In December 2010, Jon Embree was given the chance of a lifetime, and he knew it.
Embree had just been hired to be the head football coach of his alma mater, the University of Colorado, a once-proud program that had fallen upon hard times.
Embree needed someone who would help him implement a physical brand of the West Coast offense, and one of first hires was Eric Bieniemy, a fellow Colorado grad who’d spent the previous five seasons as running-backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings.
Two years — and a 4-20 record later — Embree was swept out of Colorado, along with the rest of his staff, although some of the kids they left behind eventually contributed to a Pac-12 South champion in 2016.
Bieniemy and Embree remained close after their dismissal, bonded by those two years, and when Bieniemy was named the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator on Wednesday, Embree was among the people who expressed confidence to The Star that Bieniemy would thrive in the role.
“A lot of times, people think you have to be a quarterback to be an offensive coordinator, and that’s not the case,” said Embree, who now coaches the 49ers’ tight ends. “Ken Whisenhunt (the Chargers’ offensive coordinator this season) was a tight ends guy, and there’s a lot of guys that were successful coordinators that weren’t quarterbacks or shoot, didn’t even play football.”
“So this misnomer of, you have to be a (quarterback) to get it … I’m glad he’s getting a chance to show that that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.”
Despite the Buffaloes’ struggles during their tenure, Embree said Bieniemy’s passionate, hard-working nature and collaborative-but-independent spirit will allow him to thrive in his new role.
Not coincidently, those are the same traits others around the league — both on the record and off —separately expressed as Bieniemy’s strengths this week.
“Eric will be right in (lockstep) with (coach) Andy (Reid),” one coach who has worked with both men told The Star. “He’s a coach that will utilize the run game to set up play action — he’s always been that way. Great mind for the game.”
“He understands how important the run game is and what it does for your passing game, as far as pushing the ball downfield,” another NFL coach who has worked with Bieniemy in the past told The Star. “He knows how complementary that will be for him.”
And if Bieniemy indeed thrives in the role, his stint at Colorado — in which the offense ranked 92nd in total offense in 2011 and 119th in 2012 — will be a big part of the reason why.
In his conference call with reporters this week, Bieniemy repeatedly mentioned that’s where he learned the importance of collaboration, a notion Embree and Colorado’s then-quarterback coach Rip Scherer supported.
“I really appreciate the fact that he was extremely inclusive of everybody,” said Scherer, who now coaches UCLA’s tight ends. “Some coordinators tend to be dictatorial, and feel like it’s my way or the highway. But he was extremely inclusive of everybody in the room, even with the graduate assistants or younger coaches. If they had an opinion or thought, then he wanted it to be heard and discussed because he values people and treats people good.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of that. Scherer, 65, has been coaching at the college and pro level for more than 40 years, many of them as an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach.
Scherer says it takes a very secure individual to coach the way Bieniemy did.
“I think it’s easy to be a dictator as a coordinator, because nobody challenges you,” Scherer said. “When you’re inclusive it’s more of a challenge because you’re not going to take everybody’s ideas and therefore, you have to be comfortable enough in your own skin to open it up. You’re gonna maybe step on some toes or people’s feelings or pride, and Eric did a great job of doing that from a positive standpoint.”
And while Bieniemy, a nine-year NFL veteran as a running back, allowed Scherer to be the major voice with the quarterbacks due to his extensive experience coaching the position, he still impressed Scherer with his “thorough” understanding of passing concepts.
“I’ve had experiences with running-back coaches who just don’t ever venture outside of the run game and pass protections,” Scherer said. “But I thought he had a really comprehensive perspective of the whole game.”
Embree agreed, noting that running-back coaches understand the entire offense because they’re responsible for teaching fronts and blitz protections.
“The one thing I think Eric is probably the best at in the NFL is blitz pickups and understanding protections,” Embree said. “Eric is excellent at doing that, and if you don’t have that, you can’t throw the ball.”
But while Bieniemy impressed his former colleagues with his knowledge and collaborative spirit, Scherer and Embree also added that Bieniemy is very willing to express his opinions and make ultimate decisions, which is easy to believe if you’ve ever heard the way he yells at the Chiefs’ running backs during practices.
“Eric will tell you what’s on his mind,” Embree said with a laugh. “He’ll tell you the truth in terms of what he believes in and why … he’s not going to be a ‘yes’ guy.”
Even if his opinion runs counter to the head coach’s, Embree learned.
“If he truly believes in something — let’s say Andy wants to throw it and (Eric) wants to run it — he’s not going to say ‘Okay, we’ll throw because because coach wants to throw,’ ” Embree said. “He’s going to tell you what he thinks and why.”
Don’t mistake that for insubordination, though. Embree said Bieniemy understands the importance of rank, noting that he walks the line between calling what he wants and taking top-down direction very well
“He will listen between series,” said Embree, who also has an offensive background. “I used to get on him at times like, ‘Hey, I want to throw it here,’ and he’d be like ‘No, no, I can’t throw it here, we need to run it.’ We’d have our discussions, but at the end of the day, if I was adamant, he’d do it.”
Now Bieniemy has another chance to show what he can do in the role. Given Bieniemy’s detailed nature, which explains why he excels in blitz pickups, Embree has no doubt Bieniemy has been quietly preparing for this opportunity for years.
“People don’t have to worry about him sitting there and going ‘Okay, so now what do I do, what should I be doing here?’ ” Embree said. “That’s always been a part of him, as far as always being prepared.
“I’m happy Andy’s giving him this opportunity,” Embree concluded, “because he has earned it.”