In Week 8 of the 2018 season, the Raiders were preparing for a matchup with the Colts, who were featuring Matt Eberflus' new defense. Eberflus was in his first season as Indianapolis' defensive coordinator and installed a 4-3 scheme, which began to excel about six weeks into the season.
Linebacker Nicholas Morrow was in the midst of his sophomore season with the Raiders. The Greenville University product had his hands full learning Paul Guenther's complicated 4-3 defense while fighting for a starting spot in Oakland.
But there's a specific moment of that season Morrow remembers vividly. The week of the Colts game, Jon Gruden, the Raiders head coach at the time, pulled up one of Eberflus' run schemes in an all-team meeting. Gruden was adamant about understanding this specific play.
"He put up a particular play of them like running to the ball and was talking about how intimidating it was," Morrow said. "And I was like, 'shoot, I'd love to be a part of that,' and just seeing the respect that [Eberflus] had around the league. So, I think that was the start of like, 'OK, let me watch this guy.' And then you see the work that he did the years after."
Morrow continued to keep an eye on Eberflus as he reformed the Colts' defense. While Indianapolis went on to have a 10-win season in 2018, the Raiders fell toward the bottom of the league. But Morrow continued to work. In 2019, he had three more starts and nearly doubled his tackle count.
Then in 2020, Morrow broke out. The undrafted linebacker set career highs with 77 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, nine passes defended and three sacks. He was also the team's defensive playcaller. However, he missed a couple games due to COVID-19 protocol and then a concussion.
Still, his ascent was quick and he was primed for a special campaign in his fifth season. But near the end of training camp in 2021, Morrow suffered a season-ending ankle injury. There was immediate confusion and frustration. Up until 2020, Morrow had never missed a game in his football career, let alone an entire year.
In the first two or three weeks following the injury, Morrow feared he'd never return the same.
"It was tough, just going through the rehab process," Morrow said. "Initially, not knowing if I could ever really run again, because the mobility was kind of a factor. I was running really weird, kind of with a limp. So, I was like, 'I don't know.'"
It took Morrow some time to accept the injury. But after watching the Raiders' first couple games, he came to terms with where he was at. So he got back in the meeting rooms and re-engaged with the team, which helped him work through those frustrations.
As the Raiders started to have success and eventually secured a playoff spot, it became harder for Morrow. For the last few years, Morrow had dedicated himself to the team and helped the defense progress. But he couldn't reap the rewards.
By Week 15, Morrow was running at full speed again and recovering at a steady pace. There were hopes he'd be ready in time for the playoffs, but it didn't work out in Morrow's favor. He became a free agent following the 2021 season, was fully healthy and itching to get back on the field.
On March 16, Morrow signed a one-year contract with the Bears. One of the bigger draws to Chicago was Eberflus. Morrow never forgot about that film session in 2018. He was eager to find a place in that system.
"The scheme is definitely the biggest thing," Morrow said. "I wanted to be part of the right scheme and be a part of the right environment and the culture. Don't want to be part of a culture that doesn't value people. And in talking to coach [Alan] Williams, he said, 'tell me about yourself.' I told him about my football, he was like, 'no, no, I wanna know about you as a person.' So that part was cool. And then just opportunity to play again and have an opportunity to play on the field."
Eberflus said Morrow has quickly fit into the defense at the middle linebacker position, running with the first team through training camp. The coach trusts Morrow as the team's play caller, his ability to cover different tight ends and running backs and play in zone coverage.
Morrow's attention to detail and passion for football also caught Eberflus' attention early on. Going into camp, Eberflus knew that Morrow studied his previous defenses in Indianapolis and Dallas. But once Morrow got on the field, it became obvious to the Bears' head coach how extensive that research was.
"It just shows when a guy wants to study the game and sees good football, that means he loves football," Eberflus said. "You can tell that by his actions, the way he practices, the way he studies, the way he looks at the game. And that's what we want. We want guys that are passionate, guys that love football, want to put the time in, and you've got to be willing to put the energy out on the field that way. That's what Nick's doing now."
Being part of a new era for the Bears organization was also enticing for Morrow. Now a veteran, he has the chance to help cultivate and build a new culture with his new team. With so many changes and new faces on both sides of the ball, Morrow has a great opportunity to assert himself as a top linebacker.
After missing an entire season, that assertion will still take significant work. But it's nothing new for Morrow. As an undrafted player, he always keeps a chip on his shoulder, constantly proving why he belongs. Even when he finds success, he keeps his head level and thinks back to a speech former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison gave to the Raiders during Morrow's rookie season.
"He was talking about when he got into league, he made a couple plays and people were telling him he made it," Morrow said. "He said his financial advisor told him he never made it, like you'll never make it. I think that I've embodied that a little bit that mentality of like, 'you've never made it, you're never comfortable. And even when you feel like you've done something well, it's still more to be done, there's still more work to be done.' So I think that's something that I've kind of always embodied, competing against your best self."