Matt Eberflus undaunted by ghosts of Halas Hall past
On the eve of his first game as a head coach at any level, Eberflus comes in not as a dynamic savior but an old-school, driven football coach. And maybe that’s the antidote the McCaskey family has been looking for.
When newly hired general manager Ryan Poles introduced Matt Eberflus as the 17th head coach of the Bears at the news conference held for the two of them in January, the room went silent — just the sound of camera shutters — as Eberflus stepped to the dais in the George ‘‘Mugs’’ Halas Auditorium.
‘‘No applause, huh?’’ Eberflus said.
Not here. As he walked to the stage, Eberflus entered a new world. He wasn’t being named the defensive coordinator at Missouri, the linebackers coach of the Cowboys or the defensive coordinator of the Colts. This was the biggest job of his life — one of the biggest jobs in any coach’s life.
The Bears haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1985 and haven’t won a playoff game since 2010. But being an heir to George Halas and Mike Ditka as the head coach of a founding franchise of the NFL still carries significant gravitas.
Eberflus comes in not as a charismatic savior but as an unpolished, businesslike football coach. And maybe that’s the antidote the McCaskey family has been looking for.
Since Lovie Smith was fired after the 2012 season, the Bears have hired quarterback whisperers in Marc Trestman and Matt Nagy — both first-timers — and a two-time Super Bowl finalist in well-respected John Fox as their head coach. Each of them failed to revive the proud franchise.
Those three coaches had one other distinction in common with the Bears: Their first season was their best.
Trestman was 8-8 in 2013 — losing the final two games to miss the playoffs — before a disastrous 5-11 season in 2014 led to his firing and to that of GM Phil Emery.
Fox was 6-10 in 2015 but went 3-13 and 5-11 the next two seasons and was fired to make room for a coach who could nurture quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
That was Nagy, who was the quarterbacks coach of the high-scoring Chiefs and a play-calling offensive coordinator for Andy Reid for the last five games of the 2017 season. Nagy went 12-4 in 2018 behind a dominant defense under coordinator Vic Fangio that masked Nagy’s inability to nurture Trubisky or develop an offense. He went 8-8 in 2019 and 2020 and 6-11 last season before being fired.
So now comes Eberflus, who has neither the intrigue of Trestman or Nagy, nor the resume of Fox. He’s a grounded manager of people, not a brainiac quarterback whisperer. He’s a disciple of Rod Marinelli, not a desired branch of the Sean McVay tree. He’s an old-school coach who puts a premium on discipline, focus, attention to detail, hustle and intensity, worthy traits that often are trumped by scheme, athleticism and an elite quarterback. His football meter is sky-high, but his pizzazz meter doesn’t even budge the needle.
Eberflus won’t charm Bears fans through a tough season, which might be a factor right away, with the Bears looking as though they’re in full rebuild mode. But he also is resolute, focused, unflappable and unfazed by — and sometimes oblivious to — the challenges of a difficult, high-profile job in which the stakes are extremely high.
Eberflus embraces the responsibility of coaching a historic franchise and is undaunted by the failures of the coaches who embraced the same role and failed.
‘‘You don’t look at the past,’’ Eberflus said. ‘‘You’ve got to focus on the future and what’s ahead of you right now. You have to have a telescope view as the head coach, where we’re gonna get to. And then you have to have a microscope view of what we’re doing from day to day.
‘‘I’m just focusing on having good game-day operation, working on the scheme, evaluating the personnel for this first [preseason] game. That’s the way you function best: You’ve got to be in the moment . . . right here, right now.’’
On paper, Eberflus comes in with the biggest job in his first season compared to his most immediate predecessors. Trestman had quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers left over from Smith’s defense. Fox had the semblance of a productive offense for coordinator Adam Gase: Cutler, Kyle Long, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte. And Nagy inherited a defense on the verge of dominance.
Eberflus has none of that, but perhaps he has something better: a clean slate. This team is building from the ground up on both sides of the ball. There are fewer impediments to long-term development. There’s no Cutler to elicit playoff hopes. There’s no Super Bowl-ready defense to tease a postseason run.
The 2022 season is all about developing quarterback Justin Fields and the offense, establishing a competent defense and preparing the Bears for 2023, when they’ll have a first-round draft pick and an estimated $96 million in salary-cap space.
Eberflus has the advantage of a low bar. He was ranked in the bottom half of the 10 new coaching hires in 2022, often just ahead of Smith, who now is coaching the Texans.
Like Smith, Eberflus is a takeaway-obsessed coach who was hired by the Bears when it seemed as though they might be better off with an offensive-minded coach to nurture a franchise quarterback. And Smith worked out pretty well.
So while offensive gurus Brian Daboll (Bills), Josh McDaniels (Raiders), Nathaniel Hackett (Broncos), Mike McDaniel (Dolphins) and Kevin O’Connell (Vikings) were hotter prospects, Eberflus still might be the right coach at the right time.
His decision to give the reins of the defense to coordinator Alan Williams and not call plays can’t be overlooked. It’s an indication that Eberflus values the managing and delegating part of the head-coaching job more than being in control of the defense.
And Eberflus has earned the trust of his players, even those who never had played for him before. When Justin Jones signed as a free agent to play the 3-technique tackle position, his faith in Eberflus was a key factor in his comfort level.
‘‘If anything, I trust ’Flus,’’ Jones said. ‘‘If ’Flus says, ‘Hey, I think you’ll be a better player [or] you’ll make the scheme better if you play 3-technique,’ that’s what I’m going to do. I trust ’Flus. He has everybody’s best interest in mind.’’
No matter how prepared Eberflus might think he is for this job, however, he won’t know for sure until he’s put to the test on game day. Installing the defense, instilling the H-I-T-S principle and putting players in a position to succeed are all things Eberflus has done before. In the preseason opener Saturday against the Chiefs, he’ll be in charge of the entire operation for the first time.
And as Bears fans have seen all too often, even the head coaches who are expert at their side of the ball — and at creating a winning culture — have faltered on game day. Eberflus has to be as good on Sundays as he is the rest of the week.
‘‘That’s everything,’’ Eberflus said. ‘‘Those decisions we make in the last two minutes of the half, last two minutes of the game, going for it on fourth down — all those situations that are my call — a lot of times is really a big job to have.’’
Eberflus said he has been working with director of research and analysis Harry Freid to prepare for those game-management decisions.
‘‘I feel very prepared for that, and I’m excited to go through it for the first time with our staff. We had a chance to do it [at Family Fest]. We did a couple of two-minute drives, and that went pretty well.’’
But you never know for sure until the lights go on — to some extent Saturday, but even more so Sept. 11 against the 49ers at Soldier Field. Eberflus said he went through a similar process when he first became a play-caller as the defensive coordinator at Missouri in 2003, then with the Colts in 2018.
‘‘You’ve got to be fast-minded,’’ Eberflus said. ‘‘You’ve got to be quick. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. You can’t be slow. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to play ahead. So as the head coach, you’ve got to be a play ahead of the offense or defense in helping those guys out.’’
Eberflus has a lot to prove on several levels. This is the great unknown for a first-time head coach. And the Bears’ recent history is daunting. But Eberflus already has given himself the best chance to be good at the job he was hired for — head coach.
‘‘Just hearing him in the headsets [at Family Fest], he was phenomenal,’’ said special-teams coach Richard Hightower, who has worked for Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. ‘‘Really good leader of men, extremely organized, always keeps his coordinators in the loop, and he has a very detailed plan. I’ve been around a lot of good ones, and I believe he’s going to be a great one.’’