Bears wanted ‘leadership,’ yet they chose a first-time head coach and GM
Because neither Matt Eberflus nor Ryan Poles has led a team before, it’s all projection — George McCaskey’s projection.
Facing the most monumental task in his 11 years as the Bears’ chairman 2-1/2 weeks ago, George McCaskey refused to detail exactly what traits he envisioned in a new head coach and general manager. It didn’t matter whether the coach was an expert in offense or defense, McCaskey said. He didn’t need to be beloved by his players, as long as he was respected.
On Jan. 10, McCaskey set the tone for a wide-ranging interview process that, by its end, saw the Bears interview at least 13 GM candidates and 10 potential head coaches.
There was one thing, however, that was not negotiable.
‘‘The primary quality we’ll be looking for in both the general manager and the head coach is leadership,’’ McCaskey said.
On Tuesday, McCaskey hired Ryan Poles, a 36-year-old first-time GM. After interviewing three finalists, Poles picked his head coach Thursday: Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. The 51-year-old never has been a head coach at any level.
That’s not to say Eberflus can’t be the face of the franchise for years. Or that, behind the scenes, Poles can’t set the tone at Halas Hall for the next decade. Because neither has led a team before, however, it’s all projection — McCaskey’s projection.
Bears fans have reason to be skeptical. Eberflus is the fifth head coach employed during McCaskey’s 11-year tenure and the fourth one hired. During that span, the Bears haven’t won a playoff game.
The Bears have made these leadership projections constantly for a half-century. In the Super Bowl era, John Fox is the only man they hired who had previous NFL head-coaching experience. Eberflus and Poles, however, are the first head coach/GM tandem in franchise history who are rookies at the same time. That ups the degree of difficulty for both men — and the amount of faith one must have in McCaskey to think it will work.
After all, Poles chose Eberflus over two finalists who had not only NFL head-coaching experience but winning records. Jim Caldwell, who interviewed with Poles on Tuesday at Halas Hall, was 62-50 in three seasons with the Colts and four with the Lions. Dan Quinn was 43-42 in 5œ seasons with the Falcons, including a Super Bowl appearance — and collapse after being ahead of the Patriots 28-3 — five years ago. He interviewed Wednesday, the same day as Eberflus.
Shortly after Poles picked Eberflus on Thursday, Quinn told the Cowboys he would return as defensive coordinator. Hours later, he was named the Pro Football Writers of America’s assistant coach of the year.
‘‘I would like to thank Ryan and the McCaskey family for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the Chicago Bears, one of the most storied franchises in all of sports in one of the greatest cities in the world,’’ Eberflus said in a statement. ‘‘I am truly humbled and honored to be named your head coach and together we will do everything in our power to bring a Super Bowl championship back to Chicago.’’
In a statement, Poles said his new coach impressed him with his vision for the Bears. Poles said Eberflus’ ‘‘experience, passion, character and attention to detail made him the right man for both the job and the culture we intend to establish here at Halas Hall.’’
Eberflus built an opportunistic defense after joining the Colts four years ago as part of an arranged marriage. He agreed to leave the Cowboys, where he was the passing-game defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, to join new Colts head coach Josh McDaniels. The Patriots’ offensive coordinator infamously backed out of the job after the Super Bowl, but Eberflus stayed anyway.
In the last four seasons, only the Patriots have forced more takeaways than the Colts’ 107. This season, only Quinn’s Cowboys topped the Colts’ 33. According to Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metric, the Colts’ defense has ranked eighth, seventh, 19th and 11th the last four seasons.
If you squint, you can see shades of the last defensive coordinator the Bears hired to be a first-time head coach: Lovie Smith. Like Smith, Eberflus plays a base 4-3 defense with a reliance on cover-2. Eberflus worked under former Bears executive Chris Ballard with the Colts and considers Rod Marinelli, a longtime Smith lieutenant, one of his mentors. He even emphasized Charles Tillman’s ‘‘Peanut punch’’ to his players, with amazing results: Linebacker Darius Leonard led the NFL with eight forced fumbles this season.
Even if Eberflus can return the Bears’ defense to dominance, he needs to drag the offense into the modern age. In the last 15 seasons, the Bears have finished in the top quarter of the league in scoring exactly once.
More than any other factor, the performance of quarterback Justin Fields will determine whether Eberflus gets more than the four years afforded Matt Nagy, the three given Fox or the two Marc Trestman received.
Poles liked Eberflus’ offensive coaching plan enough to hire him. Now he needs to execute it. Finding an offensive coordinator — and, to a lesser extent, quarterbacks coach — to improve Fields’ game will be the most important thing Eberflus can do in the next week. He’ll lean on his NFL experience — he has worked for the Browns, Cowboys and Colts dating to 2009 — and connections through super-agent Trace Armstrong to find one.
Eberflus was a finalist in the Jaguars’ search but still felt like an under-the-radar hire, given the experience Caldwell and Quinn had. His underdog status isn’t new: Eberflus joined his hometown Toledo Rockets as a walk-on and graduated as a captain, team MVP and eventual athletic-department Hall of Famer. He climbed the Toledo coaching ranks before following Gary Pinkel to Missouri, then jumping to the NFL.
He became a head coach for the first time Thursday. The Bears soon will find out whether he can lead.