Bieniemy is face of NFL’s shameful failure in not hiring more black coaches
Eric Bieniemy is the face of success in terms of being great at his job as an NFL assistant coach. He has two Super Bowl rings to prove it in his time as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator. Just over a week ago he was specifically credited with detecting flaws in Philadelphia’s defensive tendencies that led directly to two touchdowns and the latest championship.
In concert with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce and Andy Reid calling the plays, Bieniemy was the quiet force behind football’s greatest offense, one that absorbed the loss of Tyreek Hill with nary a hiccup.
This same Eric Bieniemy also has become the face of failure on the NFL’s part in making sure excellent, proven Black top assistant coaches get a fair shot at the ultimate promotion when head-coach openings arise.
The NFL has regressed in its most visible minority hiring. The Rooney Rule has proved to be easily circumvented, a farce.
The league is 69 percent minority players and 57 percent Black players but will have only three Black head coaches in 2023 among the 32 teams, a number stagnant for the fifth straight year.
Bieniemy rhymes with “the enemy” and Black coaches must sometimes feel like that in their own league.
A Washington Post data analysis found Blacks are systemically hired as head coaches less often and fired more quickly than white counterparts. The victims of this continuing discrimination don’t need to read it; they live it.
Brian Flores — fired by the Dolphins despite his 2020-21 teams forging the club’s first consecutive winning seasons since 2002-03 — surely felt like the enemy in filing his ongoing lawsuit against the Dolphins and NFL over racist hiring practices.
“It’s certainly discouraging,” said Richard Lapchick, head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
“I have no doubt the league is trying to make a push to strengthen its policies. But the record is the record. To go up and go down is normal. But it’s stagnated at a low point for way too long.”
It felt like a break-through in 2006. The NFL had seven Black head coaches that season, the most ever, and two met in the Super Bowl, a first, as Tony Dungy of Indianapolis faced Chicago’s Lovie Smith. It was a history-making. It felt there would be no turning back.
But there was a turning back. That is the thing about equal rights. You can codify it, but it doesn’t succeed until it is embedded deeper than law, in conscience and heart. Progress must be nurtured with vigor to carry on, or it can come to a thudding halt, or lurch into reverse.
The NFL had seven Black head coaches again in 2018, tying the record. But the number fell to three and sits there in 2023: With Pittsburgh veteran coach Mike Tomlin, Todd Bowles back with Tampa Bay and DeMeco Ryans newly hired in Houston. (Miami’s Mike McDaniel has a Black father and identifies as multi-racial. The NFL considers him a minority but not a Black head coach.)
The NFL is trying, or at least making the effort to seem like it.
Commissioner Roger Goodell at the recent Super Bowl lauded the league’s “accelerator program” that he said led to Tennessee hiring its first Black general manager in Ran Carthon. We also are beginning to see female faces on the sidelines, including at least a handful who are full-time assistant coaches.
But the head-coaching paucity continues to disappoint — and mystify.
We have seen Black starting quarterbacks advance from a novelty to so commonplace it is hardly noteworthy anymore. Almost 40 percent of teams are led by a passer of color. The Super Bowl just past had two in Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, an historic first.
Black quarterbacks have proven the past hesitancy to have been stupidly unnecessary. Black head coaches, as a group, are still dealing for that same hesitancy and waiting for that same opportunity.
White hires are given the benefit of doubt in a way Black candidates are not — and there is doubt about most every hiring unless he is a Sean Payton with championship stock at the job.
The Dolphins hired Cam (1-15) Cameron. The Colts decided Jeff Saturday was an NFL head coach even though he’d only been a coach at something called Hebron Christian Academy. The Broncos couldn’t even get through one full season of Nathaniel Hackett.
NFL teams make bad head-coaching hires all the times. No hire guarantees success, but Black candidates deserve the same opportunity to fail as white coaches.
In the past five years there have been 33 non-interim head-coach openings and only five have gone to Black coaches. (Only two without Houston’s three such hires.)
The NFL needs to put teeth in its Rooney Rule by finding a way to incentive the hiring of Black head coaches so that some of the benefit of doubt and the close calls start tipping in a different direction. One possibility would be the reward of a second- or third-round compensatory draft pick.
The past five years Eric Bieniemy has been interviewed by half of the league for a head-coach opening, by 15 teams on 16 occasions. He has not been a perfect candidate. The word is he isn’t great at interviews. Decades ago he had a few minor run-ins with the law.
But, at 53, he has worked a long time and succeeded enough to earn his shot, and his desperation to finally get it showed in his leaving the Chiefs for the same job with the Washington Commanders.
At a glance it seems a lunatic move: Going from a state-of-the-art offense led by Mahomes to a struggling offense with Carson Wentz, Sam Howell and Taylor Heinicke. The method to the madness? Succeeding obscured by Reid, Mahomes and Kelce didn’t leave much room for Bieniemy to get his just due. His being along for the ride in a lucky job was something he heard carefully said all the time in being rejected.
Create an exciting, winning offense in Washington and maybe you finally get somebody’s attention; no, somebody’s respect.
There should not be such an arduous, uphill climb for qualified Black coaches to get to the top.
It will be the NFL’s great failing and shame as long as there continues to be.