H.I.T.S. or miss? Bears bucked trend when hiring Matt Eberflus

Matt Eberflus has a certain folksy charm.

He spouts more acronyms than the federal government, from his H.I.T.S. principle (Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and Smarts) to calling a beloved player an ”M&M” guy (Motor and Mean). The first-year Bears head coach tells his players to “put your track shoes on” and reminds them that “there are no houseguests here.”

The Toledo, Ohio, native has a vaguely Midwestern accent, a reminder that, except for six seasons as a Cowboys assistant, he has spent his 52 years living in Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and now Illinois.

Don’t let the cutesy catchphrases fool you, though.

As a coach, Eberflus isn’t for everybody.

The 52-year-old teaches his H.I.T.S. philosophy with the zeal of a preacher in a parking-lot tent. He and his staff track “loafs,” or moments when players fail to live up to the acronym, and post them on a scoreboard.

Players who fall too far down the list won’t be around long.

“The ones it’s not for?” defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad said. “They disappear.”

He has seen it. The 2017 sixth-round pick was waived by the Saints in 2018 before being claimed by the Colts and their first-year defensive coordinator. Muhammad embraced the system and its main catchphrase — ”the standard is the standard” — and eventually started all 17 games for the Colts last year. The Bears gave him a two-year, $8 million deal this offseason.

“The H.I.T.S. principle, it helps you in so many ways,” Muhammad said. “It’s your r?sum?.”

The tape — be it from practice or a game — doesn’t lie.

“Everything is clear,” said linebacker Matt Adams, another former Colt. “Going into practice, you know what they’re looking for. The H.I.T.S. principle is accountability. It’s easy to judge on tape. Are you hustling? Is the intensity there?”

If it’s not, you don’t play.

Eberflus makes those decisions coolly and impersonally, based on H.I.T.S.

“It’s easy –no hard feelings,” Adams said. “He’s always watching. He’s always evaluating.”

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What makes the Bears’ hiring of Eberflus so compelling is what makes Eberflus special: The secret sauce of Eberflus’ coaching style is getting effort out of his players.

“He’s a leader — he shoots you straight, he likes things to be done the right way,” Muhammad said. “If I had to describe him as far as football: maximum effort.”

The Bears are never going to hustle their way to a Super Bowl. This season, they’d be lucky to hustle to the middle. But the Bears hope that Eberflus’ preaching effort this season sets the foundation for a team they infuse with talent in the coming years. The Bears are likely to have the most salary-cap space in the league — and a top-10 draft pick — next season.

Eberflus has X’s and O’s expertise. He ran a top-10 defense, in terms of points allowed, in three of his four seasons in Indianapolis despite never ranking in the top 80% in the league in blitz percentage. He identified the offensive scheme he found hardest to defend against and plucked a young practitioner, Luke Getsy, to run it for the Bears.

That said, maybe scheme is overrated.

“Yeah, you can fall into that trap — you can,”

Eberflus said. “And that’s why we stand on that foundation because we look at that first. You’ve always got to look at where you’re standing. And what is that? The foundational piece of our franchise. Then you look at scheme.

“Then you’ve got to look at, ‘Hey, how does it help this player operate? How does it help our team score or defend?’ And then you look at [scheme] second.”

o o o

The NFL is a multimillion-dollar business that is no more effective in finding successful managers than your local hardware store.

Everyone’s looking for a genius. They rarely find one.

With rare exceptions, they all look in the same places.

Hiring a coach with an offensive background makes sense — teams typically go only as far as their quarterbacks. For every Sean McVay, though, there are a dozen Matt Nagys and Marc Trestmans.

This year’s cycle saw NFL teams hire from the same old profile: young offensive coordinators from playoff teams who have coached an elite quarterback. Half the 10 coaches hired this offseason qualify:

The Giants hired Brian Daboll, Josh Allen’s coordinator with the Bills.

The Broncos got Nathaniel Hackett, Aaron Rodgers’ former coordinator.

Kevin O’Connell, who won a Super Bowl as Matthew Stafford’s offensive coordinator with the Rams, landed the Vikings job.

Mike McDaniel, who ran the 49ers’ offense, went to the Dolphins.

And Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady’s coordinator for 13 years in New England, landed in Las Vegas.

A sixth coach hired this offseason, the Jaguars’ Doug Pederson, won a Super Bowl as the Eagles’ coach and offensive play-caller.

