He should learn to utter hackish catchphrases with just the right earnest eye bulge that hints at a football-is-my-religion compulsion, develop some slick patter about how “complacency is a disease.” His résumé should show he played high school football somewhere in Ohio or Pennsylvania at a place named something like St. Peter Paul Bishops Academy of the Holy Divine Child, preferably in a hopeless overstriving role — owners like to see themselves in that. He should wave around a copy of George S. Patton’s “War As I Knew It” or Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and present a binder thicker than a Vatican psalter and declare it a “system.”
Follow that advice, and maybe he will at least get an interview, if not proper consideration for a decent head coaching job. Oh, and it would help if he changed his name to Smith.
There were seven coaching vacancies in the NFL a week ago, and just two remain: the 4-11-1 Philadelphia Eagles and the 4-12 Houston Texans. After all these years in the game, 51-year-old Eric Bieniemy is said to be a lead contender in Houston, though you might ask, “Who would want that job?” The Texans are picked to the bone of talent and out of money, nearly $20 million over the salary cap with no draft choices in the first or second rounds, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is silently screaming to get out. Still, if Bieniemy wants it, he may be able to get it, though as an aging Black man he probably will have to beat out some nice 31-year-old position coach who reminds owner Cal McNair of his younger self — or one of Don Shula’s great grandsons, or a Fred Smith cousin.
It’s remarkable how NFL owners’ diversity pledges always seem to be followed by vague, unmeetable job criteria that guys such as Bieniemy don’t fulfill. In a league in which 69 percent of players and 35 percent of assistant coaches are of color, just two head coaching jobs are filled by Black men.
Meanwhile, Urban Meyer, who hasn’t coached a down in two years and has never been in charge of grown, self-determined men, saunters straight from the Fox Sports TV set to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ job, quicker than he can turn down the collar of his polo shirt. The owners talk, talk, talk, talk about the Rooney Rule and promoting more Black candidates when all they’re really doing, as Rod Graves of the Fritz Pollard Alliance pointed out, is “locking onto a White candidate and hiring him after checking the boxes.”
You would think Bieniemy would be the very first man on any team’s wish list — he will be coaching the Kansas City Chiefs in his third straight AFC championship game as Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator and has won a Super Bowl ring — but instead he appears to be among the last. Usually, hiring away an assistant from Reid is a good move for an owner: Seven of Reid’s former employees have led teams into the playoffs.
“Everybody knows what I think of Eric and what kind of head coach I think he’d be,” Reid said Monday. “… He has the ability to lead men in this crazy game that we’re in. … When he gets his hands on you, figuratively, he does wonders with athletes. And he gives you that extra boost to be a productive person off the field, too. He’s someone I’d love for a son to play for.”
Yet somehow owners are perpetually uncertain about Bieniemy. One rap on him is said to be that he doesn’t call the plays; Reid does that. Former underlings John Harbaugh, Sean McDermott, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy never regularly called plays for Reid, either. Yet owners found enough certainty in their hearts to hire them anyway. All of which is to say that Bieniemy has utterly blown the owners’ collective cover and exposed their moral cowardice, simply by going to work every day.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has said that in looking for a new coach he is bent on taking his time and “getting to know the person as best you can.” Meanwhile, on Tuesday he interviewed 32-year-old Kellen Moore, who has been a coach for just three seasons and can’t even know himself.
Somehow the Los Angeles Chargers got to know 38-year-old Brandon Staley well enough to hand him the franchise, though just over four years ago he was still coaching Division III college football. President of football operations John Spanos says it “doesn’t matter if you’ve known Brandon for five minutes or five years.” They’re just sure that he’s a “tremendous football mind” and better than any number of Black assistants, such as, say, Byron Leftwich of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will be calling plays for Tom Brady in Sunday’s NFC championship game.
“The disparity in opportunities is mind-blowing,” Graves said.
Hiring an NFL head coach is a stressful and doubt-filled exercise that requires handing over control of an immensely valuable entity. The truth is that owners are just guessing with these hires. They can’t really “know” how any of these candidates will perform, for the simple reason that real leadership emerges only in action, under pressure and in the face of resistance. So they blather on with hazy, inexact, elusive terms about finding a coach with “vision,” phrases so gauzily indistinct that they deflect self-examination and cover up what’s really happening: hires based on racist categorization and replicant recognition.
Because look here: There is no other “vision” in the NFL apart from winning the Super Bowl. And Eric Bieniemy has won one. Moreover, he has won it at the elbow of Reid, whose success rate at turning out good head coaches is, oh, somewhere around 80 percent. He’s the safest hire out there. Unless you’re an owner of a certain age and disposition, in which case even someone with acne looks safer and more familiar to you.