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'The success was evident': The Athletic's Nate Taylor on Eric Bieniemy's head-coaching candidacy


On Friday, the Broncos continued their search for the team's next head coach, as George Paton and the search committee met with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

Bieniemy has been a perennial candidate for openings in recent years because of his role helping shape one of the league's best offenses and working with arguably its best quarterback. Once again, as Kansas City looks to mount a Super Bowl run, he's hoping to make the next jump in his career, too.

To learn more about Bieniemy's role in Kansas City and what makes him an invaluable part of that staff, spoke with The Athletic's Nate Taylor.

Ben Swanson: I think many Broncos fans — especially those who are also CU fans — are pretty familiar with Eric Bieniemy at this point, but can you give us an overview of why he's a strong candidate for head-coaching positions year after year?

Nate Taylor: "He's been one of the longest tenured offensive coordinators in the league, which I find to be fascinating given how volatile the coaching circus can be sometimes. He's extremely qualified. Obviously, he's been Patrick Mahomes' offensive coordinator from the moment he became the full-time starter in 2018. So, he replaced Matt Nagy, who of course went on to be the Chicago Bears' coach. But I think Eric Bieniemy has really grown in the role, in terms of he knows exactly how to develop a quarterback and get the most of out that player's skill set, that of course being Patrick Mahomes. I think he's become really good about first-down aggression, sort of being more analytically sound about passing the football and passing it early — even though he is a former NFL running back who played most notably for the Chargers when he was playing in the 1990s, and, yeah, I think he was obviously very successful at Colorado in college. And I think he's interviewed for a number of head-coaching positions before this current cycle. And although he hasn't gotten a head-coaching job yet, I know Andy Reid, Clark Hunt, the owner for the Chiefs, they're very confident that when he does get the opportunity that he'll be capable of thriving just because he's really been a part of game-planning with Andy Reid. A lot of the guys on the team respect him that have been with him all four years as the offensive coordinator. And then of course there's just the natural understanding that he knows this roster and that may be to a team such as the Broncos' benefit because obviously they're a divisional opponent and you're going to face the Chiefs two times every season. There's a lot to like about Eric Bieniemy, [and] I think he's a very well-rounded coach that is obviously capable of leading an organization."

BS: A lot of fans are intrigued by coaches who can bring an element of innovation on the offensive side of the ball, and while Reid may be the chief play-caller, how much trust would you have in the ability of Bieniemy to bring an exciting offense to Denver?

NT: "It's a very good question. I think I would explain it in a few ways. Andy Reid's been very specific with us, at times suggesting that it's not just him calling every play. I think it's more of a collaborative effort between him and Eric Bieniemy. I think that was obviously with case with Matt Nagy before him, since I've been covering this team for this long. But I think there are clear ways where Eric Bieniemy wants to highlight his players' skill sets, most notably the skill position players. Everybody knows how successful Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are, but I also think the Chiefs are very good at adjusting, and that comes down to his conversations with Patrick Mahomes in the game or during the game, I should say, and then them figuring out a creative way to sort of have success. But yeah, the Chiefs are one of the teams that lead the league in presnap motion. They're one of the more creative teams specifically in the red zone — most notably given the ability to have Travis Kelce throw the football in a playoff game, which is just wild. But look, Eric Bieniemy is really comfortable, similar to Andy Reid, in just taking ideas, whether that's from the players, whether that's from something that they've seen on film in previous weeks and then obviously catering that to have an upper hand against the opponent. So, Eric Bieniemy has called plays. I don't think that should be an issue for fans or for teams, necessarily, just because obviously Andy Reid is known for his ability to call plays. But I'm assuming that there's some education going on between understanding the rhythms and why he set something up in a play-calling style, but I also think too that Eric Bieniemy would come in with plenty of ideas, knowing that it doesn't necessarily have to be the exact talent that he has in Kansas City, but that those principles with the talent that he will have on his team will give those players chances to thrive."

