Byron Leftwich joins Eric Bieniemy as OCs who won the Super Bowl. Now what?
Despite both Black assistant coaches leading prolific offenses this past season, neither will be taking on new jobs in the coming weeks. And that’s unusual.
While nothing can take away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich winning Sunday’s Super Bowl, and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy appearing on the opposite sideline, the celebration feels a bit subdued given the fact that despite both Black assistant coaches leading prolific offenses this past season – and Tampa Bay coordinator Todd Bowles leading a dominant defense – neither will be taking on new jobs in the coming weeks.
The hiring of former Baltimore Ravens wide receivers coach David Culley, himself a Black man, by the Houston Texans two weeks ago officially closed the head coach hiring cycle for the 2020-21 season, meaning that two of the top offensive coaches in the league were shut out from jobs the numbers prove they were more than qualified for.
When looking at head coach hiring over the last decade, it bears out that the passing over of Bieniemy and Leftwich for one of the seven jobs that were available this offseason was highly unusual for offensive coordinators of their stature yet highly expected of offensive coordinators of their, let’s say, persuasion.
Since the hiring cycle following the 2010 season, 72 head-coaching hires have been made. Of those 72 hires (which include some repeat hires), 12 (16.6%) have been Black men, with Hue Jackson accounting for two.
Over the last decade-plus, the league has morphed from ground-and-pound run offenses and dominant defenses to air-it-out offensive attacks with complicated scheming. Head-coaching hiring has reflected that offensive mindset.
According to a study by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, from 2009 to 2019, nearly 40% of new coaching hires were offensive coordinators in their previous role (others being defensive coordinators, special teams coaches or head coaches in the NFL or college). But in that time frame, 91% of those offensive coordinators who were hired were white.
This means that Black prospective coaches not only have to fight a system that doesn’t create a pipeline for them to become head coaches in the first place, but also a system that doesn’t allow them to even enter the pipeline as offensive coordinators.
But Bieniemy, 51, and Leftwich, 41, both former NFL players, made it into that coordinator pipeline. And have succeeded in those roles.
According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings, since Bieniemy was promoted to Kansas City’s offensive coordinator in 2018, his offenses were ranked first (2018), third (2019) and second (2020). Those rankings, of course, coincided with the rise of superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but the previous two Kansas City offensive coordinators, Doug Pederson (No. 6) and Matt Nagy (No. 4), both coached top six offenses the year before they were hired as head coaches.
Leftwich, who was hired as the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator in 2019, coached the 21st-ranked unit in DVOA his first season (though it ranked No. 3 in scoring) and jumped all the way to third this past season, his first with quarterback Tom Brady.
(Bowles’ fifth-ranked unit held Mahomes to an under 50% completion percentage and zero touchdowns, while forcing two interceptions on Sunday. The former New York Jets head coach interviewed for two vacancies this cycle and had a third canceled.)
The only problem is that both appear to have stagnated, particularly when compared with other offensive coordinators who have coached in the Super Bowl.
Since the 2010 season, 13 offensive coordinators have coached in a Super Bowl, not including Sunday’s. Of that number, six have not been hired as a head coach in the NFL or college after appearing in the championship: New York Giants’ Kevin Gilbride, San Francisco 49ers’ Greg Roman, Denver Broncos’ Rick Dennison, Carolina Panthers’ Mike Shula, Seattle Seahawks’ Darrell Bevell and Bieniemy.
But there have been extenuating circumstances for some of those coaches, all white except Bieniemy, not obtaining head coach jobs.
Out of those six coordinators, only Bieniemy and Gilbride weren’t assisted by a defense that was ranked first or second in DVOA the season they appeared in the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants had the 20th-ranked defense when they won the Super Bowl over the New England Patriots. From 2018 to 2020, Kansas City defenses have been ranked 26, 14 and 22. Regardless, Gilbride’s 2011 offense was ranked No. 7 in DVOA compared with Bieniemy’s offenses never slipping farther than No. 3.
