'A presence to him': What new defensive coordinator Eric Washington brings to the Bears
As Eric Washington’s NFL coaching career was just beginning with the Chicago Bears as an assistant defensive line coach, the team hired one of the best ever to coach his position in 2009.
That’s the year Rod Marinelli walked into Halas Hall and joined coach Lovie Smith’s staff as the Bears’ assistant head coach/defensive line coach.
“I just remember Lovie telling me about (Washington),” Marinelli said. “And he said, ‘I think you’re going to really enjoy this guy. He’s your type of guy. And he wants to work.’”
Smith was right.
“Just a terrific man,” Marinelli remembered about Washington during an interview with The Athletic. “Hungry. All those things. Bright. Very bright. So we got to working together there. It was really enjoyable.”
Marinelli and Washington had a good group to work with at Halas Hall. The Bears already had Tommie Harris, Alex Brown, Israel Idonije and Adewale Ogunleye on their roster. Henry Melton, a future Pro Bowl defensive tackle, was drafted in the fourth round.
Julius Peppers replaced Ogunleye the following season and Corey Wootton also was drafted. That season, Marinelli took over for Bob Babich as the Bears’ defensive coordinator and “assistant” was removed from Washington’s title.
The Bears went 11-5 and won the NFC North in the 2010 season. They had one of the league’s best defenses, but that season will always be remembered for its finish: Jay Cutler’s injury in the NFC Championship Game and a loss to the Green Bay Packers.
But Marinelli still remembers what the Bears had in Washington: a good, up-and-coming young coach.
“He’s really got a presence to him,” Marinelli said. “He’s very, very, very detailed. And he’s just got a nice way of dealing with people, but he’s strong. And he just did a really nice job. He was really a sponge learning pass rush, coming up from college into the NFL.
“And just the thing I always admired was his work habits. (He was) in early and worked smart on the details. So you knew he had a chance to be really good.”
Marinelli was right.
Washington is now part of the Bears’ back-to-the-future plan as their new defensive coordinator. What worked well for Smith and Marinelli years ago started to click during the 2023 season for coach Matt Eberflus as his defense became one of the league’s best.
Corey Wootton and Alex Brown had different experiences with Washington. Wootton played for Washington at Northwestern before they reunited with the Bears in 2010 after the team drafted Wootton in the fourth round.
“People say, ‘Well, nowadays they don’t yell at people,’” Wootton said. “I disagree. I think especially with the younger players, you have to get after them. That’s the way that you take their game to the next level.”
Wootton was a freshman All-American at Northwestern under Washington in 2006. Washington left for the Bears in 2008. But Wootton’s rise as an NFL prospect was already on track. He was voted first-team All-Big Ten by league coaches in 2008 and also named team MVP.
“He was very similar to what he was in college,” Wootton said. “What I appreciated was that he was going to get the best out of you and he’s going to push you when you think you can’t go anymore. And I think that’s what everybody needs deep down, especially younger guys.”
During Wootton’s rookie season, the extra work came before and after practices. Washington would tell you directly what you needed to work on.
“He didn’t say it so nicely sometimes,” Wootton said. “But it’s really about letting somebody know how to get better and how to push their buttons. He was really great at that.”
Wootton, now an analyst for CHGO, said Bears defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens and other young players will surely benefit from Washington’s style.
“He’s old school,” said Wootton, who spent four seasons with the Bears. “He’s a lot like Rod Marinelli. A military type, especially with the younger guys. And I think that’s what you need as a younger guy in this league to take your game to the next level.”
Brown wasn’t “a younger guy” in 2008. He was in his seventh NFL season when Washington joined the Bears. He has a different story to tell. Brown remembers how Washington listened to the veterans and learned from them — and then how he provided his feedback.
“Like even if I was wrong, he would tell me like, ‘Well, how about we try to look at it this way?’” Brown said. “And then we’ll go down that path for about 10 minutes. And then at the end, I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’ Instead of saying, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ it’s just another way to actually get to know you’re wrong.”
Brown laughed when he said that. Washington was good at it. He communicated well. He connected with his established players.
“He’s a likable guy,” said Brown, who is now an analyst for NBC Sports Chicago. “I think the first thing that comes with being a successful coach is respect. So when you have the respect of your players, then you have a shot. If you don’t have the respect of your players, they’re not willing to run through a wall; they’re not willing to do the things you’re asking them to do.”
That type of respect is earned, too.
“He did a lot of dirty work — and that’s what I got,” said Brown, who played for the Bears from 2002 to 2009. “If I wanted to stay after and work on some things I was struggling with, he was all in. He was all for it.”
It didn’t matter what needed to be done or what needed to be worked on, from hand placement to eliminating false steps. The work was put in.
“He was all for it,” Brown said. “And that’s the teaching part.”
For Marinelli, the presentation always matters with teaching. So he’d help his assistants with it. He’d give them a subject to present to the players in meetings and he’d film them for their review.
“It let them see themselves as the teacher,” Marinelli said. “And (Washington) took that; he did that. He saw it and worked on it. Those are the things that I really enjoyed with them. It’s structure and organization. It’s how you communicate the knowledge.”
It helps develop players and also young coaches.
Marinelli — who is widely considered one of the best defensive minds of his era — became Eberflus’ mentor in Dallas with the Cowboys.
Washington left the Bears in 2011 for Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers. He was the Panthers’ defensive line coach for seven years before becoming their defensive coordinator in 2018 following stints by Steve Wilks and Sean McDermott, two future head coaches. Washington then joined McDermott in Buffalo, where he was promoted to assistant head coach last season.
“One of my jobs I always believed was that you’re supposed to add value to these men, add value to their career,” Marinelli said. “If you do those things, you’ll add value back to the game of football. (Washington) was just really good. I mean, everything. Anything I asked us to work on — and the details — he was all over it. Just a really good worker.”
It included learning the ways that Marinelli taught his players on the field but also how he and Smith wanted to grade their players’ effort. There would be no loafing. Effort is everything.
“You’ve got to have standards,” Marinelli said. “There’s certain things you have to have. And you have to have a belief in that so strong, that when they cross that line, they know it — that it’s not good enough.”
Eberflus brought that grading system back to the Bears, along with the scheme that Smith and Marinelli strongly believed in throughout their careers. Washington knows what’s demanded. He learned it from Smith and Marinelli.
“You’re looking for guys who come in and represent what you want,” Marinelli said. “And Eric is a guy who is just so sincere and he has such a great belief in his ability to teach and what he coaches.”
(Top photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)