Eric Bieniemy is “out of the shadows” and ready to show off his offense

Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy stands on the sidelines during Washington's preseason win over the Ravens. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

It's not just about volume. It's the volume And pitch, and people with carrying voices know how to create a frequency that pierces the air like a rocket.

Eric Bieniemy masters both.

He's usually heard before he's seen in practice, in call formations, and in plays – “Zebra! Zee-bra!”—or ordering the running backs to cap each play with a score, or voicing clear reminders of his offense. “We can't do the F——-game if we don't know the number of snaps!” he yelled during practice late in the preseason.

Bieniemy, a former running back, was hired as the Commanders' offensive coordinator and assistant head coach in February, a title that gives him significant latitude in redesigning the team's offense, training schedule and many of its day-to-day habits.

“You hear him on the field,” receiver Jahan Dotson told reporters. “We hear him, trust me.”

For some, Bieniemy's dogged approach required an adjustment. But his methods are based on experience: his stint as a record-breaking running back at the University of Colorado, his nine seasons as a pro, and more than two decades coaching and learning from players like Brad Childress and Andy Reid. People who have played for him and trained with him have learned that there is more than meets the eye – or hears.

“You have to look at it for a larger purpose,” Dotson said.

Details and Accountability

In his 23 years as a coach, Bieniemy has helped several running backs—Chris Brown of Colorado, Maurice Jones-Drew of UCLA, Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs—to career heights. He was part of the Chiefs' seven consecutive division titles and two Super Bowl victories. Yet in the last four hiring cycles, he's interviewed 15 teams with 14 teams and never landed a head coaching job.

Bieniemy's critics have often noted that he hasn't always commanded plays in the past five seasons as Kansas City's offensive coordinator. His supporters have claimed otherwise.

“There's not a facet of the game on offense that he hasn't been incredibly involved with,” former quarterback Alex Smith said in 2021. “…From defense to the running game to the passing game — he knows it all. He knows that stuff.”

Reid said Bieniemy memorized the game sheets for each game. Every formation, every call.

“It's like studying for finals every week,” Reid said. “He was on the headset with the quarterback, so during that period we very rarely had to take a timeout because we didn't get a play-in. He just spat and got it out quick.” I was proud of him for that. That is not easy.”

Bieniemy learns to make the most of the commander's talent

The details Bieniemy preaches to his players are the same ones he has lived by throughout his career.

“He always took great notes,” said Vance Joseph, a former Colorado quarterback and now defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. “Even in college, he was always a good defensive guy who made very few mistakes.”

Joseph said Bieniemy was detailed in college but became even more so in the pros. Details became the core of his football identity. To get on the field, he had to delve into the finer points as a third-down back and special teams player.

“When I came in [to the NFL]”I was one of those crazy, no-nonsense guys who was hugely successful in college but really didn't understand my role,” Bieniemy said.

As a rookie for the San Diego Chargers in 1991, Bieniemy once drew the wrath of his head coach Dan Henning, who criticized his lack of effort on kickoff coverage and warned that if he were the last player in the field, he would be eliminated.

“There was a gentleman who worked there [the Chargers'] Building. He came up, overheard the conversation, and said, ‘EB, you're going about this the wrong way,'” recalls Bieniemy. “He said, ‘Don't try to be a successful person, try to be a worthwhile person. “The more valuable you are, the more likely you are to succeed.” I share this story with a lot of newbies because all of these people are waiting to come here and become a regular. Not everyone can start. But what value will you bring to this organization?”

Bieniemy was just 1.75m tall and 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 very similar to his coaching style: intense and thorough, with an insatiable competitive spirit and a knack for leadership.

“We play at Iowa State [in 1990]and I'm standing in front of my first college snapshot, and [Bieniemy] looks at me and says, “don't do it.” [mess] “That's it now,” Joseph recalls. “I go in the wrong direction from the very first piece. He was like, “I told you, don't mess that up!” It's just him. He challenges you as a coach and player and always has a fiery spirit.”

As Colorado faced No. 22 Texas that season, Bieniemy, a senior, brought his team to a 29-22 win after trailing eight points late in the third quarter. He crowded the offense on the touchline to cheer on his teammates and secured a win that was still coming from behind. He had three quick touchdowns, including the go-ahead.

“He was talkative,” said Bieniemy's former teammate and roommate in Colorado, Mike Pritchard. “He was full of energy. I think he wanted to lead by example, he wanted to set the tone and he certainly did that offensively for our group.”

Against No. 3 Nebraska later in the fall, Bieniemy fumbled three times in the first half as the Buffs trailed 12-0. Then, in the fourth quarter, he scored four touchdowns and helped them to a 27-12 win. Colorado was crowned national champion and Bieniemy was third in Heisman Trophy voting.

