Why do NFL teams keep passing over Eric Bieniemy?

Late last week, news broke that Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy would be moving to become the “assistant head coach” and offensive play-caller for the Washington Commanders. For the past five years, Bieniemy has been one of the architects of the Chiefs’ explosive, seemingly unstoppable offense, and he has two Super Bowl rings to show for it.

Bieniemy stands out as sort of the Susan Lucci of NFL head coaching opportunities. He’s interviewed an astounding 16 times for 15 teams – yes, the New York Jets interviewed him twice – and he’s been passed over for other candidates 16 times. This year, Bieniemy actually was interviewed fewer times than usual; as Rodger Sherman of The Ringer tartly noted, “the Broncos, Panthers, and Texans apparently didn’t need to interview Bieniemy at all because they previously interviewed him in the process of hiring coaches they’ve already fired.”

Some sports columnists see racism at work, although in one of the cases, the team interviewed Bieniemy and ultimately hired another African-American head coach, when the Dolphins hired Brian Flores in 2019. (In 2021, the Jets interviewed Bieniemy but ultimately hired the league’s lone Arab-American and Muslim head coach, Robert Saleh.)

Perhaps Bieniemy interviews terribly, although we’re left wondering just how badly he would have to botch these interviews, time after time, to keep getting passed over. He has more experience interviewing for NFL head coaching jobs than almost anyone else on the planet by now. What, does he start rambling about serial killers? It’s hard to believe Bieniemy’s interviews reveal some sort of repellent personality, as his Chiefs colleagues and players rave about him. It’s fair to ask if the Chiefs’ offensive excellence largely reflects head coach Andy Reid and the superlative talent of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and other Chiefs players, but it’s hard to believe Bieniemy has had no significant role in the team’s success.

The world has bigger problems than who gets hired for one of 32 NFL head coaching opportunities, but it is likely that a story like this resonates because almost everyone has applied for a job or promotion, interviewed, and been passed over, and wondered exactly why the employer picked the other applicant.

Was the other applicant genuinely better, and the choice was made on merit? Did the employer always have a favorite or some sort of personal connection to the other guy? What answer were they looking for on that question? Was there some recommendation or reference that put the other guy over the top? Most hiring decisions are made with some degree of opacity, and rejected applicants often wonder if they missed out, fair and square, or whether the other guy had some sort of unfair advantage. People wonder if they lost out on their dream job or a golden opportunity because they played a game where the rules were skewed against them from the start. We know America is the land of opportunity, where dreams can come true and a hardworking and resilient little guy can climb to the top… and we also America is also the land of nepotism and “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the Rooney Rule requiring NFL teams to interview at least one African-American head coach for every opening, a rule that clearly has been no real help to Bieniemy. Over in the world of Major League Baseball, current Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng described the frustration and embarrassment of going through interviews with teams who had no serious interest in hiring her, but who wanted the good publicity of interviewing an Asian-American woman to be their next general manager. Tokenism, and turning minority job candidates into metaphorical window-dressing designed to make an institution look open-minded, is just a different form of harm; it’s closed-mindedness designed to make an institution seem woke.

Head coaches are usually hired by general managers with the owner’s approval, and NFL team owners are uniformly billionaires who are not used to hearing the words, “no, boss, that is not a good idea.” NFL team owners are an, er, idiosyncratic group, often with gargantuan egos, an entourage of yes-men, and an adamant belief that their stellar business success in real estate, technology, oil, movie theaters, band-aids, or other industries means they have similarly infallible instincts in picking football personnel. It is very easy to believe that an owner’s vague, intangible “I just don’t like the cut of his jib” gut-level assessments can overrule hard data like an applicant’s past success with other teams.

I mean, when you pick Adam Gase over Eric Bieniemy, as the Jets did in 2019, you belong in the league’s concussion protocol.

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