In 2013, I wrote a story entitled, “In The NFL, Play Calling Is A White Man’s Job.”
Despite some progress in integrating assistant coaching jobs, the “offensive guru” pool – which consists of a majority of white QB coaches and offensive coordinators and is a direct pipeline to head coaching jobs – is still almost exclusively white. It’s no better on the college levels.
Not much has changed. Byron Leftwich, the lone African-American Offensive Coordinator in the NFC, was recently hired as a play-caller for the Cardinals, making Arizona — the state that reluctantly ratified MLK Day as a national holiday — the only NFL team with a black head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator (Al Holcomb).
Leftwich, the former Steelers, Jaguars, Falcons and Bucs quarterback, is one of two Black play-callers in the NFL.
Byron Leftwich has been in the NFL since 2003 when he was the Jaguars first-round pick. He went on to play for nine years with teams like the Jags and Steelers and then moved to Arizona in 2016 as an intern on Bruce Arians staff for the Cardinals.
The other is Kansas City Chiefs first-year offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid’s offense has been the talk of the NFL season, but nothing’s been said about Bieniemy being instrumental in Mahomes’ record-breaking success and brilliant in his play-constructing for a Chiefs offense that is first in total points (260) and points per game at 37.1.
The Chiefs are also third in total offense, fifth in passing and Top 10 in rushing.
Mahomes threw four scoring passes in Sunday night’s 45-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium. That gives him 22 touchdown passes in the first eight games of his career, breaking the NFL record of 21 set by Kurt Warner.
@PatrickMahomes5’s 2nd TD pass of the night. @Kareemhunt7’s 2nd TD CATCH on the night. The @Chiefs! 📺: @snfonnbc #ChiefsKingdom https://t.co/AchjYU780q
Much of his success can be attributed to Bieniemy.
Chiefs OC Eric Bienemy has All-World QB Pat Mahomes locked in on Peyton Manning’s 2013 TD Pass record (55) #nfl
Bieniemy is a rare African-American play-caller who is flourishing at the top of his game and positioning himself for a head coach job in the near future.
A former superstar running back for the University of Colorado, he was the nation’s second leading rusher in 1990 with 1,628 yards, scored 17 touchdowns and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. His college success didn’t translate to the pros, but he played nine NFL seasons as a third-down back because of his ability to master the nuances of the game.
His high football IQ enabled him to figure out defenses, coverages and blitzes, which led to him excelling on special teams under Andy Reid and assistant coach Brad Childress with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999.
When Childress became the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, he gave Bieniemy his first NFL assistant job coaching Adrian Peterson and the running backs in 2006.
Eric Bienemy has taken an unconventional route, but the former NFL back is now the only African-American offensive coordinator in the NFL. Strong piece from @ByNateTaylor: https://t.co/y7Sz2RToTC
You’re The Man
This season, under the tutelage of Andy Reid, Bieniemy has been allowed to spread his wings and is responsible for directing, instructing, cultivating and designing the perfect game plan to utilize Mahomes’ unique skill set.
There’s nothing traditional about the way Mahomes and Bieniemy do their thing. Their freedom to improvise is a product of Andy Reid’s creative and open-minded approach to NFL offenses and black quarterbacks. See Donovan McNabb or Mike Vick, who both had their best years under Reid.
Truly amazing years of watching Eagles Football. As a fan it gives me chills watching these highlights all over again.
For the first time, a Black QB with uncanny athleticism and extraordinary, raw tools gets to be mentored and tutored by another Black mind.
And in the same way that team owners feel comfortable with hiring white head coaches because of a cultural connection, Bieniemy is able to craft the perfect plays and create a winning environment for Mahomes because of a deeper connection the two share as African-American athletes. There’s a synchronization that comes from an innate understanding and respect that Bieniemy possesses for Mahomes’ skill set.
Reid still calls the majority of offensive plays, but Bieniemy assembles the playbook and weekly game plans, along with running the offensive meetings. He basically creates the blueprint of success for the KC offense which enables Reid to go out there like a kid in a candy store and watch Mahomes make plays, turn nothing into something and spray the ball around the field like a shortstop during fielding warm ups.
NFL Network’s Peter Schrager talks about Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and what he brings to the team this season and why teams will be interested in him as a head coach next season.
According to ESPN, “Bieniemy is the voice in Mahomes’ ear through the headset on game days relaying the play calls…jobs Reid wouldn’t trust to just anyone.
“[Quarterback] is a detailed position,” Reid said. “… It’s very easy to go, ‘Ah, we can let that one slide.’ That’s [not] how [Bieniemy] goes about it. He’s going to make sure everything is covered. I trust him for that. I can’t be there every second. He jumps in and just takes charge and I have full confidence in him so I can go be the head coach and he can run the offense. He does a heck of a job with it.”
High Rank, Heavy Muzzle
In the rare occurrence that a black offensive coach like Bieniemy and Byron Leftwich make it to the coordinator level, they often encounter a second level of roadblocks. The NFL is oozing with black talent at the coordinator positions. There’s no next step but up for many of these guys, but some are being pigeonholed by old philosophies.
