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Matt Eberflus Wasn’t Hired to Rescue Justin Fields, and That’s Okay

The hiring of the well-decorated Colts defensive coordinator shows the league still can peel away from the idea that a coach must directly help the team’s best player.

In hiring Matt Eberflus on Thursday, the Chicago Bears did something both simple and profound; a course correction we won’t pay that much attention to during the flurry of news this coaching cycle but should.

Eberflus is not going to register as a sexy choice, though we’ll get to why this was a home run hire in a bit. But first, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Eberflus is a defensive coordinator. He played linebacker in college under Nick Saban, coached linebackers, outside linebackers, defensive backs and eventually coordinated defenses at the NFL level. Unless there is some kind of completely nonsensical position shift on the horizon, there isn’t any way to sell this hire as some direct attempt at rescuing Justin Fields.

This is a good thing.

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By hiring the best coaching fit for the job, the Bears are helping the league, in some small, way peel from the idea that a coach’s job is to directly alleviate the woes of a team’s best player. In most cases, a quarterback. This instance of mystical thinking has elevated some truly bright coaches into positions of power. Sean McVay comes to mind. Zac Taylor, too. But it has also crunched and twisted the coaching pipeline, forcing it to produce certain candidates that either don’t exist, or are suffering from a severe lack of seasoning.

There is a vicious cycle in the NFL world that involves drafting quarterbacks out of desperation. Teams who are usually bad enough to be able to draft good quarterbacks have embattled head coaches, who will soon be fired if the quarterback doesn’t perform. Those coaches are replaced by other coaches who promise to revive the quarterback and so on. Somewhere along the line, the idea that a team cannot hire a defensive coordinator wedged its way into the groupthink process because, if the coach possessed a good offensive coordinator, he would soon be sucked into the vacuum so desperate for quarterback whispering talent. And so on, and so on. And while Eberflus is white, it is worth pointing out that the cycle leading to offensive coaches getting the top jobs disproportionately affects coaching candidates of color, who tend to be clustered on the defensive side of the ball more frequently.

In 2018, teams hiring coaches went offense (Frank Reich), offense (Jon Gruden), offense (Matt Nagy), offense (Pat Shumur), defense (Mike Vrabel), defense (Matt Patricia), defense (Steve Wilks).

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In 2019, it was offense (Bruce Arians), offense (Freddie Kitchens), offense (Matt LaFleur), offense (Adam Gase), offense (Zac Taylor) offense (Kliff Kingsbury), defense (Vic Fangio), defense (Brian Flores).

In 2020, it was offense (Urban Meyer), offense (Arthur Smith), offense (Dan Campbell), offense (David Culley), offense (Nick Sirianni), defense (Robert Saleh), defense (Brandon Staley, though Staley, a former quarterback who considered himself a hybrid candidate, comes with an asterisk).

While we’re not saying the hiring of Eberflus will solve a racial disparity in coaching or change the way that some stubborn, fly-by-night owners think, the idea that the Bears desperately need someone to rescue their embattled first-year quarterback and did not turn to the offensive side of the ball out of pure desperation should be considered a bit of pragmatism. Hire the best coach no matter what side of the ball he’s on. The rest will take care of itself. Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers were not drafted by quarterback whisperers (two of them were defensive head coaches and Tom Coughlin coached quarterbacks for only four years, two in the 1970s at Syracuse and two in the 1980s at Boston College). Roethlisberger never had an offensive head coach in his career.

A few weeks back on an episode of Richard Sherman’s podcast, he was interviewing Titans safety Kevin Byard and going through some of the nuances of Tennessee’s defensive scheme. Plenty of man defense. Some quarters coverage. Fire zones. A small blitz package.

“We do a lot of stuff,” Byard said. “I wouldn’t say we’re like Indianapolis…”

“They do some crazy, wild stuff,” Sherman said. “Stuff I’d never seen before I saw them do it.”

Through his career as a defensive coordinator, Eberflus has consistently awed. He’s taken sparse units and led them to admirable seasons. He has shaken, spilled and reorganized his scheme to fit the personnel he’s inherited and developed star players along the way. It was a body of work deserving of a head coaching position back in 2019, when our analyst (and current NFL staffer!) Andy Benoit first endorsed Eberflus. It was deserving of one now. 

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