- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2023

ASHBURN — By the time he landed back in Kansas City after his team won the Super Bowl earlier this month, Eric Bieniemy had come to a conclusion. After 10 great years with the Chiefs, the last five as the team’s offensive coordinator, the former NFL running back realized he was ready for something new.

The Commanders had already put in a formal request to speak with Bieniemy for Washington‘s offensive coordinator vacancy. And, with his Chiefs’ contract expiring, Bieniemy was willing to talk.

“I knew exactly what was going to take place,” he told reporters at his elaborate introductory press conference Thursday.

He knew he’d be in charge of Washington‘s effort to develop second-year prospect Sam Howell into the Commanders’ version of Chiefs’ superstar Patrick Mahomes. He knew he’d have the leeway to hire some of his own staff. And, unlike in Kansas City, he would be the team’s play-caller.   

Speaking from a podium in Ashburn on Thursday, Bieniemy said he is “fired up” about taking on those responsibilities — including calling the offense for defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera.

Bieniemy’s lack of play-calling experience — head coach Andy Reid held on to that job in Kansas City — has been cited as a knock against him and perhaps a partial explanation of why one of the more decorated assistants in the league hasn’t landed a head coaching position.

Bieniemy, who is Black, in recent months had become the face of the NFL’s problem with hiring and promoting minority coaches. Over the years, he has interviewed —and been rejected — for more than a dozen jobs.

Bieniemy, wearing a gray suit, tried to deflect questions during Thursday’s event about whether the Commanders’ gig would help him eventually become a head coach. He said he was focused on the now, adding he was eager to build relationships with players and work with Rivera.

“I have never ever backed down from a challenge,” Bieniemy said. “So, I’m embracing this challenge. I’m fired up, I’m excited. I’m excited when it’s time to start talking ball with these guys to start getting the work. But when it’s all said and done with, why not Washington?”

As Bieniemy spoke, more than 10 players — including star wideout Terry McLaurin and quarterback Howell — sat in attendance, listening to their new offensive coordinator talk about the importance of accountability. That was something, he said, he learned throughout his days as a player, when he went from a star in college to a backup in the NFL who had to figure out how his role affected teammates.

“We all impact each other’s lives,” he said. 

Bieniemy likes to tell a story about how as a rookie in 1991, then-Chargers coach Dan Henning called him out for poor effort on special teams and how he threatened to cut him if the lackadaisical effort continued. Upset with the tone of his coach, Bieniemy’s initial reaction was to call his agent and demand out. But when someone in the Chargers’ building overheard that conversation, they offered advice that soon resonated with Bieniemy: “Seek not to become a person of success, but a person of value.” In other words, create your own value and success will come. 

That philosophy carried over into coaching with Bieniemy. The two-time Super Bowl champion is known for his attention to detail and for his willingness to push hard on players — no matter their stature. 

The latter has, at times, led to criticism, including from former Chiefs running back LeSean McCoy, who noted in a recent interview that he doesn’t see the value that Bieniemy brings as an offensive coordinator. When asked for a response to McCoy’s comments, Bieniemy called McCoy a Hall of Fame running back who was entitled to his opinion.

Others who have played for the veteran coach — including Mahomes and wideout Tyreek Hill — came to Bieniemy’s defense.

“There should be no questions on how great of a man/coach Coach Bienemy is,” Mahomes tweeted Thursday. “His leadership has a direct impact on the player/person I am today! … I cannot wait for him to continue to prove doubters wrong.”

Bieniemy emerged early on in the Commanders’ month-long process to replace former coordinator Scott Turner. Rivera had heard Bieniemy was interested in working with a defensive-minded coach and the two knew each other from their time in Philadelphia, where Rivera was Reid’s assistant and where Bieniemy finished his playing career. 

Rivera, who interviewed eight candidates for the open job, kept a close watch on the Chiefs’ offense in the playoffs — and he became convinced Kansas City’s style of attack could fit well with Washington’s roster. “We’ve got guys who can do that,” he said. 

Bieniemy’s coaching philosophy is rooted in the West Coast offense, emphasizing shorter, quicker throws and horizontal routes to stretch out opposing defenses. That will differ from the vertical “Air Coryell” system that Rivera has ran throughout his coaching career, though Rivera said he was open to a change. 

But, as much as there was mutual interest, Bieniemy still had to interview for the position. And there, Bieniemy left the Commanders’ brass more than impressed. Over three days, Bieniemy detailed his vision for how his offense could help the Commanders — elaborating on his plans for Howell and other players on the roster. 

“I’ll be honest, I came away from this going, ‘Wow, this guy’s good enough to be a head coach,” Rivera told The Washington Times. 

Team President Jason Wright said, “He killed the interview I was in, and I’ve done a lot of interviews with a lot of people over the years.” 

Bieniemy said he wasn’t concerned about the uncertainty of the Commanders’ ownership situation or the possibility of a new owner cleaning house sooner rather than later.

For now, he is focused on the immediate challenge: Washington, which hasn’t had an above-average offense in more than five years.

“If you’ve ever wanted anything in life, you gotta fight for it and that’s one thing we gonna learn to do,” Bieniemy said. “It doesn’t necessarily always have to be pretty because when it’s all said and done with, the only two alphabets that matter is a W or an L, that’s all that matters. I don’t care how we get it, long as we find a way to getting it. Together.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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