Matt Eberflus has found a way to measure almost anything on a football field.
When his player tackles someone along the sideline, Eberflus watches to see how far he pushes him out of bounds. At the least, the ballcarrier has to tumble across the 6-inch chalk border that surrounds the field and land on the other side.
“From the green through the white,” he told the Sun-Times. “That’s a way we measure intensity.”
In the open field, Eberflus measures the last three yards of the possession. Does the tackler accelerate to the ball-carrier and drive his feet? Does he perform a hamstring tackle? Unlike most coaches, Eberflus teaches that the tops of a player’s shoulder pads should be level with the ball-carrier’s waist. The defender must drive through the player’s hips, wrap up near the hamstrings and take three firm steps while taking him to the ground.
Any additional tacklers need to try to force a fumble. Eberflus measures whether they do, and which technique they try: the punch, the hammer or the rake. The punch is an uppercut through the fat part of the ball and the hammer is a downward strike. The rake is more violent — peeling back a ballcarrier’s fingers and reaching for the tip of the ball to dislodge it.
“If you’re not punching the ball on every play, the way we coach it, that’s a mistake,” Eberflus said.
The coach watches exactly where defenders are punching: former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman has taught Eberflus’ teams both in Indianapolis and Chicago to try to time the punch to coincide with a ball-carrier’s rocking motion as he runs. Don’t punch where the ball is, Tillman preaches, punch where it’s going to be.
“Are you really stripping it every play?” Eberflus said. “Not just sticking your hand out there to appease me, but are you really going after it?” he said. “We coach that every single play.
“It’s all measured, so you can coach details every single play. What you’ll see is that when you do it on offense, defense, and kicking, your team will understand the exact standards because everything is on the table. You don’t hide anything.”
Those defensive tenets helped the Colts finish second in the NFL in takeaways over Eberflus’ four-year stint as defensive coordinator — which in turn landed him his first-ever head coaching job.
The main tenet of his H.I.T.S. system — which has found a way to, Eberflus believes, quantifiably measure hustle, intensity, takeaways and smarts by grading game film — is that he’s always watching.
Sunday at Soldier Field, the 52-year-old will have his first exposure with the ultimate measurable: wins and losses as an NFL coach. Because a rebuilding Bears team figures to have much more of the former than the latter, it raises the ultimate conundrum for someone whose coaching ethos is based on grading the ungradeable. Beside wins and losses, what would the Bears consider a success?
Eberflus’ boss has an idea.
“Resilience,” general manager Ryan Poles said. “I’ve been on teams, a Super Bowl team and teams that, ya know, anywhere in between. And the teams that can just stay level and look at “What are the solutions?” instead of just pointing at the problem and being negative with like, ‘Look at that! It’s not good.’ No. ‘How are we going to fix it?’
“So as an organization, as a team, as a locker room, as a staff, just being resilient through the ups and downs and just continuing to fight and have that arrow pointing up.”
o o o
Eberflus collects sayings the way other men his age collect vinyl records or bottles of Bordeaux. He uses so many of them, so often, that those inside Halas Hall not only have favorites, but former favorites.
“It’s about the takeaways,” linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said. “He says that one every day.”
“To get the ball, you have to be fanatical,” defensive line coach Travis Smith said.
“Together, we can,” safeties coach Andre Curtis said.
Secondary coach James Rowe, who spent last season as Eberflus’ cornerbacks coach in Indianapolis, lists one specific saying as the most important. It’s actually just two words, said twice apiece: “Player-coach, coach-player.”
It’s what separates Eberflus from his predecessor, Matt Nagy.
“You can be a player’s friend, for sure, no doubt,” Eberflus said. “But you have to be his coach first.”
Nagy held dance contests and Saturday night ice cream parties for his players. He conceived of “Club Dub” in the locker room after the game — though Joe Maddon’s Cubs get credit for the inspiration — where he’d stand in the center of a circle and motion his right arm to the ground like he was spiking a football.
“Boom!” the players would scream.
When the Bears won, Nagy was inspirational. When they lost, his players said they wanted to win for him. But something was missing. Nagy was 39 when the Bears hired him; Eberflus was 51. Perhaps the age gap breeds more of a professional distance.
“The coach is there to serve and to help the player,” Eberflus said. “That’s your job. And you have to have the right mindset as a coach because it’s not about you. It’s about the player.
