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The Commanders are adjusting to Eric Bieniemy’s ‘hard-nosed’ intensity

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A consistent feature of the Washington Commanders’ training camp this year has been a booming voice from the sideline. Eric Bieniemy, the former Kansas City Chiefs assistant who’s now Washington’s offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, has a style starkly different from other coaches in recent years. He’s loud. He’s intense. He harps on the details, often using the same refrains and demanding do-overs of plays and huddles.

“Get them in the effing huddle!” he yelled at quarterback Sam Howell during team drills last week. “Enough with all the effing walking!”

Some players in Washington have welcomed the tough coaching. Others, according to Coach Ron Rivera, have been “a little concerned.”

“I had a number of guys come to me, and I said, ‘Hey, just go talk to him,’” Rivera said Tuesday. “I said, ‘Understand what he’s trying to get across to you.’ I think as they go and they talk and they listen to him, it’s been enlightening for a lot of these guys.”

Rivera believes Bieniemy’s approach may require adjustment.

“You’re getting a different kind of player from the players back in the past, especially in light of how things are coming out of college football,” Rivera said. “… As a coach, I kind of have to assimilate and get a feel for everybody. Eric has an approach, and it’s the way he does things and it’s not going to change, because he believes in it. [Defensive coordinator] Jack [Del Rio] has his approach. Having been a head coach, I think Jack has a tendency to try to figure guys out a little bit more as opposed to, ‘Hey, this is it, this is the way it’s going to be’ — that type of stuff. Eric hasn’t had that experience yet.”

Why the Commanders think they got their guy in Eric Bieniemy

Bieniemy took the Commanders job in February after 10 seasons in Kansas City, where he was a running backs coach before being promoted to offensive coordinator. At his introductory news conference in the spring, Bieniemy told the crowd he believes “comfort is the enemy of progress” and “we got to learn to embrace the process.”

When asked Tuesday about Rivera’s comments, Bieniemy referred to that news conference.

“Yes, I am intense, and I would be afraid too [at the] start if I didn’t know it,” he said. “But on top of that, one thing [players] do appreciate is this: I’m always going to be upfront, and I’m always going to be honest. Just like I stated when I first got here, we all got to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. … Will everybody buy in? I believe so, but if not, it’s okay. Because you know what? My number one job is to help take these guys to another level, and I can see it.”

He later added: “I’m always going to remain the same. I’m always going to be loud, I’m always going to be vocal, I’m always going to demand from our leaders. But on top of that, I’m watching everything: body language, how we address in the huddle, how we’re getting up to the line of scrimmage, how we’re presenting ourselves. Those things are important because you got to send a message to the defense.”

Bieniemy pointed out how often he pulls players “over to the side” and has “long discussions with them, just so we’re all always on the same page.” In multiple practices, he’s taken running back Brian Robinson Jr. aside after a route or a carry. He’s spoken at length with Howell in between reps.

During Sunday’s 2 1/2-hour padded practice, Bieniemy was on the sideline during team drills and rotated to various groups during the individual periods. While working with tight ends and running backs on blitz pickups and route-running, Bieniemy spoke after every rep, instructing one player to not push off at the top of his route and another to “get vertical.” He almost always followed with, “Finish!”

Bieniemy also acknowledged the reps that needed no critique, including running back Antonio Gibson’s route against a linebacker. “Great job! Great job!” Bieniemy told him.

“Eric Bieniemy is who he is,” Bieniemy said Tuesday. “Eric Bieniemy knows how to adapt and adjust. Eric Bieniemy is a tough, hard-nosed coach. But also understand, I’m going to be their biggest and harshest critic, but I’m also their number one fan, because I got their back [and] I’m going to support them at all times.”

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

Receiver Jahan Dotson said Tuesday that he appreciates Bieniemy’s intensity, and he consistently preaches communication. Dotson believes players have to “look at it for a bigger purpose.”

“He’s coaching you hard because he believes in you,” Dotson said. “… Coming from [former offensive coordinator Scott] Turner to Coach Bieniemy, two different styles of coaching. So obviously it’s going to take a little bit of time to realize the verbiage he likes to use and the way he likes to coach, but after time we’ll get used to it.”

In Kansas City, Bieniemy’s conversations with players on the sideline at times appeared tenuous. In 2019, tight end Travis Kelce appeared to shove Bieniemy while talking to him, but the two hugged it out shortly after. Kelce told reporters the next day that “sometimes you get a little heated with your brothers or your coaches” but that he and Bieniemy had a very close relationship.

In September, quarterback Patrick Mahomes had a tense conversation with Bieniemy during a game. Coach Andy Reid stepped between them to defuse the situation.

“We’re in a grown man’s business. We’re in a grown man’s world,” Bieniemy said Tuesday. “My job is to make sure that I’m doing the best possible job of over-communicating clarity. I take a tremendous amount of pride in that. They also know when I’m getting on them; it ain’t nothing personal. What’s personal is that I want us to win. I expect that particular player to be great at all times. I expect the effort to be a standard that’s accepted by all of us. So when you’re not reaching that, it’s my job to address it.”

Rookie running back Chris Rodriguez said Bieniemy addressed players near the start of camp and told them to go directly to him if they had an issue.

“He said, ‘If y’all have a problem, come to me, talk to me,’” Rodriguez said. “‘We’re all men here. I understand how it is. Just come to me about anything.’”

Right tackle Andrew Wylie, who spent six seasons in Kansas City before signing with the Commanders in March, said at the time that reuniting with Bieniemy was a selling point. And after two weeks of camp, he believes his teammates have grown accustomed to Bieniemy’s style.

“This offense needs to put up points,” Wylie said. “Plain and simple. In order to do that, we got to get as many reps as we can out here. So E.B.’s intense. That’s who he is, and he’ll never change for anybody, and I feel like the team knows that now.”

Led by Howell and Bieniemy, Commanders offense has new vibe

As assistant head coach, Bienemy was given leeway to alter the offseason program and incorporate elements he used with the Chiefs, including their practice structure. Washington’s practices are now high-intensity workouts, with longer team periods. Padded practices, like Tuesday’s session, have typically lasted more than two hours.

For some players, that has been the most significant on-field change in Washington.

“I haven’t practiced like this since I’ve been in the league,” Gibson said. “… I feel like I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in a while — a long while — practicing like this. … Sometimes you need somebody to get into you. It just helps you. It shows they really care, and at the same time it’s like, ‘Let me get this done so he ain’t yelling at me.’”



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