Three sitting defensive coordinators inherited head-coaching jobs from their own teams this offseason: the Saints’ Dennis Allen, the Texans’ Lovie Smith and the Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles.

That leaves Eberflus as the anomaly: the only defensive coordinator hired as a head coach this year whose office wasn’t located down the hall.

That’s either a bold bet by the Bears or a strange one, depending on the way your mind works.

In the four hiring cycles since the Bears hired Nagy, NFL teams have tabbed 37 new head coaches. Only five were defensive coordinators who didn’t take over from their departing bosses: the Chargers’ Brandon Staley, the Jets’ Robert Saleh, the Dolphins’ Brian Flores, the Broncos’ Vic Fangio — and Eberflus. Two already have been fired.

Chairman George McCaskey and his five-person hiring committee interviewed 10 head-coaching candidates during a 12-day span in January, handing a list of three finalists to new general manager Ryan Poles. When Poles chose Eberflus — whom he didn’t know particularly well, but they shared an agent — it surprised many around the league who expected him to go with one of two former head coaches: Dan Quinn or Jim Caldwell.

Poles made his decision in a world in which the participants in the last five Super Bowls featured only one defensive-minded head coach: the superlative Bill Belichick. In an offseason in which the average age of the five offensive coordinators-turned-head coaches was 41, Eberflus was named the Bears’ head coach at 51.

Eberflus’ r?sum? resembles that of Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron and Smith — they all began coaching college before coordinating one NFL defense and taking a head-coaching job. In the modern NFL, though, Eberflus’ hire bucked the trend. He’s not an offensive whiz kid.

Given the team’s hiring failures since firing Smith, though, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

o o o

Eberflus’ system, in fact, connects back to Smith.

Tracking “loafs” started with Tony Dungy’s Buccaneers in the late 1990s. When Smith, then Dungy’s linebackers coach, left to become the Rams’ defensive coordinator in 2001, he brought the grading system with him. Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli took it to the Lions when he became their head coach in 2006. When he was fired, Marinelli joined up with Smith for the last four years of his eight-year stint as Bears head coach.

As coordinator, Marinelli would oversee a staff that spent five hours per week studying game tape to identify about 50 “loafs” — when defensive players don’t run hard enough, get up fast enough or get off a block efficiently.

Smith’s firing sent Marinelli to the Cowboys in 2013, where he and Eberflus, the linebackers coach, became fast friends. The next year, Eberflus developed his H.I.T.S. system, which tracked loafs.

“Those principles that have been around for a very long time,” said Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who followed Eberflus from Indianapolis. “And I think what Matt has done, he’s refined it. He’s put some nice acronyms to it, which helps us all get to know what to do. And it sounds sexy.”

Sexy? Maybe not. But the H.I.T.S. message is consistent, which, given the way coaches think, might qualify as titillation.

Colts coach Frank Reich said that, “over four years, almost every week,” someone from an opposing team would compliment Eberflus’ troops.

“How hard our team plays — but really how hard our defense plays and how they run to the ball,” he said. “A lot of people talk about how they run to the ball and how we take the ball away. I think that says it more than anything. Just watch the tape, look at the results.”

In Indianapolis, each position room had a loafs chart.

“They put it in front of the guys, and your brothers have to hold you accountable,” Adams said. “If you had 10 loafs, let’s get it down to eight, then to six.”

The Bears looked at practice tape the same way during the offseason. Everyone got dinged — “If someone says they haven’t, they’re lying to y’all,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said — but they know it came with a purpose.

“You’ve got to know your teammate is going to be there,” defensive tackle Justin Jones said. “You got to have that trust in the guys. That’s why it’s so important that they’re holding us accountable. That’s why it’s important that everyone is running to the ball.

“Even if it’s the slightest loaf, that’s why they’re on us so hard. Because if you know that you got the trust and belief in your teammates, then you can play free. You can take more shots knowing that you’re going to have the help of your teammates.”

Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. system worked when he was grading a defense. Now it’s the identity of the NFL’s charter franchise.

It will be fascinating to see whether it works.

“It’s making me a better person,” running back David Montgomery said. “It’s raising my bar and the standard for myself even higher because I know that I need to be better every day I go out there. I’m going into my fourth year. I’m a vet now.

“There’s a standard you have to set for yourself — because everybody is watching you.”

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