How Ryan Poles, Matt Eberflus plan to rescue Chicago Bears from mediocrity – Chicago Tribune

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Confirmed: Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey did indeed drive his own Honda Accord to O’Hare International Airport on the night of Jan. 24. McCaskey had a finalist for his team’s general manager position to scoop up and felt an elevated purpose as he maneuvered down Bessie Coleman Drive.
“Parked in the (airport) garage,” McCaskey acknowledged Monday. “White Sox level. Three bucks to the city.”
Wearing a Bears letterman jacket and a Bears face mask, he then met Ryan Poles near baggage claim in Terminal 1.
“I wanted to show him that we care,” McCaskey explained. “I wanted he and I to have the opportunity to speak one-on-one.”
Added Poles: “And then he offered to take my bags.”
Then off they went, hitting the gas on a relationship both men believe will help steer the Bears out of the NFL wilderness and back to prominence. As quickly as possible.
McCaskey asked Poles that night if he wanted to check out the Bears facilities at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. Poles did. Thus the duo diverted from the nearby hotel where Poles was staying and began an impromptu private tour at 1920 Football Drive.
The next day, after an in-person interview on those same grounds, McCaskey asked Poles to be the team’s new GM. He accepted.
Then Poles set out to complete a coaching search — his coaching search — and within 48 hours extended an offer to Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
“The minute he walked through the room, I knew he was the guy,” Poles said.
Welcome to the family.
“I said it to Ryan: ‘Hey, we’ve got to be like brothers,’” Eberflus said. “He said, ‘I don’t have a brother.’ I told him, ‘Well, you do now.’”
Monday marked the culmination of an arduous and eventful month for the Bears, who finished a 6-11 season on Jan. 9 in Minnesota, fired GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy the next day, then went through a two-week search process that ended with a grand introductory news conference in the George “Mugs” Halas Auditorium.
OK, perhaps “grand” is too strong an adjective. Mostly because this franchise has become far too accustomed to putting on these kinds of presentations. Now they’re just part of the routine. Under McCaskey’s leadership, the Bears have introduced Phil Emery as their new GM in 2012, Marc Trestman as the new coach in 2013, Pace as GM and John Fox as coach in 2015 and Nagy as coach in 2018.
Thus it’s understandable if a growing segment of the fan base is guarding its optimism over the newest changes, taking a wait-and-see approach. “Prove it” demands are not only increasing but necessary as Poles and Eberflus take their posts and work to unify a vision to rescue one of the NFL’s charter franchises from decades of mediocrity.
“Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus both possess the qualities we’re looking for in our team,” McCaskey said Monday. “Tough. Gritty. Smart. Opportunistic. Winners.”
For as much excitement as there was percolating inside Halas Hall on Monday, the Bears’ many missteps over the years have earned them a heightened level of scrutiny for every move they make and every promise they deliver.
Poles and Eberflus might not understand the dynamic just yet, and they’re certainly not to blame for it. But as an organization, the Bears have to earn back the benefit of the doubt.
After all, the confidence McCaskey expressed in Poles on Monday sounded quite familiar.
“I was impressed with Ryan’s intelligence and confidence, his direct manner and his plan to bring the Bears back,” he said.
Seven years ago, in a nearby midway inside Halas Hall, the Bears chairman highlighted similar qualities that he strongly admired in Pace as he became the new GM.
“His intelligence. His intensity. … His plan,” McCaskey said then. “His analysis and his analytical ability and his assessment of our roster. He gave us a good, cogent and succinct assessment of our roster.”
In the end, none of that amounted to much, at least in terms of translating into high-level achievement in the NFL. The Bears went 12-4 and won the NFC North in 2018, but that was Pace’s only winning season in seven years on the job. They lost 67 times and never won a playoff game. (They didn’t win a playoff game with Nagy or Fox or Trestman or Emery either.)
So why would anyone in the outside world latch on to McCaskey’s confidence this time around as he begins working with his fourth GM and fifth head coach?
“Every experience has its benefits,” McCaskey said. “Hopefully you’re learning from the experiences, both the positive and negative.”
