Commanders OC Eric Bieniemy is learning how to use his many weapons
In practices, Bieniemy has drilled his players on a bevy of motions, formations and personnel groupings, including “Zebra” (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) and “Tiger” (two receivers, two tight ends, one back). The offense has cycled through motions like jet, glide and return, which Bieniemy used to help key Kansas City’s Super Bowl victory, and just about every skill player has rolled through a dizzying number of assignments. During individual drills Wednesday, a group including Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Antonio Gibson even played wildcat quarterback and ran zone read.
In trying these tactics, does Bieniemy have specific game situations in mind, or is he just experimenting?
“When you have good players, you want to give guys an opportunity to show what they can do,” he said. “Some guys have different gifts than others, and so you want to utilize their strengths in different scenarios. And [so we’re] just making sure that [we’re] turning every stone over, so when it’s time to go play … we’re going to be ready for any given situation.”
Good example of Eric Bieniemy’s coaching style. Early, they practiced jet sweep passes then countered w a jet motion and handoff.
But EB wants motion to keep getting depth: “Hey, receivers, when you cross the ball, lose ground. You got a guard pulling and a U-TE pulling.” pic.twitter.com/zD3ia7axW0
— Sam Fortier (@Sam4TR) May 31, 2023
Several position coaches insisted Thursday that they are more focused on helping their players master the complex West Coast scheme than on determining their specific roles. And putting players through a carwash of roles early has a dual benefit: It forces them to learn the scheme from multiple positions and gives Bieniemy a few reps to evaluate each player’s full skill set.
In the fall, when Bieniemy is preparing game plans to attack specific defenses, he’ll wrestle with the same problem former offensive coordinator Scott Turner never seemed able to solve consistently: What is the optimal way to spread the ball around?
In an average game, Bieniemy will have about 65 plays to share the ball between a deep complement of weapons headlined by McLaurin, Samuel, Gibson, Jahan Dotson, Brian Robinson Jr. and Logan Thomas. There’s also receiver Dyami Brown, who’s disappeared for long stretches but still possesses big-play ability; tight end Cole Turner, who played little his rookie season but has impressed this spring; bruising rookie running back Chris Rodriguez; and anyone else who emerges.
On Thursday, the position coaches maintained it was critical to keep an open mind about roles. Randy Jordan, the running backs coach, pushed back on the idea that Gibson’s past as a receiver would make him the obvious pick to shift into the two-minute, third-down, pass-catching role vacated by J.D. McKissic. Jordan pointed out that, though Robinson is regarded as more runner than receiver, he “catches the ball better than when I watched it on tape.”
“Everybody has to know what to do in every situation,” he said. “[The McKissic role] could be [Robinson]. It could be [Gibson]. It could be a [Jonathan Williams or Rodriguez]. It could be any of those guys. The biggest thing for us is to continue to chop wood, to continue to be disciplined in the pass game and everything that we’re trying to do, and [the answer] will surface in its own time.”
Could the way Bieniemy used versatile receiver Kadarius Toney in Kansas City serve as a template for how he could use Samuel in Washington?
“I’m not really looking at it like that at this point,” receivers coach Bobby Engram said. “I’m looking at it in terms of big picture and making sure, No. 1, they all learn the offense and what to do so we give [Bieniemy] and the players the flexibility to move around. We’re going to take advantage of every guy’s skill set and not pigeonhole a guy into doing one thing.”
If players can handle it, it seems certain Bieniemy will move them in games. Last year, Washington used pre-snap motion often, but players still mostly lined up in the same positions. McLaurin was out wide for 83.4 percent of his snaps, Dotson was wide on 72.5 percent, and Samuel was in the slot for 70.4 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kansas City was much more fluid. Nearly every main receiving threat had a wide-to-slot snap ratio of less than 60-40, and star tight end Travis Kelce embodied versatility with 37 percent in-line, 36.3 percent in the slot and 25.4 percent out wide. The only regular pass-catcher who lined up at one spot more than 70 percent of the time last year was backup Justin Watson.
Though it seems likely Bieniemy changed Kelce’s alignments at such a high rate because of his singular talent, rather than a philosophical belief about the role of the tight end, it prompts an intriguing question: Will Bieniemy continue shifting pre-snap positions at such a high rate in Washington? Will any of his players be as drastically alignment agnostic as Kelce? If so, instead of a tight end, could it be Gibson or Samuel between backfield, slot and wide? Could it be a different tactic depending on opponent?
One hint: During a recent practice, Dotson lined up in the backfield, where he took zero snaps last season.
Regardless, it’s clear the players are enjoying the fresh approach.
“Our offense has a lot of options,” McLaurin said, smiling.
“It’s amazing [learning the scheme], I ain’t going to lie,” Samuel said. “I don’t want to give too much. But we do a lot.”
“He has a lot up his sleeve,” Gibson said of Bieniemy. “We are getting moved around a little bit different. But it’s not just us [running backs], it’s everybody, so I’m excited about that.”
During a recent news conference, when asked about his skill players, Bieniemy couldn’t help but grin, too.
“I’m just intrigued by all the different pieces that we have,” he said. “I’m not going to give away anything else, but it’s been fun so far.”