A former running back, Bieniemy was hired in February as the Commanders’ offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, a title that lends him significant latitude in remaking the team’s offense, practice schedule and many of its daily habits.
“You guys hear him on the field,” receiver Jahan Dotson said to reporters. “We hear him, trust me.”
For some, Bieniemy’s hard-nosed approach has required an adjustment. But his methods are born of experience: his time as a record-setting running back at the University of Colorado, his nine seasons as a pro and his two-plus decades of coaching and learning from the likes of Brad Childress and Andy Reid. People who have played for him and coached with him have learned there’s more than meets the eye — or ear.
“You got to look at it for a bigger purpose,” Dotson said.
Details and accountability
In his 23 years of coaching, Bieniemy has helped multiple running backs — Chris Brown at Colorado, Maurice Jones-Drew at UCLA, Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson with the Minnesota Vikings, Jamaal Charles with the Kansas City Chiefs — reach career heights. He was part of the Chiefs’ seven consecutive division titles and two Super Bowl victories. Yet over the past four hiring cycles, he’s interviewed 15 times with 14 teams and never come away with a head coaching job.
Bieniemy’s detractors have often noted he didn’t always call plays as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator the past five seasons. His supporters have claimed otherwise.
“There’s not a facet of the game on offense where he hasn’t been incredibly involved,” former quarterback Alex Smith said in 2021. “… From protections to the run game to the pass game — he knows it all. He knows this stuff.”
Reid said Bieniemy memorized the play sheets for every game. Every formation, every call.
“That’s like studying for finals every week,” Reid said. “He was on the headset with the quarterback, so going through that, we very seldom had to call a timeout because we didn’t get a play in. He’d just spit it out and get it out there quickly. I was proud of him for that. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
The details Bieniemy preaches to his players are the same ones he lived by during his career.
“He’s always took great notes,” Vance Joseph, a former Colorado quarterback and now the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator, said. “He was always a guy, even in college, who was good at protections and always made very few mistakes.”
Joseph said Bieniemy was detailed in college but became even more so in the pros. Details became the crux of his football identity. To get on the field, he had to be immersed in the finer points as a third-down back and special teams player.
“When I came in [to the NFL], I was one of those knucklehead, hardheaded guys that had a great deal of success in college but really couldn’t figure out my role,” Bieniemy said.
As a rookie for the San Diego Chargers in 1991, Bieniemy once drew the ire of his head coach, Dan Henning, who criticized his lack of effort on kickoff coverage and warned that if he was the last player down field, he’d be cut.
“There was a gentleman that worked in [the Chargers’] building. He came up, and he overheard the conversation, and he said, ‘E.B., you’re going about this the wrong way,’” Bieniemy recalled. “He said, ‘Seek not to become a person of success, but a person of value. The more valuable you are, the more likely you are to attain success.’ I share that story with a lot of rookies because all of these guys anticipate coming in and wanting to be a starter. Everybody can’t start. But what value are you going to bring to this organization?”
At only 5-foot-7, Bieniemy played with a physicality that belied his stature. He left Colorado as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards — records that still stand. His playing style was much like his coaching style: intense and thorough, with an insatiable competitive drive and a knack for leadership.
“We’re playing at Iowa State [in 1990], and I’m in for my first college snap, and [Bieniemy] looks at me and says, ‘Don’t [mess] this up now,’” Joseph recalled. “The very first play, I go the wrong way. He was like, ‘I told you, don’t mess this up!’ That’s just him. He challenges you as a coach and a player, and he always has a fiery spirit.”
When Colorado traveled to take on No. 22 Texas that season, Bieniemy, a senior, rallied his team to a 29-22 win after it had trailed by eight points late in the third quarter. He huddled the offense on the sideline to fire up his teammates, sparking a come-from-behind win. He had three rushing touchdowns, including the go-ahead score.
“He was talkative,” Bieniemy’s former teammate and roommate at Colorado, Mike Pritchard, said. “He was energetic. I think he wanted to provide that example, he wanted to set the tone, and he did that certainly for our group offensively.”
Against No. 3 Nebraska later that fall, Bieniemy fumbled three times in the first half as the Buffs fell to a 12-0 deficit. Then, in the fourth quarter, he scored four touchdowns to propel them to a 27-12 win. Colorado was crowned national champion, and Bieniemy finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
He went on to play nine seasons in the NFL, no easy feat for an undersized running back. His final season was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999. Reid, a first-year head coach at the time, later described Bieniemy as “almost like a coach” in the way he led. Commanders coach Ron Rivera was the Eagles’ linebackers coach, and Childress, who went on to be Bieniemy’s boss with the Minnesota Vikings from 2006-10, led the quarterbacks.
Each morning before dawn, Childress arrived at Philadelphia’s facility, and he was often frightened by Bieniemy, who sat in the hot tub in the dark, hours before others arrived.