“The player is the product we put on the field. And that’s the product of the Bears. So he comes first — whatever we can do to help him to be his very best. And the coach has to show that to the player.And when he does, there’s a relationship built. They have this relationship where it’s a partnership — coach-player, player-coach partnership.”
o o o
Eberflus was a 22-year-old assistant at Toledo when head coach Gary Pinkel held a football in the air and, in a moment of coach zen, sent a simple message.
“Guys,” he said, “it’s all about this.”
Pinkel’s zeal for takeaways — and against turnovers — was a success. He retired in 2015 as the all-time leader in wins at Toledo and Missouri. At the time, only two coaches could make the same claim about two Division I-A schools: “Bear” Bryant and Steve Spurrier.
Eberflus, his defensive coordinator at Missouri from 2001 to ’08, took Pinkel’s focus on takeaways to the NFL. He was the Cowboys’ linebackers coach in 2014 when Rod Marinelli, the former Bears assistant, was named defensive coordinator. Eberflus at first wanted to be just like the man he called a “master coach,” but then he decided he wanted something unique. His H.I.T.S. principle, which combines elements of Marinelli’s tracking of player “loafs” and Eberflus’ meticulous film grading, was born.
“Most people just look at scheme, like, ‘OK, he did his job and completed pass and all that,’ ” Eberflus said. “Well, we don’t look at the game that way. We look at the game a different way.”
At Halas Hall, that meant teaching the system to the defensive assistants who didn’t follow him from Indianapolis and creating offensive grading points.
The meetings took hours. He was met with wide eyes.
“The coaches had the same response as the players — ‘Gosh, I didn’t know it was like that,’ ” Eberflus said.
Eberflus spent his first few months at Halas Hall coming up with ways to measure offensive performance with the same level of obsession he did defense.
Just as cornerbacks must tackle the right way, receivers must block them properly.
“There’s no house guests here,” Eberflus said.
Just as defenders’ punches at the ball are meticulously measured, so are the steps ballcarriers take to thwart a takeaway. They must keep five points of pressure on the ball — their fingertips, palms, forearms, biceps and chest — and clasp their hands when they run through traffic.
When Smith interviewed for the Bears’ defensive-line job, he asked about Eberflus’ takeaways secret. Eberflus said he was fanatical about it. It wasn’t until Smith got to Halas Hall that he saw what that looked like.
“Watching how we practice and how we attack the ball, it makes sense,” he said.
It’s tangible. Which means it can be measured.
“Then everybody knows what the standard is,” Eberflus said. “As opposed to saying, ‘Hey, just play hard.’ Or, ‘Hey, take the ball away.’ “
o o o
Eberflus didn’t raise his two daughters by shouting aphorisms and measuring hustle, although he does have one go-to phrase that makes sense for a protective dad to Grace, who just graduated college, and high schooler Giada.
“I always tell my girls, ‘Keep your head on a swivel,’ ” he said.
Otherwise, Eberflus said, he’s not the same man at home as he is on the sideline.
“I know how to have fun, relax,” he said. “The whole principle and foundation isn’t an uptight thing. It’s just how we live. It’s the standard.”
His new boss is all in.
“I love that dude,” Poles said last week. “He is consistent. His message is clear. There is no gray area. When he approaches the team meeting and gets in front of the guys, he’s got juice. But it’s not fluff. It’s not fake. It’s real. And you can feel that energy that he has. The guys love it. I love it. I’m so pumped about his leadership and how he’s going to lead this team.”
Safety Eddie Jackson has noticed Eberflus’ big ideas and little gestures. The coach has yet to be late for a meeting.
“Just holding everyone to that accountability and just letting his action match his words,” Jackson said. “I feel like that’s the big thing.”
Rowe, the secondary coach, can feel Eberflus’ personality on game day. It’s the same “stern intensity” that the Bears want out of their players.
“All the greats have a switch that they turn on and off, and it’s probably more important to turn it off,” he said. “He’s intense. He’s intentional. His passion to win is unmatched. And you feel that from him when he talks about football.”
That intensity, of course, can be measured.
“If you turn on the film, the film reflects the coach,” said Borgonzi, the linebackers coach. “If you have an intense team, then that’s a reflection of the coach, the position coach and the coordinator. The film’s your r?sum?. The film does the talking.”
It will speak for the first time Sunday.