Bears head coach Matt Eberflus stood in front of his team on the morning of June 14, the first day of the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp, and introduced the guests that he was embedding with his players: referee Craig Wrolstad and his officiating crew.
Eberflus had invited them to sit in on meetings — both with the entire team and in position groups — and to help out on the field.
“Let’s utilize the NFL and these guys’ expertise in the refereeing business,” he told his players.
The officials wanted Bears players to be curious about the nuances of NFL rules. So did their new head coach, who saw the officials’ participation as essential to the culture he’s trying to build in his first season at Halas Hall.
“I told [the players], ‘Use the wealth of knowledge that we have in front of us,’” Eberflus said. “So if you have a question about [defensive pass interference] or being downfield on the screen or whatever that might be, let’s ask.”
Inviting officials to camp was a technique Eberflus picked up at his last stop, with promising results. In two of the last three seasons, Eberfus’ Colts boasted the least-penalized defense in the NFL.
In 2018, Eberflus’ first season as coordinator, the Colts committed 50 defensive penalties, tied for fifth-most in the league. In the next three years, they averaged only 31.
The Colts were tied for the fewest defensive penalties last year, with 23. The Bears had more than twice as many, 47. Overall, the Colts were flagged 76 times last year, the third-fewest in the league. The Bears had 106 penalties.
“We believe in not beating ourselves and doing things the right way,” Eberflus said.
Every coach wants to curb flags. Eberflus, at least in a short sample size, has been able to pull it off. It might not be sexy. But if the Bears are going to win games in 2022 — and, judging by the roster they’ve assembled, that’s a big if — they’re going to have to do the little things right.
That’s a big ask for a team that could have rookies at some of the sport’s most-penalized positions. Rookie Braxton Jones finished mandatory minicamp as the team’s starting left tackle, though the Bears have reserved the right to cycle in Larry Borom, whose eight career starts have all come on the right side.
Kyler Gordon, the Bears’ top draft pick this year, figures to start at cornerback opposite Jaylon Johnson. He wasn’t flagged at all in either of his last two seasons at Washington. Jaquan Brisker, a fellow second-round rookie, will start at safety next to Eddie Jackson. He didn’t have a penalty in his last two seasons at Penn State, either.
Gordon said the discipline was a product of his body control — he was a dancer growing up — but also practice.
“Just consistent repetition through college,” Gordon said.
And now, with Eberflus’ emphasis, in the pros. The coach proselytizes often about his H.I.T.S. system, which emphasizes Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and Smarts. Penalties fall under the fourth category, but being in the proper body position to avoid them requires both hustle and intensity.
As the Bears’ defense deteriorated the past few years, penalties skyrocketed. When Vic Fangio coordinated the league’s most dominant defense in 2018, they had the sixth-fewest defensive penalties in the NFL.
The next year, they had the seventh-fewest. In 2020, their second season under coordinator Chuck Pagano, they had the eighth-most defensive penalties.
Last year, under Sean Desai, they had the sixth-most.
Their issues last year went far beyond Cassius Marsh’s notorious prime-time taunting gaffe on “Monday Night Football”—one that cost them a victory against the Steelers. In five of six games against the Packers over the last three years, the Bears had more penalty yards than their rival.
It will take more than cleaning up penalties to make the Bears competitive this season. But the emphasis will continue.
When the Bears return from summer break, Eberflus will have officials come out at training camp twice —one group from the NFL, which will present the rules changes for the year, and another from the Big Ten. Eberflus wants his players to their brains.
“It’s helpful,” Eberflus said.