Knile Davis sees the alley and accelerates through it. His legs are pumping, he’s running hard and, 19 yards later, he’s finally knocked out of bounds.
This is Sunday, the second quarter of the Chiefs’ game at Denver, and Davis pops up quickly, his enthusiasm obvious. Jamaal Charles is hurt again, which means it is Davis’ turn to carry the mail, and he isn’t the only one excited about the opportunity.
To Davis’ right, a man with a headset has raced 10 yards to greet Davis before he trots back on the field. They meet, and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy — who is both Davis’ greatest fan and also his greatest critic — shows his approval by sticking out his hand, which Davis slaps enthusiastically for a low five.
“Like he was a proud father,” Davis, a second-year pro, recalls with a laugh.
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To a man, none of his running backs were surprised to see Bieniemy, a former NFL running back, dishing out a hand-slap after Davis’ big play. Bieniemy gets just as excited as they do.
“It’s not so much that I pride myself on being an energetic guy,” Bieniemy says. “It just comes more with who you are. As a player, I loved playing the game. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
“Coach (Andy) Reid has given me an opportunity to come out here and coach. And I get the opportunity to work with a bunch of great players. Why not have fun with it?”
Bieniemy’s enthusiasm might have rubbed off Sunday on Davis, who carried the ball 22 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns and seemed about as excited to play football as he ever has since joining the Chiefs. Davis finished off runs with gusto, and even trash-talked Denver’s Rahim Moore after his first touchdown.
“Yeah, there were signs of it last year of him coming in there and making a nice run or picking up a blitz,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson says of Davis. “He’s the silent, quiet type, but to see him kind of jazzed up and juiced up was exciting to see.”
Davis, a third-round pick in 2013, says it’s easy to go out and have fun when you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, which wasn’t always the case his rookie year.
And while Davis has certainly put in the work necessary to get better as a runner — his improved vision this year is noticeable — he, like the Chiefs’ other running backs, credits Bieniemy and his loud, booming voice for helping him develop as a player.
“Not only do I hear him in practice, but in my sleep,” Davis says with a laugh. “I wake up and he’s still in my head.”
Ah, that voice. De’Anthony Thomas knows it quite well.
A rookie fourth-round pick out of Oregon, Thomas was forced to miss most of organized team activities this summer while he finished his college courses. When he returned for the final three-day mandatory camp in late June, he wasn’t quite ready for what was in store.
Under the blazing Kansas City sun, Thomas spent his first practices back getting yelled at by Bieniemy for everything from assignment issues to failing to run to the end zone after each carry, which the coach requires in the name finishing every play.
“Yes, I had to get to used to it,” says Thomas, who failed to finish his first practice because of cramps.
But when Thomas, who spent most of May and June being quizzed by Bieniemy over Skype about the playbook, returned for training camp a month later, he looked like a different player. He was in better shape, and no longer had to be reminded to finish every run.
Like Davis, that voice had gotten in his head on a perpetual loop, and the respect he has for the man kept him on the right track.
“I feel like it made me a better player,” Thomas says. “I feel like it’s shown in my work ethic.”
During practice, it’s hard not to hear Bieniemy, let alone listen to him. His bellowing voice — which is often shouting one of his four go-to mantras of “finish,” “go score,” “chop wood” and “go get it” — is as much a regular part of the day as stretching or a tight spiral.
“We hear (his voice) so much that we know it, even in a game,” fullback Anthony Sherman says. “When me and Jamaal are on the field, (and) E.B. is yelling, we can hear it.”
Here’s the thing, though: His players know they’d be better off listening to him. Bieniemy, 45, played as a running back in the NFL from 1991 to 1999, primarily as a third-down back and special-teams guy, so there’s nothing he’s asking them to do that he hasn’t.
“I think he understood what worked for him and he uses a lot of that stuff and showed us how to do it,” Sherman says. “When he says something, it comes with credibility. You know he’s done it before.”
That’s what allows him to push all of his running backs, even Charles.
“A guy who is just Mr. Everything on this team, he still gets coached as hard as the next person,” fourth-year veteran Joe McKnight says. “If we do one thing great, he expects us to do the next thing greater than the last thing.”
Sherman says it took him all of four days to realize he was playing for a special coach when he joined the Chiefs last May. Several of his players feel the same way, with fullback Jordan Campbell — who entered the NFL as an undrafted free-agent linebacker a year ago — noting that he was even willing to switch positions because he wanted to be coached by Bieniemy.
This is obviously the kind of impact Reid hoped to get when he hired Bieniemy, who had just been fired after a two-year stint as offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Colorado, in January 2013.
“At Philadelphia, he brought energy to our team and great leadership,” says Reid, who coached Bieniemy his first year as Philadelphia’s head coach in 1999.
“Then I watched him coach for Brad Childress (at Minnesota from 2006 to 2010), and how he handled one of the best backs in the league (in Adrian Peterson) and taught him. I think Adrian would tell you the same thing our guys would you, that he was able to take their game up another notch.”
Bieniemy, however, isn’t much on self-promotion. During the one time Reid allowed his position coaches to speak to reporters in August, Bieniemy made sure to point out that Reid’s staff includes several good coaches, and that they all work hard at their jobs.
But Bieniemy’s voice, which was a bit hoarse at the time from — you guessed it, too much yelling — betrayed him.
“You always want your players to know, first and foremost, not just what you know, but how much you care,” Bieniemy says. “At the end of the day, that’s all you want to be recognized for, just being a coach who had an impact on a player’s life (by making) sure he maximizes his career. I just don’t want these guys to take anything for granted.”
So that’s what all the yelling is for — he simply can’t help it.
Davis, who will be in line to start against the Dolphins on Sunday if Charles’ high-ankle sprain doesn’t heal in time, says Bieniemy has eased up on him a tad, which makes sense. He’s no longer a rookie, and the presence of the dynamic Thomas — who might make his NFL debut on Sunday — has usurped some of Bieniemy’s attention.
But Davis knows that if he does get the nod to start on Sunday, and he happens to break off another big run near Bieniemy along the Chiefs’ sideline, his exuberant position coach will be right there, ready to offer praise via another low-five, just as quickly as he offers criticism.
“That’s E.B.,” Davis says. “He’s always hype.”