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Ryan Poles, Matt Eberflus use offseason to strengthen partnership, prepare for second season

Story by Gabby Hajduk

Throughout training camp practices, the smallest gestures between general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus exemplified the hope and fire building throughout the Bears organization amid year two of the pair's regime.

As Eberflus eyed some of the team's 2023 draft picks out at practice, he'd smile and glance over at Poles, who would look right back with the same glowing expression. No words were spoken between the two on the field, but their thoughts were exactly the same.

"That's because we see the athlete," Eberflus said. "We see the talent that we coveted. Those are the cool moments."

Those subtle moments between Poles and Eberflus were nearly impossible to notice by an unknowing observer, but they signify the type of relationship the pair has developed over the past 19 months. With two offseasons, two drafts and two training camps in the tank, there has been tangible growth both in their partnership and the team's trajectory.

"Just walking on the football field and looking at our team and knowing that we're heading in the right direction," Poles said, "because at the end of the day, it's the players that are going to be making the plays and it's our job to put them on the field, then put them in position to be successful. It's starting to look like what we want it to."

On the eve of Poles and Eberflus' sophomore season with the Bears, their partnership remains in lockstep, from the way they maneuver through adversity, to their competitive drive, all the way down to their matching navy blue Jordan 1 shoes. And no, they don't text each other in the morning to coordinate. Sometimes two people are just that in sync.

When Poles assumed control of his first ever head coaching search in January 2022, he sought an elite partnership – one that exuded authenticity.

Throughout his 13 years in the NFL, Poles studied the entire league and its top relationships. He learned when a coach and general manager's connection isn't genuine, it's toxic. When it is real, the entire organization feels it. Poles understood when everyone starts pulling on the same rope, sustained success happens. Special things happen.

Those non-negotiables were quickly fulfilled by Eberflus, who was hired as the Bears head coach just two days after Poles took the reins. The instant connection came as no surprise to either party.

The pair's first meeting came years before Eberflus walked into Halas Hall for his second interview with the Bears Jan. 25, 2022. It occurred in 2020 at a Florida golf course during an NFL growth and development summit. Poles and Eberflus shared a tee time that morning.

What Eberflus didn't know was that Poles, who was working for the Chiefs at the time, already heard positive things about him from Mike Borgonzi, then Director of Football Operations in Kansas City. Eberflus was working with Mike's brother, Dave Borgonzi, now the Bears linebackers coach, in Indianapolis. Poles and Mike always discussed different coaches around the league and the message about Eberflus was clear: "he was a really good coach, knew the game, knew people, good evaluator, could help shape a culture."

All of those qualities were intriguing to Poles and when that tee time came around, everything he heard rang true.

"When you get to meet the man, you vibe with someone and that's what happened initially," Poles said. "That led into a couple of years later, the interview process, and we stood for the same things, both as just human beings but also football people."

Three years later, the golf course remains where Poles and Eberflus share many of their favorite off-the-field moments.

Following the 2022 season, Poles and Eberflus – along with their wives – took a trip to Phoenix for the Super Bowl. It was a much-deserved break for the pair, with the non-stop nature of football allowing for little personal time.

A few rounds of golf in the Arizona sun, time by the pool and a couple dinners allowed the two to dig deeper about each other's lives outside of Halas Hall.

"You go through your initial meeting, you go through your interview process, you get the job, you have your press conference, and then you're off and running," Poles said. "You're getting pulled in so many different directions, you really don't have time to fellowship and really get to know each other.

"We did it through that experience. I think we both recognize that we really enjoy each other and we have good conversations about life and football and the direction we're going."

Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus attend a Golf Outing with Bears alumni at The Club at Strawberry Creek, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus attend a Golf Outing with Bears alumni at The Club at Strawberry Creek, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Poles and Eberflus continued to invest in their friendship throughout the offseason, golfing together several times in the Chicagoland area. Whether it's competing against each other at Shoreacres or playing as a team at Merit Club, Eberflus cherishes the quality time spent with Poles through their shared passion.

While Poles knows better than to trash talk Eberflus, he enjoys when his friends play against the coach and try to chirp him. Eberflus inevitably ends up winning and Poles' friends will come back and say, "You've got to be kidding me. I actually thought I was going to beat him."

Because the game of golf requires a levelheaded mindset and attention to detail, the traits that first drew Poles to Eberflus in the hiring process always resurface on the course.

"Every time we go out, it stands out to me either on one side of the nine or the 18, he's struggling," Poles said. "But he never gets flustered, and he always has a really good other side. So it's just his mental toughness. And then he's super, super competitive."

Poles and Eberflus are firm believers that the strongest relationships are built through adversity. They anticipated the endless challenges leading an NFL organization would pose.

Still, enduring a 3-win season in 2022 was difficult to stomach. Rather than driving them apart or causing egos to emerge, Poles and Eberflus grew tighter.

"We both are highly competitive." Poles said. "When you lose, there's stress involved with that, but because we've been aligned from the very beginning. We kind of knew that we had to grow through those hard times.

"The last thing you want to do at the beginning of a relationship during hard times is go at each other or be angry or kind of let the stress roll into your relationship. It actually did the opposite. We got closer."

Along with getting things right on the football field, the pair's first year as a general manager and head coach involved figuring out processes, establishing a culture and learning to adapt on a moment's notice.

Alignment and communication are what fueled the relationships of Poles and Eberflus during Year 1. Daily text messages about reflections or ideas, five- or ten-minute pop-ins to each other's offices and constant proactive thoughts kept the two feeling connected.

"I think that's really built a strong relationship because we were always lock step the whole entire year," Eberflus said. "We always communicated well with each other. Once we recognized the adversity or the situation we needed to address, we came up with a plan together to address that and followed through on the steps."

