Bears Should Move on from Matt Eberflus

| January 3rd, 2024

Chicago’s season will come to a close in Green Bay on Sunday, when the Bears will finish without a winning record for the 5th season in a row and 10th time in the last 11 years. Since the Bears are already out of the playoff race, the game itself is fairly inconsequential for them, but the offseason that follows it will be hugely important, as Chicago will have to decide whether to stay the course or make a change at both head coach and quarterback.

I already examined Chicago’s decision about Fields yesterday, so today I want to take a look at head coach Matt Eberflus. The decision on Eberflus will actually come first, as the Bears will likely officially announce whether he is fired or returning for 2024 in the 1st half of next week.

In-season turnaround

Through the 1st four weeks of the season, the Bears were 0-4, had been outscored by 62 points, and looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL. Since then, they are 7-5, have outscored their opponents by 57 points, and look like a dangerous team. It’s a real credit to Eberflus that he kept the team focused and resilient so they could bounce back from their disastrous start to the season.

However, there are 2 points to consider here:

  1. If Eberflus deserves praise for the Bears’ good stretch starting in week 5, then he also deserves significant blame for their 0-4 start. Why did it take a month for his team to look like they belonged in the NFL?
  2. It’s also worth noting that Chicago has faced a remarkably easy schedule this year.
    • Their opponents cumulatively have a win % of 0.461, which is the 4th easiest schedule in the NFL.
    • When the Bears have played decent teams, they have really struggled, posting a 1-7 record against teams who are currently .500 or better.
    • To be fair, 4 of those games were the 0-4 stretch to start the season (though 3 of those 4 teams are exactly .500 right now, so not exactly stellar), but the Bears are still 1-3 against .500 or better teams since then, compared to 6-2 against sub-.500 teams in the same stretch.

Defensive Improvement

The other main point in Eberflus’ favor is that Chicago’s defense has gotten really good since he took over calling plays. It took a few weeks for him to find his footing, as Eberflus took control of the defense in week 2 but the turnaround didn’t start until week 5. From weeks 1-4, Chicago’s defense gave up 29 points/game (which would be 31st in the NFL over the full season) and ranked 31st in expected points added (EPA) and 26th in success rate. Since week 5, Chicago’s defense has given up 17.4 points/game (which would be 3rd in the NFL over the full season) and ranked 3rd in EPA and 6th in success rate.

Clearly, the defense has morphed from one of the NFL’s worst to one of its best, which is a credit to Eberflus. However, I do think there are two points worth considering here:

  1. Defensive success is not very stable year to year.
    • The Bears have a top 5 defense for the last 3/4 of this season, but that does not mean keeping Eberflus guarantees they will have a similarly dominant one next year.
    • This is especially true with turnovers, which have been hugely important in driving the Bears’ success over this stretch. Chicago has forced 26 turnovers since week 5, which is 2nd in the NFL and 9 more than average, but there is basically no relationship between how many turnovers a defense forces from one season to the next.
    • Eberflus has a history of solid defenses between Indianapolis and Chicago, so this isn’t to say that Chicago’s defense will stink next year if he’s back, but there’s no guarantee it will remain a great unit.
  2. The defensive output matches investment.
    • Since showing up 2 years ago, Ryan Poles has spent over $240M to bring in veteran defenders Montez Sweat (4 years, $98M), Tremaine Edmunds (4 years, $72M), TJ Edwards (3 years, $19.5M), Yannick Ngakoue (1 year, $10.4M), DeMarcus Walker (3 years, $21M), Andrew Billings (2 years, $8M) and Justin Jones (2 years, $12M).
    • Those 7 players alone have contract values adding up to over $76M/year, which is more than $10M over the NFL team average for all defensive players. The Bears are spending the 9th most 2023 cap dollars on the defense.
    • Poles has also drafted 5 defenders in the 2nd round over the last two drafts: Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker, Gervon Dexter, Tyrique Stevenson, and Zacch Pickens (Pickens was technically a 3rd rounder, but he was pick 64, which is typically a 2nd round pick).
    • Add it together, and that makes 12 defenders that Poles has invested starting-level resources in for Eberflus to work with. That number climbs to 14 when you consider that Eberflus and Poles inherited Jaylon Johnson (2nd round pick) and Eddie Jackson (substantial free agent contract).
    • It doesn’t take great coaching to get good results from a unit with this much invested in it, and the Bears should expect that any competent defensive coordinator can maintain a successful defense if Eberflus is fired.