“Every day that I drove in there and walked out on the field, maybe an hour before practice, Eric Bieniemy would always be there, standing by the goal post, stretching, getting himself ready,” Childress said.
‘I’m going to show you why you didn’t do it’
Maurice Jones-Drew came from a triple-option offense in high school, and he credits Bieniemy with teaching him the nuances of the running back position at UCLA from 2003 to 2005. How to play with vision, how to find the hole on run plays, how to take notes and really study, how to become a more physical player, how to lead — Bieniemy was his guide, if at times his biggest headache, too.
The two were like oil and water to start, so much so that Jones-Drew tried to transfer. But he said Bieniemy “sweet-talked” his mom to ensure he didn’t leave.
It wasn’t until Jones-Drew’s sophomore season, when set a school record with 322 rushing yards against Washington, that he finally understood Bieniemy’s methods.
“I was ready for him to praise me and tell me how good I did,” Jones-Drew said. “Before he started watching the tape, he goes, ‘You could have rushed for 500 yards and broke the NCAA record, and I’m going to show you why you didn’t do it.’”
“Instead of watching all the big, long runs I had, we watched all the ones where I missed the hole,” Jones-Drew continued. “I was like, ‘I get it now.’ His expectation for me is higher than my expectation for myself.”
Jones-Drew was picked in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft, during the same offseason when Bieniemy left UCLA for the Vikings. Childress had been named Minnesota’s head coach, and he hired Bieniemy to coach the team’s running backs.
In his second season in Minnesota, the team drafted Adrian Peterson with the seventh pick. He was an instant star, but Bieniemy treated as just another player. From afar, their contentious interactions gave the impression the two were constantly at odds. Bieniemy harped on Peterson about being on time, about listening to the full play calls in the huddle and about protections.
Years later, at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Bieniemy got after a player while Peterson watched. Childress recalled Peterson standing next to a younger player and pointing at Bieniemy. “Peterson goes, ‘He’s the truth, man. He’s the truth,’” Childress said.
Peterson topped 1,200 rushing yards and was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons with Bieniemy. He, like others who played for Bieniemy, came to understand the bigger message behind his coach’s demands.
Jones-Drew attended the NFL combine in Indianapolis a couple years ago, at a time when he wasn’t doing well mentally. Bieniemy was there with the Chiefs’ staff evaluating prospects and seemed to notice his former player wasn’t in a good place. So he invited him to spend the day with him and Reid.
“We talked about different things because he’s been through it — he’s played in the NFL, he’s retired, he has a second career,” Jones-Drew recalled. “The combine is where coaches are doing work, and he literally put that on the back burner to make sure I was okay.”
Bieniemy has described Reid in a similar light, as “sometimes like a father figure” who held a high standard.
“The thing that he’s done a great job of is getting me to see the big picture with everything,” Bieniemy said of Reid. “But also … he wore that head coach title for a reason. I can’t tell you how many times he threatened to fire me. I’ve taken him to that point at times.”
As his last contract with the Chiefs neared its end, it became apparent to both men that Bieniemy needed to run his own show. He wasn’t offered a head-coaching job, and Washington offered the closest thing to it: a chance to run his own offense.
“Even though he basically did that here,” Reid said. “I’m not sure anybody necessarily believes me, but he did. This gave E.B. an opportunity to get out of the shadow of me here and put his own name on it.”
During his introductory news conference at the Commanders’ headquarters, Bieniemy outlined his approach by repeating the truisms he learned over the past three decades. He preached the value of accountability, details and learning to be uncomfortable.
And in the early days of training camp, many Commanders players appeared uncomfortable. And exhausted. Some, according to Rivera, even told their head coach they were concerned about Bieniemy’s harsh style. But by the close of camp, Bieniemy’s methods had led to noticeable change.
A slimmer Antonio Gibson said he was in the best shape he’d been in for years. Receiver Curtis Samuel extolled Bieniemy’s energy, and tight end Logan Thomas talked about Bieniemy’s relationship-building.
“[My dad] saw the potential in me and he made sure that I worked to get to where I want to be in life and what I want to do,” Dotson said. “I see the same things in E.B.”
Eric Bieniemy on the RBs’ blocking/blitz-pickups: “I thought they put on a clinic this past weekend. … You talk about being accountable, those guys are doing everything under the sun in the pass game to make it successful for our offense where we can make the downfield throws.” pic.twitter.com/pKymmZ3jV7
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) August 24, 2023
Perhaps the clearest sign yet that Commanders players have seen the big picture was their performance against the Ravens in the second game of the preseason. Bieniemy said the running backs “put on a clinic” with their blitz pickups and pass protection.
“You talk about being accountable,” he said with a wide smile. “… You’re starting to see it more and then you’re seeing the conversations taking place where you don’t necessarily have to hear me say, “Hey, finish or go find work.” Now those guys are repeating everything that we’ve discussed over the past few months.”
POST AUTHOR: Nicki Jhabvala