The NFL has failed Black coaches, and Eric Bieniemy is the face of the problem. But should he be?
Here is Bieniemy, coordinating the Chiefs’ explosive offense for Kansas City’s two Super Bowl runs, admired by players, objectively qualified to be a head coach. Nobody has hired him. He is Black. This is all true. But it is only part of the story.
This issue is complicated. Not complicated in the condescending sense, as a cover for poor behavior (This looks bad, but it’s complicated). It looks bad because it is bad. It’s complicated in the sense that this is a serious problem with many facets, but we can’t see them all by focusing solely on Bieniemy.
Look closer, but also, look around—at what else is happening in the NFL, and at Bieniemy in historical context. His quest for a head-coaching job is just not as simple as many are making it out to be.
Let’s say it again: The NFL has a serious problem. There were three Black head coaches in the league last year. With the Chargers’ firing Anthony Lynn and the Texans’ hiring David Culley, there are still just three Black head coaches. Commissioner Roger Goodell has worked to fix the problem, including the unprecedented step of rewarding teams with draft picks when they develop a head coach or general manager, but Goodell cannot force teams to hire Black coaches. And so here we are. There were seven openings this offseason, and only one went to a Black coach (Culley).
Frustration and anger are understandable and justified. As Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy wrote in an open letter this week, “We aren’t truly embracing minority hiring in every aspect of our game.”
But look closer, and you do see some encouraging signs—probably not enough, but some. Ten teams had general manager or coach openings this year, for a total of 14 openings. Four of those openings went to Black men. This did not get much attention, since three of the four were general managers, less visible than head coaches. But four out of 14 looks better than one out of seven. For a league that has been so far behind in promoting Black executives, this is clear improvement.
Two of the organizations that interviewed Bieniemy in January went on to hire Black general managers (Atlanta, which hired Terry Fontenot, and Detroit, which hired Brad Holmes). Maybe they made a mistake in not hiring him. But at least consider that context before assuming that race is the primary reason they chose a different coach.
“I wish we saw a little more progress [with] head coaches, but that shouldn't leave us denying them the progress that was made,” says former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner, who has known Bieniemy since the coach was a running back in Philadelphia.
“I'm not [arguing about] whether Eric deserves an opportunity—I actually think he does. I just think if we break this all down to the litmus test is ‘This one guy has to get the job or proves the system isn't making progress,’ it's just not a fair way to look at the picture.”
A closer look at Bieniemy’s candidacy can tell us more. Bieniemy might turn out to be a great head coach someday. But the assertion that he would definitely have a job by now if he were white is not clearly supported by the facts.
Super Bowl coordinators usually get NFL head-coaching gigs eventually. But not always, and certainly not always immediately. Matt Patricia coordinated the Patriots’ defense in three Super Bowls, winning two, before landing a head-coaching job. Darrell Bevell coordinated the Seahawks’ offense in two Super Bowls and has never been hired as a full-time head coach. Greg Roman coordinated explosive offenses in San Francisco and Baltimore that were the talk of the league and has never been a head coach. Pete Carmichael has been the Saints’ offensive coordinator since their Super Bowl winning-season in 2009 and has never been a head coach.
It’s true that Bieniemy’s white predecessors with Andy Reid’s Chiefs, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, both landed head-coaching jobs. But, as Banner points out, “Brad Childress took years to get a head coaching job [as] Andy’s offensive coordinator [in Philadelphia]. And, yeah, we were going to championship games instead of winning Super Bowls. You know, big deal. We were having tremendous success.”
So why hasn’t Bieniemy gotten the same chance that Nagy and Pederson got? Let’s look at the league’s hiring patterns.
When Banner and the Eagles hired Reid in 1999, the move was controversial because Reid had never been a coordinator. The Eagles felt it was more important that Reid was smart, connected with players, paid attention to detail and had a vision for how to hire a staff and run a program. They were ahead of their time.
Some point out that Reid calls plays, implying Bieniemy isn’t really the coordinator. Others counter that Nagy and Pederson also did not call plays. But all this misses the greater point: The ability to call plays has an indirect correlation with becoming a good head coach.
It sure seems like the natural job progression for a coach is from position coach to coordinator to head coach—and, therefore, that coordinators of the league’s best units are most ready to be head coaches. But the qualities that make a successful coordinator are not necessarily the qualities that make a successful head coach. Two of the best head coaches in the NFL—Reid and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh—never coordinated an offense or defense before becoming a head coach. Mike Tomlin was a defensive coordinator for only one season, and for a 10-loss team. Freddie Kitchens was a creative play-caller but an overmatched head coach in Cleveland; Joe Judge never called plays but impressed NFL people with his work as a rookie head coach with the Giants.
“There’s some overlap,” Banner says. “But there’s also a whole bunch that’s completely different. And I think if you look at the most successful searches, you can see the most successful coaches have been ones that bring a lot more to the table than just being really good at their side of the ball.”
