When cornerback Jaylon Johnson reached the end of the Chicago Bears offseason program in June, he knew exactly what this new era at Halas Hall is supposed to be about. The feeling-out process with the coaching staff had progressed, and players had a clear understanding of their bosses’ demands.
Coach Matt Eberflus had made it a point since the spring to set a tone, later asking his veteran leaders to demonstrate how he wanted his teams to practice and play. So by the time Johnson pulled back up Football Drive in Lake Forest for the start of training camp, he understood Eberflus’ approach.
“It really kind of takes things back to the fundamentals and just playing football hard and playing football the right way,” Johnson said. “I thought (the coaches) established a good sense of tough-nosed football. And I wouldn’t say our last staff didn’t. I just think (this staff’s) emphasis is a lot more.”
For Eberflus, there’s a way winning football is meant to be played — at full speed and with maximum effort at all times. That philosophy is non-negotiable, the demands unwavering. He made that very clear to his players when they united in April, and he and his coaching staff continue to reinforce their methodology daily.
“The standards were lifted from Day 1,” general manager Ryan Poles said.
Sure, Eberflus has his much-publicized H.I.T.S. mantra, the first two letters calling for hustle and intensity. But the acronym wouldn’t mean nearly as much if coaches didn’t back it up with a detailed system to regularly measure and evaluate effort, documenting how players run to the ball and finish plays.
During video review, effort is graded on every rep. Anything that doesn’t look right or exemplify the brand of football the coaches believe in gets called out.
That creates a demanding working environment for the Bears evaluators and teachers as they attempt to create a demanding but productive atmosphere on the field.
“It’s a tireless job for the coaches,” Eberflus said. “We look at every single play. If it’s one-on-one (drills), if it’s team periods, we’re going to look at everything. Because that’s how we build the foundation for success.”
Added Johnson: “Everything is being harped on. I mean even the way that they count loafs. … The way they hold us accountable is crazy compared to what we’re used to. But I feel like it’s all going to pay off.”
‘Lead the world in hustle’
Eberflus doesn’t have some magic formula for success. He is far from the first NFL coach to build his culture on demands for maximum effort and drive.
And he is hardly an innovator in putting each day’s practice under a high-powered microscope and assessing effort as much as he scrutinizes execution and technique. Eventually, the Bears’ hustle and intensity will have to be complemented with difference-making talent for the on-field results to improve.
But at the very least, Eberflus embodies a commitment to hard work and accountability that he believes will be a catalyst in the Bears’ resurgence efforts.
As defensive coordinator Alan Williams echoed last weekend: “We want to lead the world in hustle.”
Hokey as it may sound to some, it’s this coaching staff’s way of creating energy and unity.
And for those who don’t comply or simply falter or grow naturally complacent at times? Well, the hope is someone will catch it, call it out and make it known that such lapses won’t be accepted.
Johnson was asked before the first practice of training camp if he had been put through the wringer by coaches at any point in April, May or June.
“We all have,” he said with a laugh. “If someone says they haven’t, they’re lying to y’all for sure.”
Safety Eddie Jackson recalled a moment from spring practice when he didn’t finish a play the way the coaches wanted. Williams was quick to call it out in a meeting in front of the entire defense, reminding Jackson of one of this coaching staff’s most consistent mantras: Make the last period of practice look like the first.
“When you’re thinking you’re tired, you’ve still got to finish,” Jackson said. “No matter if you’re in Year 1, Year 6 or Year 10, they’re still highlighting you and holding everyone to the same level of accountability.”
Williams talks about “practicing up to the edge,” asking players to develop a mindset and stamina that allows them to go hard for long stretches. “That’s our standard,” he said. “All the time.”
But with that, players should know they always can signal to the sideline — a few taps on the side of their helmet — to let coaches know their fuel light has come on.
“There’s no shame in (that),” Williams said. “OK. You come out and the next guy comes in and he pushes it as long and as hard as he can — all the way to the edge.”
With a similar objective, Eberflus talks frequently about “not walking past mistakes” and creating a culture in which errors are quickly identified and corrected and lapses in effort have consequences. That requires a certain tact, of course, with the coaching staff needing to be constructively critical with a deportment that doesn’t quickly become annoying or create unwanted backlash among players.
Bears defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad spent the last four seasons with Eberflus in Indianapolis and understands what his coach is trying to accomplish and pushing his players to buy into.
That’s why Muhammad has learned to embrace criticism.
“You can never take it personally,” he said. “If you’re open to being coached, it’s easy to take the constructive criticism and apply it. It’s all about having the right mentality and understanding that everything we’re doing is to win.”
On top of that, Muhammad said, learning to practice at full throttle is a process of creating muscle memory.
“Basically you don’t want to have to think, ‘I need to go hard,’” he said. “It needs to become a natural reaction. By doing it every day (in practice), on Sundays it’s just natural and it’s like, ‘Wow, this dude played lights out. He played hard.’”
Added Jackson: “(Eventually) it just comes naturally when you start doing something (repeatedly). You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth. It’s a natural instinct. You don’t think about it. You just get up and do it.
“Right now, I feel like we’re almost at that point where everyone is just flying around.”
Raising the bar
Eberflus was asked during the first week of camp how he hoped to turn up the dials for his first training camp while making sure not to run players into the ground or have a rash of soft-tissue injuries derail the Bears’ improvement efforts.
He noted how the practice schedule — much of it dictated by the collective bargaining agreement — mixes in frequent days off with additional limitations on practice time and contact.
“You just have to adjust and adapt and move and customize where you need to whenever things arise,” he said.
Along with that, Eberflus must monitor his team’s emotional state and know when to push harder and when to pull back.
“You’ve got to feel it out,” he said. “But we’ve got to be a hard team, though. We can’t live soft and play hard. You just can’t do it. That’s not the way football is.”
It will be a while yet before the Bears see the fruits of their labor. And it will be up for interpretation for months — and even years — to come how much Eberflus’ effort-driven principles correlate to the Bears’ record.
But at a minimum, Bears coaches and players are convinced that much-needed standards continue to be set during training camp.