Bevell, who appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls from 2013 to 2014, which had the No. 1 defense both seasons, and Bieniemy are the only offensive coordinators to coach in at least two Super Bowls and not be hired as a head coach. (Bevell was named interim head coach for the Detroit Lions this past season.)
Over the last four years, a Super Bowl berth has almost guaranteed an offensive coordinator a head-coaching job. Almost.
Since the 2016-17 season every offensive coordinator who has appeared in a Super Bowl, win or lose, has been hired as a head coach after appearing in the championship – except Bieniemy and Leftwich.
In 2017, Kyle Shanahan was hired by the 49ers after he led the Atlanta Falcons’ offense to Super Bowl LI. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has coached in four Super Bowls in the last decade (five overall) and was the Broncos’ head coach from 2009 to 2010, was hired by the Indianapolis Colts in February 2018, but McDaniels turned down the job two days later and has not been hired as a head coach since. Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who coached opposite McDaniels in Super Bowl LII, later took the Colts job.
The Los Angeles Rams and 49ers did not have formal offensive coordinators the seasons they appeared in the Super Bowl, as head coaches Shanahan and Sean McVay acted as de facto playcallers. Still, Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor was hired as the Bengals’ head coach after Los Angeles appeared in the Super Bowl in 2019.
Coaches with Bieniemy’s and Leftwich’s resumes are normally snatched up immediately after the seasons they had. Again, outside of Bevell, no offensive coordinator in recent memory with two Super Bowl appearances has ever had to wait so long for a head-coaching job. Most of the offensive coordinators who have coached in a Super Bowl since 2010 were hired within days or weeks of the Super Bowl they appeared; for the others, such as Adam Gase, it took, at most, two years of them coaching in the Super Bowl to be hired as a head coach.
Excuses have been made that due to Kansas City going so far into the playoffs the past three seasons that it’s hurt Bieniemy’s chances of interviewing for teams who want a head start on their new staff. Bieniemy, it appears, is doing too good of a job helping lead his team to three AFC Championship Games and back-to-back Super Bowls to warrant a head-coaching interview (which he had six of this cycle), let alone a job. Leftwich couldn’t get a single interview.
Shanahan (49ers), McDaniels (Colts), Reich (Colts, again) and Taylor (Bengals) were all hired days after the Super Bowl they appeared in. Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was hired to be Penn State’s first head coach after Joe Paterno before O’Brien coached in the 2011 Super Bowl. Much like college-age courtship, you make time for someone you want.
And what NFL owners have said they wanted are offensive gurus. The hiring of former Washington coordinator McVay by the Rams in 2016, which led to a Super Bowl appearance two years later, led to an explosion in young white offensive coordinators being plucked from obscurity to lead teams. A Kliff Kingsbury here, a Matt LaFleur there.
The average offensive DVOA ranking in the final season of offensive coordinators before they were hired as a head coach, since 2016, was just over 8. Yet three former coordinators, all white, hired in that time (Freddie Kitchens, 17th; LaFleur, 22nd; and Nick Sirianni, 12th) had offenses that didn’t crack the top 10. It bears repeating, again, that Bieniemy’s offenses have never been ranked outside of the top three since 2018.
Even if you believe Black men to be intellectually inferior to white men, which it hasn’t been definitively proven that NFL owners do, with the offensive output someone like Bieniemy has had the past three years, you at least have to see what you got. It’s like the 7-foot-6 NBA prospect who can’t really dribble or post up all that well: You’ve still got to kick the can on that out of sheer curiosity alone. What’s the worst that could happen?
Bieniemy’s time as a head coach may come next year. Same for Leftwich. There are, after all, only 32 such jobs, only a handful available at a given time. But the old adage of Black people having to work twice as hard to only get half as far has never been more prescient in the NFL. In the earlier days, Black prospective coaches knew the only way to get a job was to be a former player, and so they did that. Then the rules changed and they had to be offensive savants, and so Bieniemy and Leftwich did that too. And still no cigar.
Much like an NFL kicker trying to convert on a long field goal, Black coaches are beginning to realize it’s much harder to be successful when the goalpost continues to be pushed back.