A photo of Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus shaking hands at the head coach's introductory press conference is prominently visible right outside Eberflus' office
A photo of Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus shaking hands at the head coach's introductory press conference is prominently visible right outside Eberflus' office

When it comes to generating plans and executing or sharing them with the team, Poles views himself as the architect and Eberflus as the engineer. While Poles establishes the blueprint, Eberflus "makes it go vertical," which shows up on the football field. Poles describes the partnership as a ying and yang dynamic.

Poles has leaned on Eberflus' command and leadership when addressing the team to deliver messaging about "who we want to be and what we want our culture to be." He believes it's Eberflus' authenticity that makes him an elite engineer.

"I've been around a lot of coaches who talk and say words and they're empty," Poles said. "But with him, when he speaks, you feel it. It's real. There is zero doubt that it's not an act. He believes it with his soul. When he delivers it, it's impactful. You see everyone taking notes when he speaks, because again, the way that he delivers it is really, really special."

While the entire Bears organization navigated this monumental offseason, Poles was in the spotlight of national media conversations regarding the No. 1 overall pick, free agency and salary cap flexibility. But Eberflus' involvement in every decision remained behind the scenes.

Whether it was at the NFL Combine – studying prospects or setting up darts and putt-putt to ease tensions in player interviews – or back at Halas Hall watching tape of current NFL talent that could become available, Poles and Eberflus did it together.

Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles sit together at Lucas Oil Stadium Thursday, March 2, 2023 at the NFL Combine.
Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles sit together at Lucas Oil Stadium Thursday, March 2, 2023 at the NFL Combine.

Thanks to Eberflus' recruiting days in the college coaching ranks, his evaluating skills are an incredible asset for Poles. Throughout the offseason, Poles would give Eberflus priority lists of players to watch and enjoyed receiving his raw feedback, careful not to sway the coach one way or the other.

"That's our job as football coaches is to be able to describe that [role] and create that vision for [Poles] that a draft player or a free-agent player is going to play and how he fits into our team," Eberflus said. "It's so important that we're always hand-in-hand and on the same page of how he fits in as a teammate — the culture piece of it."

One of Eberflus' evaluations that stood out to Poles this offseason was his assessment of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who signed with the Bears March 13. From a front office perspective, Poles saw length, speed, playmaking abilities, youth and consistency.

When Poles took the name to Eberflus, the coach "quickly came back" and said, "this guy fits my scheme; he's going to make us better."

Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds shakes hands with Matt Eberflus after arriving at Halas Hall for the first time on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds shakes hands with Matt Eberflus after arriving at Halas Hall for the first time on Thursday, March 16, 2023.

That type of conviction with a player and the alignment between the front office and coaching staff is when Poles feels comfort in "moving forward and using a draft pick or spending money."

"When I move with conviction, when I pull the trigger, it's very much we pull the trigger and it's our decision," Poles said, "because I have the buy in from the coaches and they see a similar role and vision for the player. So [Eberflus'] evaluation skills and the amount of time we spend together to make sure that it's a right fit for the Chicago Bears probably doesn't get talked about enough."

The club's highly anticipated offseason generated wholly positive reviews as Poles and Eberflus orchestrated major moves over the course of three months. It began by acquiring star receiver DJ Moore in a blockbuster trade with Carolina involving the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Then came the signing of free agents like Edmunds, linebacker T.J. Edwards and running back D'Onta Foreman. Adding talent such as lineman Darnell Wright or defensive linemen Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens through the draft wrapped up the spring.

But before any of those additions, the Bears' biggest offseason move occurred in January and wasn't brought about by Poles or Eberflus. On Jan. 12, the Bears named Kevin Warren the organization's fifth President & CEO.

Carrying 21 years of experience as an NFL executive, Warren holds a wealth of knowledge and understanding of in-house relationships. Before Warren developed his own partnerships with Poles and Eberflus, he knew their dynamic was "special."

"That's one of the things that was impressive to me prior to joining the Bears," Warren told Jeff Joniak on an episode of the Bears Weekly podcast Aug. 30, "but it even resonates with me at a higher level now being here. These are two strong men, two alpha males which is what you want. Very smart, very dedicated, both have great attention to detail, both family men and both godly men who are hard workers and giving everything that they possibly can to this franchise."

Ryan Poles, Matt Eberflus and Kevin Warren sit together during Day 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft Thursday, April 27, 2023, at Halas Hall.
Ryan Poles, Matt Eberflus and Kevin Warren sit together during Day 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft Thursday, April 27, 2023, at Halas Hall.

When reflecting on his relationship with Eberflus since Warren entered the fold, Poles sees an "enhanced" connection fueled by Warren's "competitive fire and leadership," along with his invaluable mentorship.

The same goals and mentality Poles and Eberflus demand from each other and their players has now been implemented throughout the entire organization, all thanks to Warren.

"It's going to be very rewarding in the sense that you're now going to see everybody pulling on the same rope from the business side to the scouting side and the football side," Eberflus said. "You're going to see because of that, the sides I just talked about disappear, and you're going to have the Chicago Bears. Everybody's pulling on that same rope working to be world champions."

As Poles and Eberflus prepare for a second season atop the NFL's charter franchise, their deepened bond is equipped to field all successes and adversities that occur.

Knowing and appreciating each other as men, fathers, husbands and companions, Poles and Eberflus recognize how similar their personalities are – both ignited by competition and a drive to "be the very best every single day."

"The one thing that no one sees at the top of this organization right now with myself, Matt and Kevin is there's still a competitive fire to be the absolute best," Poles said. "That drives us to wake up every morning and to attack our job at the highest level possible.

"We want to build that type of team. We want to lead that team. We want to coach that type of team and run the entire organization that way."

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