‘He did everything for me’: Pro Bowl players rave about Bears GM Ryan Poles, coach Matt Eberflus
Three-time All-Pro Darius Leonard described his time with Eberflus as a game-changer for his career.
LAS VEGAS — With so much to do in their first weeks on the job, Bears general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus probably forgot the Pro Bowl was even happening this week. Most people do anyway.
But their fingerprints are all over it.
The AFC roster for Sunday’s game has six Chiefs, including four that Poles helped draft. And Eberflus’ old team, the Colts, sent a league-high seven players — three from his top-10 defense.
And at least a few of them credit those two for helping them get here. It’d be easy for any of these players to offer a trite “nice guy; wish him well,” line, but some of them simply couldn’t stop raving.
Remember the H.I.T.S. acronym that Eberflus laid out in his opening press conference Monday? The one that sounded like it would be most suited delivered on PowerPoint in an office conference room?
You’d think his former players would be happy they don’t have to hear about it anymore.
“No, I’ll miss it,” said Colts inside linebacker Darius Leonard. “That H.I.T.S. principle made me who I am.”
Made him who he is? Those are thunderously significant words from a three-time all-pro.
The Colts drafted Leonard in the second round out of South Carolina State in 2018, and he was an almost-instant star despite “not really knowing the game,” as he put it. He led the NFL in tackles with 163, forced four fumbles, had seven sacks and intercepted two passes.
He went on to earn a five-year, $99.3 million contract extension last summer, and he gives a lot of credit to Eberflus and linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi — one of three assistants Eberflus brought with him, along with defensive coordinator Alan Williams and defensive backs coach James Rowe — for turning him into one of the league’s most dominant defensive players.
“He did everything for me,” Leonard said. “He taught me the game, especially as a rookie, going in early in the morning and having a walk-through with just him and Borgonzi, learning the playbook and stuff like that. I’ve got athletic ability, but he put the game plan up.”
One of the most interesting things to watch with Eberflus, Williams and Borgonzi is whether they can maximize a similar talent in Bears linebacker Roquan Smith.
As far as the understated, businesslike persona Eberflus presented in his opening press conference, Leonard and safety Kenny Moore said that’s not how he is all the time. That might be the tone in front of the media or when running a meeting, but Eberflus ratchets it up a couple notches once practice starts.
“He has calm days, but he has his days where he needs to get everybody going,” Moore said. “He has the ‘social skills’ to get a player’s attention.”
Leonard added, “When he gets on the field, he demands absolutely everything out of his guys... In the press conference, he’ll do what he needs to do, but then he’ll go into the locker room and demand excellence. That’s what you need.”
The Bears will get a similar approach from Williams, who has two decades of experience coaching in the NFL. He was the Vikings’ defensive coordinator in 2012 and ’13, then spent four seasons as the Lions’ defensive backs coach before joining Eberflus in that role with the Colts.
Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, now with the Eagles, enjoyed his four seasons playing for Williams so much that they still talk regularly.
“They got a good dude in him,” Slay said of the Bears. “Straight honest. And even if the honesty was negative, he was gonna give it to you in a respectful way, and that’s what it’s all about. Solid guy. I love him.”
Slay also said it was Williams’ idea in Detroit for Quandre Diggs to move from corner to safety. He has since made the Pro Bowl twice at his new position. The Bears could use some of that outside-the-box thinking to revamp their depleted secondary.
Poles, meanwhile, isn’t quite as widely known since he spent his entire career until now in the Chiefs’ personnel department. He wouldn’t have had nearly as much interaction with players as the coaching staff did, but he was around enough to earn some respect.
“You could just tell by his walk,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “The guy has some purpose in it. He’s always evaluating. He’s one of those guys that really has an eye for talent. He’s helped us find some gems. I’m sure he’ll do a great job for Chicago.
“And when you run into him in the hallway, he’s easy to talk to. You can’t say that for everybody on the personnel side.”
The successes that led to Poles and Eberflus having an imprint on the Pro Bowl rosters, however, is reflective of their past. Their task now is to replicate that with the Bears, and they surely grasp the project they’ve taken on after the team went 6-11 last season and cleaned house. Their only Pro Bowlers were outside linebacker Robert Quinn and special teamer Jakeem Grant. It’s up to Poles and Eberflus to make sure the Bears have a much larger delegation going forward.