Mike Tannenbaum, the former general manager of the Jets and Dolphins who has also been an agent for coaches, says ,“The skill set you need to get there—designing a great blitz or scheming somebody open in the end zone—is very different from the skills you need to run a company.”
The NFL has finally figured this out and adjusted its hiring trends—at the worst possible time for Bieniemy. In the 2016 to ’18 hiring cycles, all 20 openings went to coaches who had been NFL coordinators or head coaches (or both). In the ’19 to ’21 hiring cycles, only 12 of the 20 openings went to coaches who had been NFL coordinators or head coaches (or both). This year, two of the seven jobs went to assistant coaches who had never been NFL coordinators, and another went to former college coach Urban Meyer, who has never worked in the NFL at all.
What does this mean for Bieniemy? One, while he might turn out to be a better head coach than some recent hires, his résumé does not separate him from the crowd to the extent that people seem to think. But also: Once the NFL started to get away from focusing on hot coordinators, the pool of apparently qualified applicants became much larger. The number of people who would be great NFL head coaches is quite small, because of how much goes into the job. But there are dozens who, on the surface, are as qualified as Dan Campbell when the Lions hired him last month, or Reid when the Eagles hired him, or Culley before he went to Houston.
This is a challenge for Bieniemy because he is competing against more seemingly qualified candidates—but also because hard data, like the Chiefs’ offensive efficiency, does not help him as much as the public thinks.
“It does add even more subjectivity to a process that was reasonably subjective anyway,” Banner says.
When a process is subjective, of course, that brings biases into play. White owners might be more likely to see “leadership qualities” in a white coach than a Black coach. It is very possible that these unspoken biases have hurt Bieniemy. There is no doubt they have hurt Black coaches on the whole. This is the underlying issue that the NFL needs to overcome.
Bieniemy faces other hurdles that may or may not relate to his race. One is that, as silly as this sounds, his team is too good. Most coaches get hired and introduced and start work in the first two weeks of January. Making Super Bowl runs can work against an assistant coach. Along with a limited window in which to be interviewed, he must balance any interviews with the pressure of a playoff run. And teams that are hiring know that, if the Chiefs go to the Super Bowl, he cannot start a new job until February, long after offseason work has begun.
Tannenbaum remembers when one of his NBA coaching clients, the Warriors’ Steve Kerr, lost his lead assistant, Alvin Gentry, to the Pelicans. Gentry interviewed twice during the playoffs, got hired, stayed with the Warriors, then left. This is harder to pull off in the NFL, where teams are notoriously anxious and a lot of business is done during the playoffs.
“Whether it’s fair or not, the tie goes against the coordinator that’s available,” Tannenbaum says.
He suggests delaying all hires until the Tuesday after the Super Bowl: “Maybe have coaching free agency followed by player free agency followed by the draft.”
That is a flaw in the process that is specific to Super Bowl coordinators. It hurts Bieniemy and hurts the Bucs’ coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, both of whom are qualified for head-coaching jobs. (Bowles has already had one, with the Jets.)
Others have pointed out Bieniemy’s past mistakes—a 1993 arrest for harassing a parking-lot attendant and a 2001 DUI. But others with similar transgressions have become head coaches. Those should not disqualify him—and if they do, it’s fair to ask whether Black coaches are held to a higher standard of conduct than white coaches.
Bieniemy did not ask to be the face of the NFL’s diversity problem. He just wants to coach. He has handled questions about it admirably and deftly. As he said this week, it’s important that he gets the right job, not just any job.
“Sometimes the job and the person have to connect,” he said. “The only thing I can do is be my most authentic self. I can only be me. Some team has to want me. On top of that, there has to be some type of collaboration or making sure the chemistry has to be a fit. For whatever reason that chemistry has not been a fit. There has not been an opportunity to connect. But that’s O.K.”
Bieniemy will almost certainly get a head-coaching job. It might take him another year or two. But it is extremely likely that his team will keep winning and he will keep doing a great job, and somebody will hire him.
That will be great for Bieniemy, but it will not solve the NFL’s problem. He is still just one coach.
What does the NFL need to do? Tannenbaum says, “Right now we’re trying to put a Band-Aid on the problem. We need to heal the wound and not just [cover] the cut.” He thinks hiring more Black assistants, all the way down to entry-level jobs, will make a difference. Banner says he already sees improvement, even if it’s not clear.
“Quite frankly, there weren’t enough people really agreeing it was a problem and trying to make it better,” he says. “That has absolutely changed. I believe it is being addressed, which doesn’t mean we're able to check every box we hoped we could for 2021. But there was real progress made.
“The reason I’m so confident about the future is this change in mindset. You can make all the rules in the world you want to make. If you don’t change the mindset, you’re not going to solve the problem.”
Time will tell whether Banner’s optimism is warranted. If teams keep hiring Black general managers and assistant coaches, then logically, they will start hiring more Black head coaches, too. Eric Bieniemy will be one. Let’s hope he is one of many.