BS: I guess that's the other thing – trying to divine the success between how much is coaching and how much is the Chiefs' talent. While it's impossible to quantify that, have you been able to get a sense of how important his strategy and his ability to connect with players is to this team?

NT: "It's fascinating to me that this is the first year where you can really consider that Patrick Mahomes really had a slump. I believe that slump happened in October, and he sort of came out of it toward the middle of November and played excellent since. But I do think there's some element of coaching just because everybody was trying very hard to counteract the Chiefs' offense. Vic Fangio, I think, did a fairly decent job of at least keeping the Chiefs under 30 points. But coaching comes down a lot to third down, red-zone efficiency, and that's where the Chiefs have thrived this season, even though they are not scoring to the same amount as in 2018 when Mahomes was just a phenomenon. I do think them leading the league in third-down conversion rate, which is over 50 percent, I think part of that has to do with coaching, because you are trying to figure out the best way to keep the ball, to move the chains, to get closer to your goal of the end zone. And then in the red zone, I just think the creativity that they have and not just getting Kelce involved or Hill involved, but there's plays where they're having a number of players, most notably the running backs, where they can catch the football whether it's out in space or there's some misdirection element to it where you're clearly using the defense's principles against them, in terms of showing them something and then counteracting or going in a different direction to get the ball in the end zone. And so I would say that this season is just as good of a coaching job as any between Eric Bieniemy and Andy Reid, in terms of the offense, given the fact that their quarterback had a legitimate slump, the team led the league in turnovers, and yet they still won the division, still won 12 games in a 17-game season, they're still the No. 2 seed. And part of that is because they knew the right plays and the right players to count on on third down, and when they did get in the end zone, they have overwhelming success."

BS: I was just reading a roundtable on The Athletic regarding the coaching searches going on, and Stephen Holder, in writing about Bieniemy, spoke of his "humanity and graciousness." Obviously we've focused mostly on football strategy here, but what's Bieniemy like as a person?

NT: "That's a question I can actually answer in pretty good detail. He loves the game, and that's important. I always get that sense that he's totally comfortable teaching his players and letting them kind of be part of the teaching process, really understanding what they're struggling with, what they're successful with. The thing that he's stressed a lot this season, and it sounds simple — but I understand why, just because they've had so much success in the past — that a lot of this season was about getting back to the basics, getting more fundamentally sound. … This goes back to when he was the running backs coach in Minnesota with Adrian Peterson when he had his 2,000-yard season. A lot of it was coaching the player very hard but the talent cannot be accentuated or it cannot be on display if you don't do it fundamentally well, time after time after time. And so there's been examples when he's challenged Travis Kelce when he's made a mistake, and I think that resonates with the rest of the team because Travis Kelce is a future Hall of Fame tight end who has had a lot of success in this league. I think he was very up front with Patrick about, 'Hey, how is your accuracy, how is your footwork?' I think there are moments in the 2019 season when they won a championship, and this was late in December against the Patriots, where he sort of huddled the entire offensive unit on the sideline and sort of gave a speech to just remind them that, 'Yes, we have the lead, but let's finish. Let's not get too high' — let's take care of the task they had in front of them. So I think guys respect him, I think guys have really been disappointed, honestly, when he hasn't been given the chance to be a head coach in previous coaching cycles, like I said earlier. But he has the ability to coach players hard, but they respect him. I think the moments where Travis Kelce has been very upfront about the idea of what does accountability mean, and it doesn't necessarily have to come from Andy Reid. It can come from a guy that I know has been in the league and has played before, who's had success in the league and wants be to get better for very understandable reasons. Part of that is through fundamentals and obviously there's a lot of creativity in terms of how you want to scheme it up and get your players the football. I think for Bieniemy, a lot of it comes down to he knows how to talk to players because he can clearly understand where they're coming from, but he's going to be consistent in terms of the standard that he wants, how you want to execute the task that's on the fundamentals. And I think the Chiefs really being 3-4 this season and then them winning eight straight, a lot of it goes to the idea that they were coached. They got back to the basics and they were just coached very well, and those guys listened and the success was evident."

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