When Josh Gordon caught a nine-yard pass and tried to stomp both feet down before crossing into the Chiefs sideline, Matt Eberflus knew what to do. He’d been preparing for it since January — but also, really, his whole life.
The Bears’ first-time head coach made sure that the audio line to his headset was clear so he could communicate with the booth upstairs. Then, after the second play of the second half Saturday, he tossed the red challenge flag onto the slipshod Soldier Field turf.
Two minutes later, Eberflus’ suspicions were proven correct. The completed pass was overturned. Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn intercepted a pass on the next play, rattled off the game’s final 19 points, and won Saturday’s exhibition opener, 19-14.
“We were working on that the whole offseason — when to throw [the flag], when not to throw,” he said. “Who’s communicating to who … I thought that was really good, really outstanding.”
Eberflus has been a football coach for 30 years. Saturday marked the first time, on any level, he’d been a head coach on game day. He wanted to make sure he was prepared.
“It’s a long time coming,” he said. “And I thought it was exciting.”
He’d mimicked the experience all offseason long. A month after he was hired, Eberflus named Harry Freid to be Bears’ director of research and analysis. Freid set up 20 or so video sessions with Eberflus, helping him game out how he’d make split decisions during certain offensive, defensive and special teams situations — from short yardage calls to replay challenges.
Later, each Bears coordinator worked with Eberflus on those same video situations — the first time for five hours, and then for two or three.
Preseason games often reveal little. The Bears won’t be beating the Chiefs by five in the regular season — and probably won’t be beating many teams at all. But the replay review was evidence that Eberflus’ preparation had, for a day, paid off.
There were only a few surprises.
“I didn’t realize how much you talk to the officials during the game,” he said with a smile.
Eberflus was a stark contrast from the man on the opposite sideline, new Chiefs quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy, whose sideline seemed disorganized at the end of last season.
Saturday, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy stood on the sideline and called the plays.
“We were all on the same page the entire day: when we were going for it, when we were punting, field goal, that whole operation,” Eberflus said. “And it was prior to. So at first down, you’re telling Getsy: ‘Go for it … three [yards] or less.’ I thought that operation was really good. Moving from unit to unit, it was really good.”
Eberflus’ decisions didn’t always work. After the Bears’ first touchdown — a 12-yard pass from backup quarter Trevor Siemian to rookie running back Trestan Ebner after the Sanborn interception — the Chiefs were flagged for having too many players on their extra point block team. Eberflus accepted the penalty and ran his offense back on the field for a two-point conversion from the 1. Ebner was stuffed.
In one moment, Eberflus was conservative, punting on fourth-and-6 from the Chiefs’ 43 in the second quarter. Trenton Gill pinned the Chiefs at the 5 and the defense forced a three-and-out. In the third quarter, though, Eberflus went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Chiefs’ 44, and Dante Pettis caught a 25-yard pass. Three plays later, Siemian found Dazz Newsome for a 13-yard touchdown.
“[Eberflus] was letting everybody know to stay in the game,” receiver Darnell Mooney said. “He’s a cool guy. …
“Going out there for our identity. Exposing our identity.”
Everything was different Saturday, from the ways the Bears stretched before the game to the new lights and speakers in the locker room. Matt Nagy used to wear a visor and long sleeves, even in the heat; Eberflus wore a navy cap with a script orange B and a white golf shirt. He had a laminated play-call sheet stuffed into the front of his pants, and took notes throughout the game.
“He just knows what he believes,” safety DeAndre Houston-Carson said. “And he’s 100 percent in on it.”
Eberflus paused to think about it exactly once. He linked arms with his players during the national anthem and looked around Soldier Field. After 30 years, he was in charge.
“I really enjoyed the moment,” he said. “I soaked it in.”