Late Game Collapses

Chicago lost three games this year when they held double digit leads in the 4th quarter, which ties them for the most such losses of any team in NFL history. At least some of the blame for a consistent pattern of late-game collapses like that has to fall on the head coach.

And even in games where they have held on to win, the Bears are worse in the 4th quarter on both sides of the ball. Here are their ranks compared to NFL peers in the 1st 3 quarters vs. the 4th quarter:

  • Points scored: 13th in 1st 3 quarters, 20th in 4th quarter
  • Points allowed: 16th in 1st 3 quarters, 26th in 4th quarter
  • Scoring differential: 15th in 1st 3 quarters, 26th in 4th quarter

The Bears are an average NFL team on both sides of the ball for 3 quarters, and then a bad one in the 4th, which is a reflection of poor coaching. It directly cost the Bears a playoff spot this year, as they would be in the playoffs by hanging on in 2 of their 3 epic collapses and playing Green Bay for a playoff berth on Sunday just by hanging on in 1 of the 3.

Performance Under Pressure

To go along with struggling in the 4th quarter, which is the part of each game that has the most pressure, the Bears have struggled the most this year in games that carry some sort of pressure with them, and mainly played well when there has been no consequences for losing. To recap:

  • Week 1 – the Bears started the season at home against the archrival Green Bay Packers, who entered the season with an unproven starting QB for the first time in 15 years. After being fairly evenly matched in the 1st half, Green Bay embarrassed the Bears on both sides of the ball after the break. We now know that the talent level on these teams is not very different – they are only 1 game apart in the standings – but there is a vast gulf in the caliber of coaching that showed clearly in the adjustments made in week 1.
  • First month – the Bears started the season 0-4, looking like one of the absolute worst teams in the NFL for the 2nd year in a row. In Eberflus’ defense, it’s hard to pin 2022 on him, since the roster lacked talent, but that was not the case for 2023, and the team clearly did not come into the season prepared to compete. At 0-4, they were essentially out of the playoff race by the time they finally won a game.
  • Cleveland game – to Eberflus’ credit, the Bears did manage to turn things around and crawl back into the playoff race. After winning back to back games against Minnesota and Detroit, the Bears started showing up “in the hunt” and garnering some talk about their playoff chances. That was a fun week, but it ended immediately when the Bears blew a 4th quarter lead against Cleveland.
  • Add it all up, and the Bears lost every single game with any sort of pressure this year, winning only when the games did not matter at all for playoff implications. It’s up to a coach to have his team ready to play when stakes are high, and Eberflus has repeatedly shown he is not up to that task.

Coaching staff concerns

One of the most important jobs a head coach has is to build a quality coaching staff, and Eberflus has failed spectactularly in this regard.

Decision tied to QB

When you look at the points for and against him, the decision becomes fairly obvious: the Bears should fire Matt Eberflus. Through two seasons, he has shown that he is a good culture coach, but he has not demonstrated the ability to build a decent coaching staff and his 2023 team has consistently come up short in high pressure situations.

It is worth noting, however, that this decision is complicated by the Bears also needing to make a decision at QB this offseason. Like I wrote yesterday, I think the Bears should move on from Justin Fields and draft a QB with the 1st overall pick. If they do that, then the decision to move on from Eberflus becomes even easier. Eberflus is a defensive coach, so it won’t be his job directly to develop a new QB. Instead, he’ll need to identify the right offensive coordinator to do that. As was addressed above, Eberflus’ 1st offensive coordinator hire was terrible, and he is unlikely to attract anybody better given the tenuous job status he himself would have going into 2024.

The Bears have damaged the development of both of their last 2 QBs – Mitch Trubisky and Justin Fields – by forcing them on a poor incumbent staff facing win-now pressure for their rookie season and then making them to learn a new offense going into year 2. They cannot afford to make the same mistake for a 3rd time running. One recent report indicated the Bears “need to win in 2024,” which, coupled with the reports of Eberflus coming back, could indicate the Bears are headed down this path.

If the Bears decide to keep Eberflus, then they either need to keep Justin Fields or guarantee Eberflus (and his new offensive coordinator) at least 2-3 years, with zero pressure to win with a rookie QB in 2024. That would at least provide the rookie with some sort of stability as he tries to develop.

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