Eric Bieniemy and Robert Saleh can reach a Super Bowl. Yet, the NFL's glass ceiling remains.

Kimberley A. Martin
Senior NFL writer

MIAMI — Eric Bieniemy politely and patiently answered each question, adeptly avoiding the trap of revealing the depths of his inner thoughts.

For a second straight offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator has interviewed for head-coaching positions and been denied. And in the midst of all of the talk about the biggest game of the NFL season still left to play, much of the discussion during Super Bowl week has centered on Bieniemy’s job status — and why he’ll still be coaching for the Chiefs next season.

He took the high road as he customarily does, choosing not to harp on his disappointment, instead to savor the opportunity that still awaits him: A chance for his team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Of course, Robert Saleh shares the same goal. The San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator also faced the same rejection as Bieniemy, being passed over for the Cleveland Browns’ head-coaching vacancy. And, like Bieniemy, Saleh expressed nothing but appreciation for the Browns’ hiring search and his opportunity to participate in the process.

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy spoke highly about the interviewing opportunities he has had in the past two seasons. (Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Two of the brightest minds and most trusted teachers in the NFL will face off Sunday in a game that promises to be a chess match of strategy and pure will. And yet, neither Bieniemy or Saleh — two coordinators whose involvement, knowledge, patience and teaching styles have been vital to the 2019 journey of their respective teams — were deemed not good enough to be leaders of men for other organizations. 

Two coordinators who have worked tirelessly to gain respect around the league, not just for what they know on the field but who they are off it. 

Two coordinators who have proven themselves to be damn good at their job.

Two coordinators who also happen to be men of color.

On Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the plight of minority coaches looking to advance up the ranks and stressed that more progress is needed to offset the lack of opportunity for coaching candidates of color.

“Clearly, we are not where we want to be on this issue,” Goodell said at his annual Super Bowl news conference. “We have a lot of work that’s gone into, not only the Rooney Rule, but our policies overall.” 

The sentiment sounds great. But at the heart of the NFL’s decades-long issue with minority-coach hiring isn’t intent. It’s failure of action.

Goodell said exactly what was expected of him. And therein lies the problem.

The same lines regarding diversity and the impact of the Rooney Rule have been repeated and debated ad nauseam for years. Here’s the rub: The league can institute all the policies it wants, organize QB coaching summits in Atlanta every year and offer the same vow to offset the unspoken glass ceiling that often prevents candidates of color from securing the same opportunities as their white counterparts. But until team owners understand that “diversity” isn’t just a politically correct premise worthy of discussion, but rather a construct that requires action and commitment, the NFL’s obsession with maintaining the status quo will continue.

No rule can force a group of billionaires — who are predominantly white and predominantly male — to hire someone they don’t want. To hire someone who isn’t directly connected to their network. To hire someone who doesn’t look quite like them. To hire someone whose life experiences are so different that it makes them uncomfortable behind closed doors.

Goodell was short on specifics when he addressed reporters, but indicated he has sought feedback from various channels on whether the NFL needs to revise the Rooney Rule, which requires that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for head coaching and general manager vacancies. 

“Not just with our diversity committee, not just with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, but others, and trying to figure out what steps we can take next that would lead to better outcomes,” Goodell said. "So we will have a series of meetings, which we've already scheduled, over the next month to get that kind of dialogue going, to continue the dialogue and to try to determine what are the solutions, so we can have those better outcomes.”

All of this conferring, however, does little to offset the general frustration felt by players, coaches and executives when it comes to the lack of opportunities for minorities and now, specifically, Bieniemy and Saleh being passed over for opportunities. 

Of the five teams with head-coach openings this offseason, only one minority candidate was hired: Ron Rivera in Washington. Last year, Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins held that distinction.

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh speaks during a news conference at the team's NFL football training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. The 49ers will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 54. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Despite the league’s talk on this glaring issue, conversations with minority coaches, scouts and executives around the league yield the same refrain: A shared feeling of needing to be twice as good to be considered on par with their white counterparts.

The truth is, Bieniemy doesn’t need to say it. The disparity in opportunities given to minority coaches — and the reasons behind teams’ willingness to take chances on certain coaches and not others — is there for all of us to see.

Bieniemy is often shown on TV broadcasts standing side by side with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid during games. While their close proximity depicts a level of mutual respect, trust and synergy, being a fixture in Reid’s orbit often is used to discount Bieniemy’s innate gifts. Former Chiefs coordinators Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson held the same position under Andy Reid — and did not call plays — yet they both were given the chance to prove their mettle as head coaches. 

“It seems like play-calling is always the issue,” Reid said when the New York Giants requested to interview Bieniemy for their recent opening. “He called during the preseason, and he helps me with all the setups. The only reason I do it is because I enjoy doing it. If that’s the issue, that shouldn’t be an issue.”

The Giants ended up hiring Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge. 

The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, hired Matt Rhule, the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski and the Dallas Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy.

“There’s always disappointment,” Bieniemy said Wednesday, when asked about not getting any of the available positions. “But I’ll say this: The interview process was great. Would you have loved to come away with one of the jobs? Yes, you would. But the process, the learning experience, and on top of that, still having the opportunity to work with one of the better head coaches in this league, that’s what I look forward to.

“I’m in a great place. If it ever happens, it’ll happen when it’s supposed to.’’

Reid also expressed disappointment that Bieniemy again came away from interviews without a job offer. And 49ers general manager John Lynch echoed those sentiments regarding Saleh. 

“I have mixed emotions about that stuff. I was pulling for Robert,” Lynch said. ”It’s a goal of his to be a head coach and he’s earned that opportunity and I really do believe that. So there’s a side of you that’s disappointed for a friend, but there’s a side of you that’s [saying], 'Yes, we get him for another year.’”

Saleh noted the 49ers have been “very supportive through the whole thing” and insisted that he’s content with where this road has taken him: to Miami and on the precipice of coaching in the Super Bowl.

“If being here is ‘second place,’ well shoot, it feels like first place,” he said. “I’m extremely happy with the way things have gone, couldn’t be in a better spot and I always say: God has a plan and I’ve got to do the best with what I’ve got. So I’m very excited to be a part of this.”

Time will tell if the NFL has a plan to properly address the true root of this insidious issue. But, for now, it essentially is at square one on the minority-hiring front.

Sticking to the status quo remains en vogue for team owners. And nothing Goodell said should make you think otherwise.

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