INDIANAPOLIS -- Gary Pinkel was hired as the head coach at the University of Missouri in 2001 and needed a defensive coordinator.
He could have sought out an experienced coordinator to help him make the transition. But instead, he had a bright-minded 29-year-old in mind: one of his former players, who coached the defensive backs for him at Toledo.
Pinkel knew there was something special about Matt Eberflus, who played for him with the Rockets five years earlier.
Pinkel just had to convince Missouri athletic director Mike Alden that Eberflus was ready to become the youngest defensive coordinator in NCAA Division I at the time.
“I’m not good at many things, but the one thing the good Lord gave me is that I’m good with judgment on people,” Pinkel said. “You see a guy with a lot of the attributes. We always talk about quarterbacks having the ‘it’ factor. That’s the same thing with coordinators and probably head coaches. They have to have the right stuff. Matt has it all. And he has a burning desire to be great, but yet he’s not going to get caught up in himself in his ego and things like that.
“He’s a great leader you can trust. You might not like him, but you can trust him. The trust factor is everything. How he is around all the people after you spend a few weeks with him, you say you can trust him. That’s the key for leadership. You have to earn trust. He does that naturally.”
It took 17 years, a lot of picking of the brains of the likes of Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli and the keen eye of Colts general manager Chris Ballard, but Eberflus earned that trust.
Eberflus coached the 11th-ranked defense last season, after years of finishing 20th or worse in that category under previous head coach Chuck Pagano. The Colts didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all season.
Eberflus preaches a mentality of always pursuing the ball, not “loafing” on the field and making every player, from All-Pro Darius Leonard all the way down the roster, accountable.
“Look, he is demanding. He knows what he wants,” Ballard said. “He is a really good teacher. The standard that he holds those guys to and accountable is hard to do every day. And you have to do it every day. You can never rest on the way we practice and we play in this scheme. He demands it from them every day. Look, players respect that. They don’t want an inconsistent guy that one day you let them get away with something, but then the next day, you’re calling them out for it. No. There is a consistent message that is relayed every single day to every player. I don’t care who you are. I mean, every player on the defensive side of the ball understands that if they don’t perform to the standard, it’s going to cut into their play time.”
The Colts set the bar high on defense, and an argument can be made that they overachieved last season. The challenge will be tougher this season, especially with starting quarterback Andrew Luck dealing with calf and ankle injuries. There won't be too many easy matchups against QBs such as Derek Anderson or Cody Kessler; the schedule this season includes big-time passers such as Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Ballard and Eberflus didn't rest on that success, which is why the Colts used seven of their 10 draft picks on defensive players and signed veteran pass-rusher Justin Houston.
“The theory we have on expectations is we have day-to-day, moment-to-moment expectations,” Eberflus said. “We don’t look too far ahead. Try to be the best we can be right now. That’s all you can control. I always tell the guys this defense and our system will go as far as we go as a group.”
Eberflus might still be the passing coordinator/linebackers coach with the Dallas Cowboys had Ballard not kept his word to Eberflus by telling him he wanted to keep him on staff -- even though he had no idea whom he was going to hire as coach after Josh McDaniels was hired, then decided not to take the position. But Ballard knew what Eberflus could bring to the Colts with the move to a 4-3 defense, and he stayed on board when Frank Reich was hired. Eberflus came from the Marinelli and Dungy coaching tree, a scheme that is heavy on Cover-2 zone schemes.
“Matt used to come [to our practices] when he was a college coach,” Dungy said. “He’d watch and take notes and talk to different coaches on the staff. But when I really got to know him, Rod Marinelli, when he worked with me in Tampa, said he has a young coach who is going to be special, and I’d like for you to stay in touch with him. Matt and I talked about a lot of things over the years. Family and faith. Football philosophy. He’s a big communicator. Believes in the system that I believed in.”
Eberflus’ biggest emphasis is on speed without slowing down. There’s no cheating because players are called out for “loafing” or not hustling during film sessions. The loafs are tracked. The coaching staff wants all 11 players going after the ball.
The film sessions aren’t quick ones. There’s a lot of play, stop and rewind on the remote. The coaching staff points out every positive play and negative play, ranging from effort, hitting and fundamentals. There’s no favoritism or worrying about hurting somebody’s feelings. It’s about setting standards that are expected out of each player in a face-to-face conversation.
“Nobody cares what your name is,” Leonard said. “If I’m loafing, [Eberflus is] going to show it in the team period. We hold each other accountable. Nobody gets complacent. You have to keep working day in and day out. ... This scheme that we run, it shows that it works if you hustle. You watch Tampa Bay. You watch the Bears back in the day. [Eberflus] throws on Tampa Bay with Derrick Brooks and all them and see guys flying around. Super Bowl champions. Nobody standing around.
“[We] win with the same defense. Everybody running around. This system, you have to buy in and sacrifice a lot in practice. Practice is the hardest thing. You come out, and you have to run, run, run. Just to make a play. In the game, everything comes easy because you have bullets everywhere.”
The trust factor between players and Eberflus, who interviewed with the Cleveland Browns to be their head coach after last season, became strong fairly quickly last season, when the defensive coordinator showed that he also has no problem pointing out his own mistakes.
“If I make a mistake, I’m the first one to say it in the defensive meeting,” Eberflus said. “If I’m going to point out their mistakes, I’m going to make sure I point out mine. That’s important to do. Our standards are high. It all goes back to what I learned from coach Pinkel, coach Dungy, coach Smith and many, many others. It all comes down to accountability, and it’s something we’ll continue to emphasize here.”