Analysis | Chiefs East? What to expect from Eric Bieniemy’s Commanders offense.


In his first year as architect, it’s difficult to project exactly how assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will shape the Washington Commanders’ offense. Several factors from his time in Kansas City make it hard to isolate his philosophy, including the heavy influence of Coach Andy Reid, who called the plays, as well the Chiefs’ all-world talent. Will certain schemes still look brilliant when a lesser quarterback than Patrick Mahomes is running them?

The hope and uncertainty accompanying Bieniemy to Washington was neatly encapsulated in the second half of the Super Bowl. The Chiefs played nearly flawless offense, with exacting tactics and attention to detail. They exploited the structural weaknesses of one of the league’s best defenses and pulled off a comeback victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. But it was impossible to parse how much credit Bieniemy should get compared to Reid, Mahomes and others.

After the game, Chiefs players and coaches highlighted some of Bieniemy’s contributions. They told reporters he’d designed one of the plays that resulted in a walk-in touchdown and that his emphasis on situational awareness led to a running back sliding down instead of walking into the end zone on the last drive, which burned valuable clock.

“Even though sometimes we get tired of listening and talking about those [situational] moments, they always seem to happen in the biggest games,” Mahomes told reporters. “He makes sure we go over the details every single week.”

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In Washington, Bieniemy, 53, will likely install his version of the West Coast offense, which prioritizes quick, horizontal passes. The approach overlaps with — but has some distinct differences from — former coordinator Scott Turner’s Air Coryell-based scheme, which favored deep throws. It seems likely Bieniemy will use more run-pass options to capitalize on the mobility of quarterback Sam Howell, the projected starter, as well as lean on short and intermediate passes to get the ball into the hands of his three talented receivers. The biggest adjustment for players will likely be verbiage.

For Bieniemy’s offense to succeed, it needs to be built well in the offseason. Last year, Turner struggled in part because the front office gave him one of the league’s worst pass-blocking lines. Bieniemy’s play designs won’t mean much if the Commanders can’t protect. So this year, the organization needs alignment through free agency (starting March 15) and the draft (April 27-29).

One major question: Does Bieniemy agree with the run-first approach Rivera outlined during his news conference at the end of the season? Or does he want to throw the ball, as the Chiefs did at one of the league’s highest rates during Bieniemy’s five years as offensive coordinator?

Another matter: What does Bieniemy want to accentuate with his run game? In 2021, Washington excelled at outside zone, in part because it had athletic guards. Last year, with bigger but less mobile linemen, Turner called more inside runs, and running back Brian Robinson Jr. became a downhill battering ram. Bieniemy’s preference will dictate the types of linemen the Commanders pursue.

If Howell indeed becomes the starter, one of Bieniemy’s most important assignments will be to develop him. In general, Bieniemy will probably use an array of formations, alignments and motions to help his quarterback decode defenses before the snap, but it will be particularly important to identify the ones with which Howell is most comfortable.

For example, in news conferences throughout the past year, Rivera has emphasized he wants the Commanders’ offense to use a heavy dose of play action. But what kind of play action? With Taylor Heinicke, Washington excelled with “hard” play action from under center rather than “soft” play action from shotgun.

Evidence suggests Washington could lean more toward soft play action. Last year, Kansas City was in shotgun at the league’s fourth-highest rate (78.4 percent), and it was key to maximizing the RPOs Bieniemy figures to implement. In college at North Carolina, Howell ran an offense nearly exclusively out of shotgun, and in his NFL debut, he used play action on seven of his 25 dropbacks, according to TruMedia. He looked more comfortable with play action from shotgun (four plays) and seemed to struggle from under center (three), taking two sacks and throwing an incomplete pass.

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If the Commanders find a cohesive identity earlier in 2023 than they did in the previous two seasons, it could help maximize Howell’s development and unlock his potential, which would raise the floor of the offense.

“The arm talent is ridiculous,” receiver Jahan Dotson told SiriusXM of Howell. “He’s super smart. He’s always trying to learn. And he’s very easy to play for. He relates to the guys very well.”

Star receiver Terry McLaurin’s usage could change under Bieniemy. Last year, Turner treated Curtis Samuel as a do-it-all gadget receiver and McLaurin as more of a deep threat. Later in the year, McLaurin excelled catching slant routes and churned out yards after the catch. Bieniemy will probably use McLaurin more in the quick game to get his best player the ball earlier and more often.

In the team facility, Bieniemy’s presence will contrast with Turner’s. Turner was a backup quarterback in college and came up in the NFL as a coach; Bieniemy played nine seasons in the league. Players considered Turner cerebral and mild-mannered, and Bieniemy is known for being passionate and demanding. Bieniemy’s approach has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, such as last September, when Bieniemy and Mahomes argued while walking off the field at halftime. A few months earlier, star tight end Travis Kelce acknowledged he too has “butted heads” with Bieniemy.

“But at the same time, I know what he is about,” Kelce told Chiefswire in May. “That guy is about working hard for the whole of the team and making sure that everybody is accountable.”

The value of Bieniemy’s meticulousness was captured in one play during the Super Bowl. In the fourth quarter, the Chiefs sent receiver Kadarius Toney on a jet motion from right to left, but at the last second, as Philadelphia adjusted its coverage, Toney pivoted back to the right on a return motion. Toney walked into the end zone untouched for a touchdown.

Bieniemy had seen that exact fake in game film from weeks earlier, backup quarterback Chad Henne told the Athletic. The night before the game, Henne said, Bieniemy put up a clip of the Jacksonville Jaguars running the same play for a touchdown against Philadelphia earlier in the season.

The Commanders aren’t dreaming of pulling off that play on that stage, but for now, they’re hoping the mind behind it can give a big boost to their underperforming offense.

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