It’s no one’s fault, but gatherings like Monday’s tend to become a little templated. Thus it was no surprise a few pep-rally-esque proclamations were made. Poles, for example, gave aspiring T-shirt makers their first opportunity to start workshopping ideas when he sent a confident warning to the rest of the Bears’ division.
“We’re going to take the North,” he said, “and never give it back.”
Eberflus, meanwhile, not only offered up a foundational acronym, H.I.T.S. — for hustle, intensity, takeaways and situational smarts — but also stressed his aim to encourage, inspire and challenge his new players.
“You have to have the kind of heart and mindset to be able to challenge these guys,” he said. “Push them to places they couldn’t be able to go to themselves.”
Poles talked about building a team through the draft, matching offensive and defensive systems with the skill sets of players. Eberflus emphasized the need for the Bears to become more explosive.
Poles promised to run a front office guided by communication and candor. And Eberflus warned his new players to get ready to be gassed.
“Get your track shoes on,” he said. “Because we’re running.”
An order like that might not immediately endear Eberflus to his troops. But to the new coach, it’s symbolic, a way of getting a team in need of major improvement to understand the importance of testing and stretching its limits.
“That’s the rudiments of the game, the fundamentals of the game,” Eberflus said. “So if you’re talking about 1920 or you’re talking about 2022, those (things) aren’t going to change. The premium is on maximum effort. You’ll never know how good your football team is going to be until you play with maximum effort.”
The truth is the Bears need to elevate their standards and redefine what qualifies as meaningful achievement. Out of the gates, Poles and Eberflus seem to agree with that assessment, openly acknowledging how much work they have ahead to mold their team into one that can enjoy sustained success.
Eberflus spoke about using 2022 to establish a foundation, a cement-pouring process that comes before the more meaningful building can be done.
“That’s going to take time,” Eberflus said. “And then we’re going to start building our house. When you build a house — that’s player acquisition and that’s skill level — it starts to rise. But you cannot win a championship without the foundational pieces there.”
Poles stressed the importance of seeing through clear eyes and honestly identifying where the Bears are and where they need to go.
“We all want results fast,” he said. “There are shortcuts at every turn when building a roster. But it’s (about) being disciplined and doing things the right way. And that’s hard because we all want championships right now. And we are going to aim for that. But we have to do smart things to build a roster and not things that are going to shortcut us to where we want to go.”
Through that lens, patience and discipline must be ever-present to balance out the eagerness.
“At the end of the day, we want to create a core of guys that we drafted,” Poles said. “They know how to operate and we know everything about them. Because once you go outside the building over and over again (for talent acquisition), you don’t have all the answers. And you don’t know what those other players are all about.
“It’s trusting your eyes, your process, your analytics and the people you’ve hired. That’s critical to being disciplined and not starting to waver.”
Later Monday afternoon, in a moment of reflection inside the PNC Center at Halas Hall, Poles thought back to his flight to Chicago a week earlier and the text he received from McCaskey before taking off. Poles already had a car service lined up for his arrival, but McCaskey was excitedly offering a lift.
Poles eagerly took him up on the offer.
“I said, ‘I’d rather you pick me up.’ Because we both knew it was to build a relationship and get to know each other better during that drive,” Poles said. “We had a great conversation on the ride and got to know each other at a little deeper level. That meant a lot to me.”
As someone who prides himself on understanding people and building strong relationships, Poles recognized something appealing in McCaskey’s approach and identified him as “dedicated, passionate and hungry to get this right.”
When he finished his in-person interview the next day, the emotions bubbled up inside of him.
“I almost came to tears,” he said. “Because it means a lot. I’ve been through a few different interviews (with other teams) now. And that was unique.”
Now comes the hard part, the challenge of elevating the Bears organization and creating a team that can consistently compete for championships and position itself for runs in the playoffs. A first-time GM and a first-time coach have united and begun to chart a plan.
The ultimate hope is to put off the next introductory news conference at Halas Hall for a long, long time.
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