The most significant thing to come out of Monday’s introductory press conference was that Matt Eberflus won’t be calling the defensive plays, even while the team converts to the 4-3 defense he ran in Indianapolis. There are no issues with Eberflus delegating; many head coaches find it easier to manage the whole of the game while doing so. But Flus still must maintain full control of this defense. He would not be a head coach without his success as a defensive coordinator and not using those skills would be a waste.
Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh are two common examples of defensive coaches who do not call plays. (Many forget that the season before Harbaugh was hired in Baltimore, he was no longer coaching specials in Philly. He was coaching the defensive backs.) In those cases, though, both teams already had outstanding defenses and the new head coaches retained their staffs.
Eberflus doesn’t have that luxury. The team is bringing several coaches from Indianapolis to fill out the defensive staff, including expected defensive coordinator Alan Williams. The Bears are going to try to mimic the success Eberflus had with the Colts, but the new head coach must understand it won’t be easy without the same guy (him) pushing the buttons.
And for every Tomlin or Harbaugh, there is a Leslie Frazier; a defensive coach who delegated the responsibilities in Minnesota, even though the team probably would’ve been better off with the head coach handling the job. Frazier is a notable example because he entrusted the same person Eberflus is expected to hire and it didn’t go well. The first year was okay, as Williams’ defense with the Vikings ranked 16th in yardage, 14th in points allowed and 22nd in takeaways. The second season, they were in the bottom-five in all three categories. Williams, specifically, was blamed not just by media members and fans, but by players.
The next year, with many of the same players and Mike Zimmer as the coach, the Vikings fielded a top-15 defense.
There are a few things Eberflus could learn from Lovie Smith’s time with the Bears.
The first lesson is that Flus should be willing to pull the plug quickly if his friends aren’t getting the job done. Williams’ failures in Minnesota were a long time ago and there’s no reason to think he can’t be better this time around. But if he isn’t, this head coach can’t make the same mistake Smith did, leaving an underqualified Bob Babich in the defensive coordinator spot too long.
While Smith had three different coordinators, there was no question that the defense was his. They preached all the same things Smith learned in Tampa Bay when he was a linebackers coach and the results were clear: the team ranked in the top ten in takeaways seven times, led the league twice and had two more times in which they were inside the top three. Smith still implements those philosophies; the Houston Texans were 10th in takeaways last season.
What Smith showed is that who calls the defensive plays can be significant, but also that the implementation of the defense matters almost as much. If Williams — or whoever — can do the job, Eberflus won’t have a problem. If he can’t, the new coach has to be quick to take control of the unit. It isn’t often that coaches have long runs of success without being very good on the side of the ball in which they specialize.
Eberflus needs to own this defense. He needs to make sure his fingerprints are all over that unit because that is where his expertise lies, and that expertise to the key to defensive success in Chicago.