- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2023

In the photo-op that commemorated his hiring, the giant Super Bowl ring on Eric Bieniemy’s finger served as an enormous reminder of the Washington Commanders’ new offensive coordinator’s credentials. 

Bieniemy’s hiring over the weekend was met with near-universal praise locally as the Commanders landed a two-time championship-winning coach from the Kansas City Chiefs to run their offense. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson tweeted a smiling emoji filled with hearts in reaction to the news. Left tackle Charles Leno applauded with a clapping hands emoji. Fans chimed in with repeated messages of “W” and “Let’s go!!” The hire was the kind of splash that has mostly been missing for a franchise dogged by negative headlines and controversies. 

But on the national level, Bieniemy’s move prompted a more complicated reaction, much of it characterized by frustration that one of the league’s most accomplished Black assistant coaches hadn’t been hired for a head coaching position and had instead settled for what is essentially a coordinator’s job on Ron Rivera’s staff.       

Eric Bieniemy has to make a LATERAL MOVE to prove his competency as a coordinator is an f’ing embarrassment,” ESPN’s Louis Riddick tweeted. 

The Commanders technically gave Bieniemy a promotion by giving him the opportunity to call plays, an additional title of “assistant head coach” and a chance to build out his staff. But, to some, that hasn’t stopped the perception that Bieniemy is taking on, more or less, the same role for a worse organization after spending the last few years unable to land a head coaching job.

Bieniemy has become the face of the NFL’s problem with hiring and promoting minority coaches. Despite an impressive resume, the 53-year-old has reportedly interviewed 16 times for a head coaching gig with 15 different teams — only to be passed over each time.

Bieniemy’s jump to Washington focused nationwide attention on the issue.

“Is that not progress?” comedian Roy Wood Jr. said on HBO’s “Game Theory with Bomani Jones.” “A Black man doing really good gets to go do really good in the same position without getting promoted.”

Bieniemy going from the Super Bowl champions to the Commanders seemed especially galling to some commentators.  

“This is my thing that gets me about the idea of him going to Washington,” Jones added, “‘’So what I did with Patrick Mahomes wasn’t good enough? I got to go do this with whoever the hell (the Commanders) end up starting with to prove that I can pull this off?’ Just about everybody else rides the superstar quarterback to fame and fortune. Eric Bieniemy now has to go prove himself with … Sam Howell, who many people watching this have never heard of before.” 

Bieniemy willingly jumping from one coordinator position to another isn’t unprecedented. In 2018, for instance, Matt LaFleur left Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams so he could call plays for the Tennessee Titans — a move that helped the now Packers coach land his head coaching job in Green Bay. 

But even in that situation, there was a key difference: LaFleur, then 38, wasn’t nearly as accomplished as Bieniemy is now. LaFleur was with the Rams for just one season — well before Los Angeles won the Super Bowl in 2022. Bieniemy, by contrast, has spent the last five seasons as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator and 10 with the franchise as a whole. Coach Andy Reid, Mahomes and others have credited Bieniemy for his insight and attention to detail in helping annually craft one of the league’s best offenses.

Also notable, Bieniemy saw his predecessors — Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson, both of whom are White — land head coaching jobs despite Reid serving as the primary play-caller.

“To listen to people’s reasoning, saying it’s because (Bieniemy is) under Andy’s shadow, I think is unfair,” Rivera told reporters in Phoenix earlier this month. “I mean, you have to be willing to give the guy the opportunity.”

Bieniemy isn’t getting the opportunity to be the head coach in Washington, but his arrival has generated a level of excitement in Ashburn, where Washington will introduce Bieniemy at a formal press conference Thursday.

Bieniemy’s willingness to sign on with Rivera alleviates some concerns about how Washington is viewed as a landing spot for sought-after talent. After the Commanders fired Scott Turner last month, analysts wondered whether the team would face challenges in luring quality candidates for the position. After all, Rivera is entering a pivotal year after missing the playoffs in two straight seasons and there’s an added layer of uncertainty with owner Dan Snyder exploring a sale of the franchise. 

But Bieniemy accepted the job, anyway. He’ll get to work with an offense stocked with quality receivers in Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Dotson and promising running backs Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson. He’ll be tasked with mentoring Howell, a fifth-rounder entering his second year. 

As accomplished as Bieniemy is, there is risk.

If the Commanders have another underwhelming season, changes to the coaching staff are likely.

Eric Bieniemy having to leave Kansas City to ‘prove himself’ after WINNING 2 SUPER BOWLS as the Offensive Coordinator is a TRAVESTY,” former Washington quarterback and ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III tweeted.

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

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