Bears turning back the clock — to Lovie Smith — with Matt Eberflus hire
The Colts’ defensive coordinator seems like an unconventional hire with the Bears desperate for offense. But they were in a similar situation when Jerry Angelo hired Smith in 2004. Three years later, the Bears were in the Super Bowl.
It took new Bears general manager Ryan Poles less than 24 hours to go against convention. That’s fast even by Halas Hall standards.
Inheriting a team desperate for offense — and with the Bears’ best quarterback prospect in decades in place with rookie Justin Fields — Poles could have looked for the next Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur or Zac Taylor as his head coach. Instead, he hired 51-year-old Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on Thursday.
It’s an unusual tack that doesn’t work for everyone, but — believe it or not — has worked for the Bears. In 2003, they were in a similarly desperate situation after general manager Jerry Angelo fired Dick Jauron following a 7-9 season. The Bears’ offense was 23rd in the NFL in points and 28th in yards and had a touted, franchise-quarterback prospect in first-round rookie Rex Grossman.
About to make his first head-coaching hire as a general manager after three years on the job, Angelo had his priorities straight. “We need to be better on offense,” he said. “We need to score more points.”
So what did Angelo do? He turned to the St. Louis Rams — home of the Greatest Show on Turf, the juggernaut offense of the era that made a Hall of Famer out of Kurt Warner and a quarterback out of Marc Bulger — and hired defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. It was so Bears.
And yet, it worked out. Inheriting a solid foundation with Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Alex Brown, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, Smith turned the Bears’ defense into a dominant takeaway machine.
And the offense, after stumbling under one-and-done coordinator Terry Shea in 2004, improved enough under Ron Turner for the Bears to make the playoffs in 2005 (11-5) and the Super Bowl in 2006 (13-3). The Bears, in fact, were seventh in the NFL in offensive points and 15th in yards in 2006.
Alas, it would not last. The Bears made the playoffs just once in the next six seasons before Smith was fired. But it’s still the Bears’ best run of success since the Mike Ditka era.
Therein lies the hope for Eberflus. Still, the rookie head coach faces a big, if not daunting, challenge inheriting the offensive rubble left behind by Matt Nagy.
The Bears’ offense was 27th in points and 25th in yards last season. And while Fields is potentially elite, it’s not like Eberflus is inheriting Justin Herbert, as former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley did with the Chargers this season. Fields’ 73.2 passer rating last season ranked 28th in the NFL. Herbert’s 98.3 rating ranked 12th.
The onus is on Eberflus to be a great judge of offensive coaches and hire a coordinator who can nurture Fields and build an offense. And not just one coordinator, because anyone who turns the Bears’ offense into a force will be deemed a football god and get a head-coaching job immediately. Adam Gase got two just for being the guy who coached Jay Cutler to a career-high 92.3 passer rating in 2015 — even though it ranked 15th in the NFL, barely in the upper half of the league.
And Eberflus has a tougher job on defense than Smith did. Smith’s core players were 26 and under — Urlacher, Mike Brown, Alex Brown, Briggs and Tillman. Eberflus’ top defenders are Roquan Smith (25 next season), Khalil Mack (31), Robert Quinn (32), Jaylon Johnson (23) and Eddie Jackson (28).
Defensive-minded coaches have had success — most notably Sean McDermott, who had the Bills in the playoffs in his first season. But defensive coaches who inherited the bottom-10 offensive mess that Eberflus is inheriting generally have not fared as well — Ron Rivera (Washington), Brian Flores (Dolphins), Vic Fangio (Broncos) and Vance Joseph (Broncos) among them.
So Eberflus’ first coordinator might be the biggest hire of the entire regime-change episode. It’ll say a lot about his judgment — and Poles’ judgment as well.