Is Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy a good fit for NFL coaching searches?

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy tuned into a virtual press conference Thursday to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Except, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t expect him to talk much about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It is mid-January, after all; eight NFL teams (a quarter of the league) need a head coach; and Bieniemy figures to be in the mix for some of them.

Again.

And so, naturally, the conversation shifted pretty quickly. Bieniemy played along, at least initially, with a line he often uses at this time of year: It’s only fair to be mentioned.

But it was not enough. So, nearly 10 minutes later, as questions about the possibility of him leading an NFL staff continued, he felt compelled to point something out.

“Don’t you know we’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend?” He asked. “What are we talking about, guys? Are we talking about football or are we talking about interviews?

There was a hint of intentional amusement in that response. But it’s important to note that this conversation is not happening because of the media. It also doesn’t happen because of Eric Bieniemy.

It’s here because the NFL has collectively continued to make one. The NFL has only one black head coach since Thursday afternoon, and that’s the guy coming to Kansas City for a playoff game this weekend. As the league continues to promote diversity and inclusion with public marketing campaigns — and even incentives to hire minorities — its franchises have moved in the opposite direction for their locker room management.

The Texans fired David Culley, a former Chiefs assistant, on Thursday after just a year on the job – the only one-year coach in Houston history – after asking him to win football games with Davis Mills, and no Deshaun Watson, as his quarterback. It comes days after the Dolphins fired Brian Flores in a move that shocked even those in connected NFL circles. It will be said that there was more to these situations – there is always more – but for now, that leaves an alarming statistic.

A black head coach. In a league that employs 70% black players.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin arrives in Kansas City on Sunday for his 10th playoff appearance in 15 seasons at Pittsburgh, a remarkable streak that includes zero losing seasons. His resume stands out, and now it stands on its own.

The conversation can end when it is no longer accurate. Ditto for the annual song-and-dance with Bieniemy. He didn’t ask to be the poster child for this storyline, but here he is seated nonetheless. The first half of this sentence is made up of his own words from last year, and the second half is reality.

He is the offensive coordinator for a team that has won back-to-back Super Bowls; he has been coaching football for two decades now; and he received public, sometimes even spontaneous, support from people like Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.

Bieniemy has interviewed nearly half of the league’s teams over the past three years, and he’ll have another interview with the Denver Broncos next week to discuss their coaching job.

14 of the 32 teams have invited Bieniemy to present his plan for the future. And you can’t help but wonder if that’s now part of what works against him, if a team determines, Yes, we love it, but what are we missing? What hasn’t everyone seen?

Bieniemy doesn’t decide Kansas City play-calls, at least not regularly, a role Reid reserves for himself. But he was passed over for others who didn’t call plays either…and others who hadn’t even coached an NFL football game.

All of that, insists Bieniemy, is far from his mind as the Chiefs prepare to face the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round on Sunday. He cannot interview for other jobs until this round is over. Thus, the Steelers collect all his attention.

But he thought about being a head coach for a while — long before he came to Kansas City. In fact, in 2006, while serving as a post coach for the Vikings, his first NFL coaching job, Bieniemy watched another man prepare to take that step. This guy was finally hired, and he did pretty well.

Mike Tomlin.

“I saw him do his interview, and it was very, very impressive,” Bieniemy said. “I’ve always known after watching him go through that experience and seeing him become the great coach he’s become (that) it’s been very motivating for me. I’ve been collecting my items for my book for several years now You just keep adding more and building it.

It was 2006. Bieniemy was only 37 years old, the possibilities ahead of him. Now he’s a Super Bowl champion and a member of a team led by Andy Reid for nine years, the last four as offensive coordinator.

This may be the year a team tries their luck with him.

Or maybe we’ll have this conversation again next year.

“Right now, my goal is to make sure it’s not a distraction in whatever we want to accomplish,” Bieniemy said. “Because the only thing that matters is that our guys are mentally and physically ready to go out and play the best they can on Sunday. And the rest of the other stuff will take care of that on its own.

This story was originally published January 14, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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Sam McDowell covers the Chiefs and the sports business for The Star.

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