After the Kansas City Chiefs suffered an unexpected 27-24 overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021's AFC Championship game, it was an entirely human response to seek a scapegoat to blame for the loss.
But with his decision to retain Eric Bieniemy, head coach Andy Reid has made it clear that his offensive coordinator isn't that scapegoat.
And frankly, that's precisely the response we should have expected.
It's not really any different than what happened after another playoff loss: the Chiefs' defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts in 2013's Wild Card round. After that game — in which Kansas City surrendered a 31-10 halftime lead to lose 45-44 — there were immediate calls for Reid to fire defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
Reid didn't do it — and it wasn't because he and Sutton were longtime friends. In fact, before 2013, the two had never worked together. The reason Sutton remained was much more obvious: with only a few personnel changes, his unit had improved from the league's 25th-ranked scoring defense in 2012 to the league's fifth-best in 2013.
After such a turnaround, Reid would have been nothing less than a fool to jettison his defensive coordinator.
And as I pointed out in these pages on the eve of the 2018 season, what happened after that completely justified Reid's decision. Over Sutton's first five seasons (including the 2017 season in which the defense ranked just 15th), Kansas City ranked third in points allowed. Only once before in franchise history — from 1967 through 1973, when the team had three straight five-year stretches where it ranked third in points allowed — had the Chiefs possessed such a run of defensive success. Even then, Kansas City only had to compete against the eight-team AFL in the first three of those seasons.
Going into 2018, it was perfectly reasonable to wonder whether Sutton was losing his touch — and when his unit's 24th-ranked performance in that season confirmed that theory, it was time for Reid to move on. And so... he did.
But Sutton's four-year span of success before 2017 — in which his defenses never ranked lower than seventh — earned him the right to have a down season before he was terminated.
If you believe otherwise, I have another (albeit outlandish) suggestion for you to consider: it's time to move on from Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who in this just-completed season turned in a passer rating below 100 for the first time since he became a starter. If we're going to embrace a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach to all team decisions, let's not mess around!
By now, my point has been made.
Just like Sutton, Bieniemy is coming off an excruciating playoff loss — one in which his unit failed to perform adequately after the team built up a multiple-score halftime lead. But also like Sutton, Bieniemy's offense has been performing at an extremely high level under his leadership. During the three years in which he has been the team's offensive coordinator, the Chiefs rank second in points scored. In this most recent season, the team ranked third.
Is that in large part because the team has playmakers like Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill? You bet it is! But the same was true for Sutton. During his best seasons, he had the benefit of players like Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston and Eric Berry performing at their peak levels.
Could Bieniemy's success also be mostly because of Reid's offensive influence? Of course, it can! Truth be told, it is simply impossible to accurately separate Bieniemy's contribution from those of his head coach and quarterback.
Despite all the "he doesn't interview well" narratives, this could easily be the primary reason that he has been unable to land a head-coaching position: because there's just no way to tell how Bieniemy could perform without them.
Right now, the only thing that really matters is that Bieniemy — for whatever reason — has been unable to obtain a job as an NFL head coach. Rumors and rumblings of a rift between him and Reid — or between him and Mahomes — shouldn't surprise us. After all, why wouldn't there be an argument among the team's offensive leaders after they failed to leave the field with even a field goal after being first-and-10 from the opponent's 15-yard line with 13 seconds left in the first half? Isn't such an argument exactly what we should expect within a championship team playing for the right to return to a third straight Super Bowl?
If that incident occurred — and it represented a serious, long-term disagreement between Bieniemy and anyone else — then it's simple: he would now be gone. For all of his gentlemanly demeanor, Reid didn't get where he is by tolerating flat-out mutiny among his assistant coaches — or, for that matter, by firing them when they have been performing at a high level.
And since Reid has now hired his former offensive coordinator Matt Nagy as his quarterbacks' coach and senior assistant, it simply isn't that he had no other alternatives. He could easily have moved on from Bieniemy — and chose not to do so.
Just as I said about Sutton in 2018, this doesn't mean that Bieniemy — or even Reid — should get a free pass. However it occurred, they must own their failure in the final game of the 2021 season — and find the means to keep it from ever happening again.
We're onto 2022.