If Richard Hightower can do to the Packers in the future what he did the last time his team faced them, Bears fans will build a statue of him. As it is, he’ll get two chances a year to try.
Ten days after Bears coach Matt Eberflus was hired, he landed his third and final coordinator Sunday in Hightower, who spent the last five seasons as the 49ers’ special-teams coordinator.
It was in that role last month that Hightower and his game-changing unit sparked the 49ers to 13-10 victory at Lambeau Field in the NFC playoffs.
As the first half was expiring, the 49ers’ Jimmie Ward blocked a 39-yard field-goal try by Mason Crosby that would have put the Packers ahead 10-0. With just less than five minutes left in the game and the 49ers down by seven, defensive lineman Jordan Willis blocked a Packers punt that landed at the 6 and was scooped up by rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga, who returned it for a touchdown that tied the score. The 49ers won the game when kicker Robbie Gould made a 45-yard field goal at the gun.
Hightower, 41, became the 49ers’ special-teams coordinator after serving as the Bears’ assistant special-teams coach in 2016 under Jeff Rodgers.
In leaving the 49ers, he is parting with a longtime friend in coach Kyle Shanahan, who played alongside Hightower at the University of Texas. The two were walk-ons — Hightower was a defensive back on an academic scholarship — who were awarded scholarships by coach Mack Brown on the same day in 2002.
Hightower began his NFL career as a coaching assistant with the Texans in 2006 and was promoted to special-teams assistant in 2008. He was the receivers coach at the University of Minnesota in 2009 and the assistant special-teams coach for Washington in 2010-13. He handled offensive quality control for the Browns in 2014 and was a special-teams assistant for the 49ers in 2015 before joining the Bears.
He’ll have a hard act to follow after former Bears special-teams boss Chris Tabor joined the Panthers. Despite their star turn against the Packers, the 49ers were ordinary on special teams all season. They ranked 25th in Rick Gosselin’s special-teams rankings, the most well-respected measure in the sport, in 2021. The Bears, by contrast, were ninth. Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers 26th and the Bears seventh.
The Bears also are hiring Cardinals offensive quality-control coach Jim Dray as their tight ends coach. The Stanford alum played eight seasons in the NFL but never has been a position coach. He was an a Stanford offensive assistant in 2018 and the Browns’ offensive quality control coach the next year. He replaces Clancy Barone.
The Bears considered former Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia for their special-teams position, too, but he reportedly has been talking with the Packers — who fired their special-teams coordinator after the playoff debacle — about a job.
Eberflus is inching closer to filling out his coaching staff. All three coordinator positions now are spoken for. He also has hired former Packers quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy as offensive coordinator and his former Colts deputy, Alan Williams, as defensive coordinator since taking over Jan. 27.