As his tenure in Kansas City wore on, Watkins viewed Bieniemy’s badgering less with aggravation and more with appreciation. He realized Bieniemy was making him better, in a way many NFL coaches are reluctant to. He did not refrain from wielding discipline against a star.
“Different teams, I’ve been that guy they kind of baby or just leave alone,” Watkins, a wide receiver who was drafted fourth overall in 2014, said in an interview late this season. “He’s the kind of guy that got on my ass just about every day with the littlest, slightest things. It was very annoying. But also, he made me a better professional as far as doing all the little things right, things that anywhere else I probably would have gotten away with. He got me right early when I got here.”
The NFL coaching cycle neared its conclusion late Tuesday morning, as the New York Giants nabbed New England Patriots assistant Joe Judge and the Carolina Panthers landed coveted college coach Matt Rhule from Baylor. The rapid-fire hires left the Cleveland Browns as the only team with a vacancy and left Bieniemy, who interviewed for four openings last year and three more (including Cleveland) this cycle, without a head job.
Tuesday’s developments also meant NFL teams have hired no African American head coaches this year at a moment when those numbers are in crisis. NFL teams employ three black head coaches, the same number as in 2003, when the Rooney Rule was instituted. (Washington’s Ron Rivera is Hispanic, and Fritz Pollard Alliance head Rod Graves called his hiring “a win for diversity.”)
The Browns can address both factors by making the best possible hire for their circumstances. Bieniemy would be an ideal fit in Cleveland, an antidote for both the team’s cultural malaise and offensive underachievement. The Browns have varied, profound problems to solve. The first two, in some order, would be a gaping lack of discipline and the regression of quarterback Baker Mayfield. Bieniemy’s strengths, even more than those of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, would fit those needs best.
Cleveland brought together a constellation of stars with massive personalities, and Freddie Kitchens’s primary failure was the inability to sublimate egos and mold them into a cohesive unit. Bieniemy’s players view that as his standout attribute. He has run an offense that features MVP Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, star wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce, who has one of the most boisterous personalities in the NFL.
Bieniemy has kept them all productive without deferring. His experience and approach make him an ideal coach to create a team out of Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, whom he coached in Kansas City.
“If you want a guy that can coach top players — and might get at me, might say something to [Mahomes], might say something to Kelce — and he don’t care,” Watkins said. “I don’t care who you is, from a coach to a player. If it ain’t going right, if you’re not going 100 percent, or you don’t know what you’re doing, get him out.”
This season, Kelce shoved Bieniemy on the sideline during a game. Later in the game, Kelce hugged him, showing they had moved on. The moment showed Bieniemy’s refusal to back down to stars and his ability to coach his best players hardest.
“I think the details and the way he’s able to control the room and get the best out of every single player is a big thing,” Mahomes said. “He holds you to a high standard.”
Bieniemy played running back in the NFL and climbed the coaching ladder as a running backs coach, which has been used as an argument against his hiring in an NFL more quarterback-centric than ever. But Coach Andy Reid has raved about his work with Mahomes — during games, even though Reid calls Kansas City’s plays, the voice Mahomes hears in his headset is Bieniemy’s.
Kansas City’s system belongs to Reid, of course, same as it did when Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy served as the team’s coordinator. Bieniemy has still put his own spin on the offense. Guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif credited Bieniemy with implementing more physical running plays earlier in games, which he said engaged linemen and set up deep passes later on.
“The way he went from coaching that position to running the entire group, that bigger responsibility, was amazing,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Sometimes, you see an RB coach is more run-oriented. But he really had a full understanding of everything, how the two go together, pass and run.”
Reid has promoted Bieniemy’s candidacy, saying he should have been hired last year, and that he has both a mastery of offense and the right touch as a leader. In meetings when Reid does not address the entire team, Watkins said, Bieniemy does.
In the history of the NFL, only five black head coaches have come from the offensive side of the ball. NFL teams have given remarkably few opportunities to black offensive coaches to climb the ladder, owing in part to the sport’s history of limited chances for black quarterbacks. Today, there are two black quarterbacks coaches and two black offensive coordinators.
Agent Brian Levy, who represents Bieniemy and numerous other minority coaches, said many clients reached out to him Tuesday, after news broke of Carolina and New York’s hires, with frustration and anger.
“The phone calls I’m getting today from my clients are the most disheartening I’ve received in my 30 years in this industry,” Levy said. “I’ve had clients ask me, ‘If I had those résumés, the two guys who got hired today, would I get those jobs?’ I had to tell them, ‘Probably not.' I don’t know what to say.”
Levy made it clear he had no issues with Rivera and new Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy being hired, and that he wanted to cast no aspersions on Judge or Rhule. But the snubbing so far of Bieniemy, who interviewed in Carolina and New York, caused many of his clients — regardless of color — to question what qualifications NFL teams want in their head coach candidates.
“The NFL is going to lose some really good coaches to college,” Levy said. “If you see that there’s no future, what are you going to do? There’s another business out there for them. They’re going to explore it.”
Earlier this season, Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, recalled the mid-1990s, when Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers offensive staff became a factory of head coaches. Steve Mariucci and Andy Reid both graduated to head jobs. Sherman Lewis, who is black, became his offensive coordinator. While Lewis received interest, he never received a head coaching job, a fact Dungy lamented 20 years later.
“When it comes to Sherman Lewis, ‘Well, Mike Holmgren really calls the plays, and it’s his offense. We’re really looking for somebody who calls the plays,’ ” Dungy said. “Kind of the same thing happened to Eric last year. It should be a natural progression — 'Okay, we’re looking for young, dynamic guys. Here’s a guy who’s been in this [Andy Reid] system. Let me at least talk to him.’ It seems slower to happen for the African American guys.”
Levy remained confident the Browns will hire Bieniemy, not based on indications from Cleveland, but on his belief that Bieniemy is the best, most qualified candidate. For now, Bieniemy has been turned down by six teams in two years.
“I told him [Tuesday], ‘Go win a Super Bowl ring, and then we’ll deal with it later,’ ” Levy said.
Those interviewed recently on the issue of diversity within the NFL coaching ranks say that the point is not to hire coaches because they’re black, but to give minority coaches the same consideration other coaches would receive, with the aim of getting the best possible candidate. It would boost the league’s diversity if the Browns made Bieniemy the last coach hired this year, but diversity alone isn’t the reason to hire a coach. The Browns should hire the right coach for them, and there are plenty of reasons to think that’s Bieniemy.
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