Twice during the classic sports comedy “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” about a fictional barnstorming Negro Leagues baseball team when the major leagues still refused Black men, Richard Pryor’s character tries to pass as another melanated ethnicity or race the majors might find more tolerable. The first time, Charlie Snow pretends to be Cuban. Near the film’s end, he shaves the sides of his head and claims he is a Native man. Neither ploy works.
But if I were Eric Bieniemy — who just won a second Super Bowl ring as offensive coordinator for Kansas City, orchestrating scoring drives on all four of his unit’s second-half possessions against the second-ranked defense in the NFL for a come-from-behind 38-35 win — I would try Charlie Snow’s gambit. Camouflage your Blackness because it is clearly a disqualifying characteristic for almost all NFL head coaching aspirants as last year’s Washington Post investigative series illustrated. Claim being, say, biracial, like Mike McDaniel, who despite being 14 years younger and an offensive coordinator in San Francisco for just one season, was hired by Miami after the 2021 season. What’s Bieniemy got to lose?
I don’t know Bieniemy. I don’t know whether he will be the next Mike Tomlin — who guided the Steelers to a Super Bowl trophy in just his second season and has yet, after 16 years, to have a losing campaign — or the next Marion Campbell. Look him up. Actually, don’t.
But I am absolutely certain that after all Bieniemy accomplished this season and his previous four directing Andy Reid’s offense, he deserves a chance at least to fail as a head coach. In his first season as Reid’s offensive coordinator, his side led the NFL in yards gained and points scored. He helped Patrick Mahomes become the second quarterback in NFL history behind Peyton Manning to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season. Over the next four seasons, no team won more games, scored more points or gained more yards than Kansas City. Volunteered Reid to the football world in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s Super Bowl victory: “Eric Bieniemy was phenomenal.”
So what could give league owners, team presidents and general managers cold feet on Bieniemy other than his skin color? Hygiene? Does he require an Amharic translator? None of the criticisms against him were prohibitive for White coaches in the same situation who went on to get head jobs — maybe even bomb at them and then go on to get yet another. The Bieniemy case feels like one of those fair housing tests in which a would-be Black renter or buyer and a hopeful White home seeker of the same means show up for the same property, but the hopeful Black home hunter is summarily and inexplicably dismissed. This is why onetime NFL head coach Brian Flores, who is Black, is suing the league for discrimination. Bieniemy should join the suit.
Take, for example, the criticism against Bieniemy that it is his offensive genius of a boss, Reid, who really calls the plays that Mahomes, their two-time Super Bowl MVP, turns into magic. Well, Doug Pederson, who is White, apprenticed as Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City during the first half of the last decade, and Philadelphia didn’t see it as an impediment to hiring him as its coach in 2016. Matt Nagy, also White, did the same later, and that was good enough for the Bears to recruit him to be their head man.
Reid and Bieniemy, who succeeded Nagy, watched Mahomes blossom into a wunderkind at quarterback. He proved Sunday in the Super Bowl that he is the standard-bearer of field generalship in the new, wide-open offensive NFL. Some wonder: Who wouldn’t be successful with such a generational talent?
Well, Josh McDaniels, who is White, not only was a barely 30-year-old offensive coordinator for arguably the greatest coach in NFL history in Bill Belichick but was also sketching plays for undoubtedly the greatest quarterback the game has seen in Tom Brady. But Denver didn’t discount that. It hired McDaniels as its coach in 2009 when he was 32, after three seasons riding in the back seat behind Belichick and Brady.
Not only that, but after McDaniels flopped with the Broncos, Belichick and Brady brought him back, returned some shine to his image with the glint of three more Lombardi Trophies, and then Las Vegas decided to give him a second chance running the whole show. And he’s still not as aged as Bieniemy.
Then there is the character question. Bieniemy was arrested on a DUI charge 22 years ago while an assistant with the University of Colorado program for which he had starred. Eight years before that, he was banned from the campus after a woman working as a parking lot attendant said Bieniemy harassed her. And more than 30 years ago as a running back at Colorado, Bieniemy was suspended for a game after he was charged for interfering with a firefighter at his mother’s house, got busted for speeding and driving with a suspended license and was charged with assault in a college bar fight.
I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for the NFL, but it seems to be longer for Bieniemy than for, say, Titans Coach Mike Vrabel, who is White. In 2011 as a Kansas City linebacker and a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee, Vrabel got arrested for theft at a casino. And before that, he was charged with assault during a bar fight when he was in college at Ohio State. But that didn’t stop the Titans from hiring Vrabel as their coach.
It is now being suggested that for Bieniemy to get the biggest coach’s office in an NFL franchise’s building, he should fly the cocoon of success under Reid and go elsewhere as a coordinator to prove he isn’t just a cog in the wheel. One of the places said to be interested in his services is Washington. I’m not sure what is more insulting: arguing that a lateral move for Bieniemy from a Super Bowl champion would actually be beneficial for him, or having him consider showcasing his talent in the competitively challenged and organizationally malfunctioning franchise based in Ashburn, which would unquestionably be a step down.
At this point, Bieniemy would be better served taking a year off. Changing his name. And coming back as Cablinasian.