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He then played nine seasons in the NFL, no easy feat for an undersized running back. His final season was in 1999 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Reid, then a freshman head coach, later described Bieniemy as “almost like a coach” in the way he led. Commanders coach Ron Rivera was the Eagles' linebacker coach, and Childress, who was Bieniemy's boss with the Minnesota Vikings from 2006 to 2010, managed the quarterbacks.

Every morning before dawn, Childress would arrive at Philadelphia's facility, often terrified of Bieniemy sitting in the hot tub in the dark hours before others arrived.

“Every day I drove in there and got off the field, maybe an hour before practice, Eric Bieniemy was always there, standing at the goalpost, stretching and getting ready,” Childress said.

“I'll show you why you didn't”

Maurice Jones-Drew came off a triple-option offensive line in high school, and he credits Bieniemy with teaching him the intricacies of the running back position at UCLA from 2003-05. How to play with vision and how to find the hole in running games, how to take notes and really learn how to become a more physical player, how to lead – Bieniemy was his guide, if at times his biggest problem.

The two were like oil and water at first, so much so that Jones-Drew attempted a switch. But he said Bieniemy “talked things up” to his mother to make sure he didn't leave.

It wasn't until Jones-Drew's sophomore season, when he set a school record for 322 rushing yards against Washington, that he finally understood Bieniemy's methods.

What to Expect from Eric Bieniemy's Commanders Offense

“I was ready for him to compliment me and tell me how well I did,” Jones-Drew said. “Before he started watching the tape, he said, ‘You could have run 500 yards and set the NCAA record, and I'm going to show you why you didn't.'”

“Rather than watching all the big, long runs I had, we looked at all the ones I missed the hole,” Jones-Drew continued. “I thought, ‘Now I get it.' His expectations of me are higher than my expectations of myself.”

Jones-Drew was drafted in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft, the same offseason that 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 picked Adrian Peterson with the seventh pick. He was an instant star, but Bieniemy was treated like a normal player. From a distance, their controversial interactions gave the impression that the two were constantly at odds. Bieniemy accused Peterson of being punctual, listening to all the game calls in the huddle, and having safeguards in place.

Years later, at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Bieniemy went after a player while Peterson watched. Childress recalled Peterson standing next to a younger player and pointing at Bieniemy. “Peterson says, ‘He's the truth, man. “He's the truth,” Childress said.

Peterson surpassed 1,200 rushing yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons with Bieniemy. He, like others who played for Bieniemy, understood the larger message behind his coach's demands.

Jones-Drew attended the NFL Combine in Indianapolis a few years ago at a time when he was mentally unwell. Bieniemy was there with the Chiefs' staff to assess the prospects and seemed to note his former player was not doing well. So he invited him to spend the day with him and Reid.

“We've talked about different things because he's been through it — he's played in the NFL, he's retired, he's got a second career,” Jones-Drew recalled. “The combine is where the trainers work and he literally put that on hold to make sure I was okay.”

Bieniemy has described Reid in a similar light as “sometimes like a father figure” who held high standards.

“The thing that made him great is that I see the big picture in everything,” Bieniemy said of Reid. “But also… he wore that head coaching title for a reason. I can't tell you how many times he's threatened to fire me. I got him to that point sometimes.”

As his last contract with the Chiefs neared its end, both men realized that Bieniemy needed to do his own show. He wasn't offered a head coaching job, and Washington offered the closest thing: a chance to run his own offense.

“Even though he basically did this,” Reid said. “I'm not sure anyone necessarily believes me, but he did. This gave EB the opportunity to step out of my shadow here and put his own name on it.”

During his opening press conference at Commanders' Headquarters, Bieniemy detailed his approach, restating truisms he had learned over the past three decades. He preached the value of responsibility, details, and learning to be uncomfortable.

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And for the first few days of training camp, many Commanders players seemed uncomfortable. And exhausted. According to Rivera, some even told their head coach they were concerned about Bieniemy's tough style. But by the end of the camp, Bieniemy's methods had led to noticeable changes.

Slimmer Antonio Gibson said he was in his best shape in years. Receiver Curtis Samuel praised Bieniemy's energy and tight end Logan Thomas spoke about Bieniemy's relationship building.

“[My dad] He saw the potential in me and made sure I worked to get where I wanted to be in life and what I wanted to do,” Dotson said. “I see the same things on EB”

Perhaps the clearest sign so far that the Commanders players saw the big picture was their performance against the Ravens in the second game of last season. Bieniemy said the running backs “delivered a clinic operation” with their Blitz pickups and passport protection.

“You talk about taking responsibility,” he said with a big smile. “…You start to see it more, and then you see the conversations happening where you don't necessarily need to hear me say, ‘Hey, break up or go get a job.' Now these guys are repeating everything , which we have been discussing for the past few months.”

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