job with a team that has made the playoffs once in the past seven seasons, all to prove what many owners would probably assume he has already demonstrated in Kansas City if he had a different skin color.
I don’t know if Bieniemy will be a good coach. I know he has a reputation for not interviewing well, that he doesn’t always say the right thing. I also know that there are worse experiences that lead to head coaching jobs.
But black men have to jump Everything is fine circle, not just the important ones or those that provide the best organizational fit. That’s essentially what Bieniemy granted himself with his move to the East Coast: a chance to jump through a couple more hoops that exist only for people like him. It will be his offense in Washington, his plan and his play. And he won’t have Patrick Mahomes at quarterback.
If it succeeds, then what? Do other circles await on the other side?
Part of the problem is the NFL’s reluctance to admit the seriousness of the problem: the extent to which race plays a role in this job, general manager jobs, even jobs within its own media empire.
This is what causes not only immediate skepticism, but also long-term distrust, because while ultimately there is real behind-closed-door logic for leaving Bieniemy out of the 32 club, there is no logic at all for having only three black men in that club.
The NFL earns the consequences of those numbers until it fixes them.
We should applaud Bieniemy for trying a new route. She’s choosing ambition over the ring collection that’s coming to KC. And the next time he’s interviewed for a head coaching job, those across the table should trust actions rather than nitpick with words.
This is a sign that he is extremely confident in his own abilities.
And there is something to be said for this.
He’s doing what the NFL owners won’t do: take a leap of faith on Eric Bieniemy.