Many of them aren’t allowed to actually do their jobs and call plays, in essence relegating them to figureheads. An inability to display their talents and progress often leads to a short leash.
Black NFL head coaches get shown the door much more quickly than their white counterparts: https://t.co/ARgKGoQP58
In 2017, there were three black offensive coordinators – Edgar Bennett (Green Bay), who’s now the WR coach for Oakland, Harold Goodwin (Arizona) who is currently unemployed and 63-year-old Terry Robiskie (Tennessee) who has been long overdue for a head coaching opportunity and is now wide receivers coach of the Bills.
Bruce Arians wouldn’t even let Goodwin call plays in big games and that had to hurt Goodwin in his head coaching interviews with several teams last offseason. Of the 13 black offensive coordinators from 2007-2017, only six had play-calling roles and two of those positions were held by Hue Jackson. It’s almost impossible for Black coaches of any kind to ascend to play-calling positions, which helps your chances of getting a head coaching position.
It’s hard for black coaches in general to make up a 50-year head start in the coaching ranks by their white counterparts. A black coach, however, can help their chances by developing close ties with a head coach.
According to The Denver Post, 110 of the 147 offensive coordinator jobs (74.8 percent) filled since 2007, not counting coaches hired on an interim basis, went to a former NFL and/or college quarterbacks coach.
- As of 2017, there were only two black QB coaches in the NFL: Leftwich and David Culley, who coached NFL wide receivers for more than 20 years but took the Buffalo quarterbacks coaching job in a late-career attempt to become a head coach. There were no black QB coaches in the NFL in 2016.
What does this mean for Black head coaching candidates?
If you’re a young black assistant coach looking to someday become a coordinator or head coach, you have a better shot of becoming a coach if you move to the defensive side of the rock because the most direct path to NFL advancement on offense is coaching quarterbacks, a position black assistants rarely get.
Some More Numbers To Chew On From 2017 Via Denver Post
- 52 of the 99 non-interim NFL head coaching jobs between 2007-2017 had an offensive background (52.5 percent), and of those, only five were black (9.6 percent).
- But of the 46 head coaches who primarily had a defensive background, 13 were black (28.3 percent).
In other words, it’s nearly three times more likely over the past decade for a black head coach to have a background on the defensive side of the ball. The ratio (2.6 to 1) doesn’t change much when comparing black defensive coordinators (33, 22.8 percent) and offensive (13, 8.8 percent) coordinator positions during the same window.
Coach The D, Leave The Strategy & Play Calling To Us
Black coaches being streamlined towards defensive coaching positions supports outdated, bigoted beliefs that black men are more suited for positions of emotion rather than intellectual leadership.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn was a running back coach and assistant for 17 years before he became the interim offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills in 2016.
“If I was frustrated at all, it was in trying to become an offensive coordinator,” Lynn told reporters.
It took Buffalo firing Greg Roman and Rex Ryan for Lynn to be granted the prestige of play-calling.
Bieniemy would join Hue Jackson as the only former offensive coordinators on this list.
Mitch Holthus sits down with Eric Bieniemy to talk Chiefs football and taking over the offensive coordinator position for the 2018 football season.
“After a while, I felt like I would be a head coach before I would be an offensive coordinator,” Lynn said. “That’s what I began to focus on. Black defensive coaches aren’t better at coaching than black offensive coaches. When you look at the numbers, it’s clear what’s happening.”
According to these stats by The Denver Post:
- 22 of the current 29 NFL offensive coordinators were a college/NFL QBs coach (75.9 percent). Of those, none are black.
- 26 NFL teams haven’t had a black offensive coordinator since at least 2013.
- Twenty teams haven’t had a black offensive coordinator since 2007.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, the longest tenured Black head coach in the NFL, put it in perspective:
“The reason why there aren’t a lot of (black) guys calling plays is that you have to have people ascending to quarterbacks coach and jobs that lead to coordinator positions. And that’s simply not happening.”
These low numbers of Black QB coaches and coordinators don’t reflect a plentiful pool of future black NFL offensive coordinator candidates.
But coaching trees and pipelines begin with one person.
Bieniemy and Leftwich are knocking on the doors of a head coaching job and looking to establish their own pipelines of Black offensive coaching talent in the future.
Browns – welp since we are asking for coaching choices, here’s my guy – Eric Bienemy – Offensive Coordinator Kansas City Chiefs. 17 years coaching experience – 12 years coaching in the NFL. Played 8 years in the NFL @ESPNCleveland @JeremyinAkron @egoldie80 @923TheFan
Being an offensive coordinator is often a thankless job. Essentially you are building the car, washing the car, polishing it and then someone else drives it to the party. There’s no public glory for an OC until he becomes the HNIC, but that anonymity is part of paying dues.
If Kansas City continues to break franchise scoring records and blaze the NFL with points, you will hear Bieniemy’s name mentioned more and more, especially this offseason when Black Monday hits and the NFL head coaching carousel begins.