Matt Eberflus insists that the Chicago Bears practice at full intensity at all times: 'We can't live easy and play hard'

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 was all about. The trial and error process with the coaching staff had progressed and the players had a clear understanding of their bosses’ demands.

Coach Matt Eberflus had worked hard since the spring to set a tone, then asked his veteran leaders to demonstrate how he wanted their teams to practice and play. So when Johnson stopped again on Football Drive in Lake Forest to start training camp, he understood Eberflus’ approach.

“He really takes things back to fundamentals and just plays football hard and plays football the right way,” Johnson said. “I thought (the coaches) established a good sense of tough football. And I wouldn’t say our last staff didn’t. I just think the emphasis (of this staff) is much more.”

For Eberflus, there is a way to play winning football: at full speed and with maximum effort at all times. That philosophy is not negotiable, the demands are unbreakable. He made that very clear to his players when they joined in April, and he and his coaching staff continue to reinforce their methodology on a daily basis.

“The standards have been raised since Day 1,” general manager Ryan Poles said.

Sure, Eberflus has his well-publicized HITS mantra, the first two letters calling for hustle and intensity. But the acronym wouldn’t mean as much if coaches didn’t back it up with a detailed system for regularly measuring and evaluating effort, documenting how players run to the ball and finish plays.

During the video review, effort is graded on each repetition. Anything that doesn’t look good or doesn’t exemplify the brand of football that coaches believe in is called out.

That creates a demanding work environment for the Bears’ evaluators and teachers as they try to create a demanding but productive atmosphere on the field.

“It’s tireless work for coaches,” Eberflus said. “We watch every play. If it’s one on one (exercises), if it’s team periods, we’re going to see everything. Because that’s how we build the foundation for success.”

Johnson added: “Everything is being pushed. I even refer to the way they count the loaves. … 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.”

Eberflus does not have a magic formula for success. He is far from the first NFL coach to build his culture around the demands of maximum effort and push.

And he’s hardly an innovator, putting everyday practice under a high-powered microscope and evaluating effort as much as he examines execution and technique. Eventually, the Bears’ hustle and intensity will need to be supplemented by difference-making talent for them to improve results on the field.

But at the very least, Eberflus embodies a commitment to hard work and responsibility that he believes will be a catalyst in the Bears’ resurgence efforts.

As defensive coordinator Alan Williams repeated last weekend: “We want to lead the world in the hustle.”

As cheesy as it may sound to some, it’s the way this coaching staff creates energy and unity.

And for those who don’t comply or just hesitate or become naturally complacent at times? Well, the hope is that someone catches him, calls him and makes it known that such lapses will not be accepted.

Johnson was asked before the first practice of training camp if he had been tested by coaches at any point in April, May or June.

“We’ve all done it,” he said with a laugh. “If someone says that he has not done it, surely he is lying to everyone.”

Safety Eddie Jackson recalled a moment in spring practice when he didn’t finish a play the way the coaches wanted. Williams was quick to bring it up in a meeting in front of the entire defense, reminding Jackson of one of the most consistent mantras of this coaching staff: make the last practice period look like the first.

“When you think you’re tired, you still have to finish,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in year 1, year 6 or year 10, they still stand out for you and hold everyone to the same level of responsibility.”

Williams speaks of “practicing to the limit,” asking players to develop a mindset and stamina that allows them to push themselves for long periods. “That’s our standard,” he said. “All time.”

But with that, players should know that they can always point to the sideline, with a few taps on the side of their helmet, to let coaches know the fuel light has come on.

“There’s no shame in (that),” Williams said. “OK. You go out and the next guy comes in and he pushes as hard as he can and as hard as he can, all the way to the edge.”

With a similar goal, Eberflus frequently talks about “not overlooking mistakes” and creating a culture where mistakes are quickly identified and corrected and failures in effort have consequences. That requires some tact, of course, as the coaching staff needs to be constructively critical of behavior that doesn’t quickly become annoying or create an 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 accept it.

This is why Muhammad has learned to embrace criticism.

“You can never take it personally,” he said. “If you’re open to advice, it’s easy to take constructive criticism and apply it. It’s about having the right mindset and understanding that everything we do is to win.”

On top of that, Muhammad said, learning to practice at full speed is a process of building muscle memory.

“Basically, you don’t want to have to think, ‘I need to work hard,’” he said. “It has to become a natural reaction. By doing it every day (in practice), on Sunday it’s natural and it’s like, ‘Wow, this guy played with the lights off.’ He played hard.’”

Added Jackson: “(Eventually) it just comes naturally when you start doing something (repeatedly). You get up in the morning, brush your teeth. It is a natural instinct. You don’t think about it. Just get up and do it.

“Right now, I feel like we’re almost at that point where the whole world is flying.”

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 he didn’t bring players down or have a series of soft-tissue injuries derail the Bears’ improvement efforts. .

He noted how the practice schedule, largely dictated by the collective bargaining agreement, is mixed with 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 it whenever things come up,” he said.

On top of that, Eberflus must monitor the emotional state of his team and know when to push harder and when to back down.

“You have to feel it,” he said. “But we have to be a tough team, though. We cannot live soft and play hard. You just can’t do it. This is not football.”

It will be a while before the Bears see the fruits of their labor. And it will be up for interpretation for months, and even years, how much Eberflus’ effort-based principles correlate with the Bears’ record.

But at the very least, Bears coaches and players are convinced that much-needed standards continue to be set during training camp.

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