Questions surrounded Matt Eberflus both times he was hired as a defensive coordinator, and at each stop he more than satisfied the inquiries.
Now the Chicago Bears are seeking an answer to whether Eberflus is the right man to be their next head coach.
The Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator has a second interview with the team Wednesday. The Bears are likely to give new general manager Ryan Poles significant input in the coaching hire, but the search committee clearly is impressed with Eberflus.
“Anybody who has been around Flus has known it’s a matter of time for him to become a head coach,” said retired Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, who played for Eberflus from 2011 to 2017.
Some wondered if Eberflus was ready to become a coordinator in 2001, when Gary Pinkel was hired at Missouri and brought much of his staff with him from Toledo. Defensive coordinator Tom Amstutz replaced Pinkel as the Rockets head coach, so Pinkel was left to sort through options.
He kept coming back to Eberflus, who was a walk-on linebacker at Toledo and became a two-time All-MAC selection and captain as a senior. He was a student assistant coach under Pinkel in 1992 before getting a position coach role.
The issue at Missouri was Eberflus was 29 and would be the youngest Division I coordinator at the time. Athletic director Mike Alden wanted to make sure Pinkel was sure.
“A lot of people kind of second-guessed that, and in our business that happens all the time,” Pinkel said. “Matt has it. It’s like quarterbacks. They can be the greatest in the world to throw the ball and do all these other things, but do they have that it factor? That’s what Matt had.
“I said, ‘Mike, he’s going to be a young guy and we’re probably going to take some criticism for this, but he’s going to do a great job.’ I’m not surprised at all to see him continue to grow and become a great coach. I think he will be an exceptional head coach.”
The program slowly grew, and Missouri reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll during the 2007 season and won the Big 12 North Division title two straight years before Eberflus left to become the Cleveland Browns linebackers coach in 2009.
He was working for the Browns in 2010 when he went to State College, Pa., for Penn State’s pro day and met with Lee the night before.
“A lot of coaches would show you formations for three minutes, then you would have a conversation for 30 minutes and they’d say, ‘Hey, remember those formations?’” Lee said. “That’s not realistic for how anyone learns. Flus came in and said, ‘I’m going to teach you football for 40 minutes, we’re going to talk about it and then you’re going to take a test.’ I thought it was really effective.”
Lee scored 39 out of 40 on the exam. The Cowboys drafted him in Round 2, and the next year they hired Eberflus to coach the linebackers in a 3-4 defense directed by Rob Ryan.
Ryan left after the 2012 season, and the Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator, installing the Tampa-2 system. Eberflus was a natural to stay as he had studied the scheme by visiting with Lovie Smith when Smith was the St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator.
“When we made the switch together and we installed the defense, he was all over it,” said Las Vegas Raiders defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who had the same title at the time in Dallas. “It just jumps out at you. He’s bright, he’s sharp and he communicates very well, and he has done a hell of a job at Indy.”
Lee credited Eberflus for helping players master the defense quickly.
“That’s what makes him so special,” Lee said. “Whatever the scheme is, he knows it and he can teach it. He can teach scheme, he can teach technique and fundamentals and to go along with that, he can motivate. The best coaches can do all three.”
Eberflus ran a breakfast club at 7 a.m. Wednesdays in Dallas for players who weren’t in a special teams meeting. He would offer a head start on the week.
“I would walk into the room and he would have the whole game plan laid out,” Lee said. “You’d walk in and we would have an hour going over what does this team do well in the run game and the pass game and how are we going to combat it. It was paired with scheme. Then we talked about practice. What fundamentals are we going to work on that are going to play out in this game? The level of detail was extremely high.
“That is where I learned so much football from Flus. Being able to sit there and learn from him was huge.”
Injuries plagued Lee, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and he missed the 2014 season after suffering a torn ACL. Even during extended periods on injured reserve, when players can become checked out, Lee felt like he was growing.
“He willed me through a lot of tough times,” Lee said of Eberflus. “I dealt with a lot of injuries and it was back-to-back years of either missing huge periods of time or a couple weeks of time, and his ability to continue to teach me, to will me through those tough times and to be able to come back from that, he was a huge reason I was able to come back and sometimes come back better because of how much he taught me.
“There’s no question he can reach every corner of the locker room. As a player, you want someone that is going to give you answers, is going to motivate you every single day, and that’s who he is. He’s going to give you the answers to get better consistently and he’s going to hold standards. He’s going to be relentless about how hard you’re going to work. Most football players relate to that.”
Questions about Eberflus’ fit as a coordinator arose again in 2018. The Colts had an agreement to hire Josh McDaniels as head coach, and as they waited for his postseason duties with the New England Patriots to end, they started filling out the coaching staff, hiring Eberflus as defensive coordinator with McDaniels’ approval.
Then McDaniels had a change of heart about the Colts job, and they scrambled to hire Frank Reich. Eberflus had already joined the team, so it became an arranged marriage with the new head coach.
That kind of situation can unravel quickly. The Colts, however, have flourished. The defense was 30th in the league in points allowed in 2017. In four years under Eberflus, the Colts have finished in the top 10 three times as the personnel has been completely overhauled. During the 2020 season, four different Colts players were named AFC defensive player of the week.
Now the 51-year-old Eberflus will have a second chance to meet with the Bears after already having two interviews with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s clearly in the mix. The Browns interviewed Eberflus for their head coaching job in 2019, and last year he met with the Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets.
“When you look at the head coach position, what is that role?” Marinelli said. “Matt can really teach, and more importantly he can really teach his staff what he wants. Each guy will have his own personality, but it will be one heartbeat as a staff, which is so important.
“When I was in Tampa, you could see it there with Lovie, Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, all of them coming up as position coaches. Working under Tony Dungy, I had a good feel of what this looks like, and Matt is in that same mold (of) just being a terrific teacher and strong. There’s zero doubt in my mind.”