Throughout a coaching career that has taken him to five different teams in 13 seasons in the National Football League, Jon Embree has found team success elusive.
Reaching the Super Bowl, however, has always been an attainable goal in the mind of the former Colorado tight end and head coach.
“I just figured it’s going to happen at some point, so I wasn’t like overly concerned about it or obsessed about it,” Embree said in a phone interview with Buffzone.com. “I just tried to do what I could to try to help my team be the best they can be and get my guys to be good players.”
Embree’s perseverance and efforts have paid off in a big way. In his third season as the assistant head coach/tight ends coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Embree will participate in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday in Miami against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Making the Super Bowl run even more exciting is that Embree gets to share it with his sons and a close friend. His oldest son, Taylor, is a quality control assistant with the 49ers, helping Jon coach the tight ends. His other son, Connor, is a defensive assistant with the Chiefs. Also on the other sideline will be Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, CU’s all-time leading rusher.
“It’s pretty cool,” Jon said of the family ties to Sunday’s game. “I think it’s going to be harder on my mom and their mom, sitting there wondering who do they root for, who do they pull for. I’m really looking forward to it. Then with EB being there, he’s like another brother to me. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but I know it’s going to be hard.”
Jon said it reminds him a bit of the 2011 season, his first as the head coach at CU. That year, Jon had to coach against Taylor on his senior day at UCLA. Taylor was a receiver with the Bruins.
Although there will be some battling on Sunday, Jon is enjoying the ride this season, not only for himself, but for his sons and Bieniemy.
Jon played tight end at CU from 1983-86 and then spent 10 years with the Buffs (1993-2002) as an assistant coach.
After three years at UCLA, Jon broke into the NFL coaching ranks as the Chiefs’ tight ends coach from 2006-08. He was in the midst of his first season with the Washington Redskins, in 2010, when he was hired as the head coach at CU.
His tenure at CU didn’t last long, however. With Jon as head coach and Bieniemy as offensive coordinator, the Buffs went 4-21 in 2011-12 and they were fired.
Bieniemy was quickly hired by the Chiefs to coach running backs, while Jon went on to coach the tight ends with the Cleveland Browns for one season and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for three.
In 2017, a new opportunity opened up. The 49ers hired Kyle Shanahan as head coach and he brought Embree with him (the two worked together with the Redskins).
The first two years were rough, as the 49ers went 10-22, but Jon said, “It was being built the right way. I knew a lot of pieces were coming into place and all that and it was just a matter of time.”
This year, the 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season and have marched through the playoffs to this point.
“The players that we have here, they’re just unbelievable to be around,” he said. “It’s amazing, the camaraderie on this team between coaches and players and not just the players at your position, but other positions. It’s awesome. To culminate like it is now, it’s special.”
Although he said he’d like to be a head coach again one day, Jon has enjoyed being able to coach and teach since his time at CU.
With the Browns in 2013, he coached Jordan Cameron, who had the best year of his career that season, catching 80 passes and going to the Pro Bowl.
At Tampa Bay in 2014, Jon began working with undrafted rookie Cameron Brate, “who had never even been in a three-point stance,” he said. In Brate’s six seasons, his best came in 2016, his final year working with Jon. Brate caught 81 passes that season and a year later signed a $41 million contract.
In his first year with the 49ers, in 2017, Jon started working with rookie George Kittle, a fifth-round pick from Iowa. Kittle is now arguably the best tight end in the NFL, with 216 catches for 2,945 yards in his three seasons.
“George has been awesome to work with, from his rookie year on,” Jon said. “The second day in, I knew we something special and he’s proven me right on that. It’s been fun teaching him and he’s still got a lot more to work at and get better at so I’m looking forward to it, because he hasn’t reached the top yet.”
Like father, like sons
By Jon’s side in San Francisco has been Taylor. Shanahan had a previous relationship with Taylor and originally hired him to work with the defense (Taylor had been a defensive assistant with the Chiefs in 2016).
“I wanted him around young coaches that had great work ethic, that are smart and that were willing to teach and help him,” Jon said. “The first year (with the 49ers), I just kind of wanted to guide and just not be overbearing and then Kyle came to me and said, ‘Hey, I want to move Taylor to be your assistant, but I don’t want it to be awkward.’”
The son of former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, Kyle worked with his father for several years in Washington and knew the father-son dynamic had challenges.
“I told him not to worry about that and I thought it would be a lot of fun,” Jon said. “(Taylor) has done a great job.”
Connor, meanwhile, is in his first season with the Chiefs and Jon said he gets reports from Bieniemy and others on how his youngest son is doing.
“After our preseason game (against the Chiefs), they were just talking about what a good job he’s done,” Jon said.
While focused on his own job, Jon enjoys seeing the budding coaching careers of his sons.
“I’m just glad that they’re doing something they love,” Jon said. “They’ve seen all aspects of it – the good, the bad. They understand the game of football very well, obviously, being raised around it and seeing it and growing up watching it and everything, so I’m just happy that they get a chance to do this at the highest level and have an opportunity to have a great career.”
Buff vs. Buff
Adding more emotion to Sunday’s game for Jon is the fact that Bieniemy will be on the other sideline.
Although Bieniemy, who rushed for a CU-record 3,940 yards from 1987-90, came to CU just as Jon was leaving, the two have been close friends for years.
They were both assistants together at CU from 2001-02 and at UCLA from 2003-05. It was no surprise when Jon became CU’s head coach in 2011 that he hired Bieniemy as offensive coordinator.
“Since EB was a player, I really believed in him a lot and helped him get into coaching,” Jon said. “I think people have a big misconception about him because they see the passion and how fiery he is and how he was as a player and people don’t really know how smart, how intelligent and, just from a football standpoint, how creative he can be. He is going to be a head coach one of these days and I’m sure he’ll have a lot of success.”
To this day, Jon and Bieniemy talk and text frequently.
Super Bowl reunion
Somewhere in Miami on Friday night, Jon, his sons and family and the Bieniemy family gathered for dinner.
“We’ll get together and have some drinks and eat some dinner and everybody will laugh and have some fun,” Jon said. “At least up until we throw the coin up (on Sunday), it’ll be a memorable, enjoyable time.”
On Sunday, it’ll be more enjoyable for some of the group. Either Jon and Taylor are going to win a Super Bowl ring, or it’ll be Connor and Bieniemy celebrating.
“A Buff is going to get a ring, we know that,” Jon said. “And, an Embree is getting a ring.”