News broke earlier this week that Kyle Long had reworked his contract, ensuring he would be back with the Bears for the 2019 season. Due to Long’s high cap hit for next season and injury history the last three years, it was fairly obvious that he would either be cut or have some sort of re-working done, and I for one am thrilled he ended up taking a pay cut (with incentives to possibly earn most of it back) instead of forcing the Bears to cut him.
Why do I say this? I’m glad you asked.
With Long officially back in the fold and right tackle Bobby Massie re-signed earlier this offseason, the Bears will be returning their entire starting offensive line from 2018. This is great news for the Bears, because their offense was actually really good last year when this unit was on the field together.
To come to this conclusion, I used the lineup information from the NFL’s game statistics and information system to compile 2018 offensive stats with various offensive line combinations on the field. Since Massie, left tackle Charles Leno, and center Cody Whitehair were basically never off the field (they missed a combined 13 snaps over the course of the season), the only parts that really changed were at guard. Four players -Long, Jordan Daniels, Eric Kush, and Bryan Witzmann – cycled through those spots, and the table below shows how well the offense fared for various guard pairings (note: I left off the Daniels/Kush combo because it had a tiny sample size of only 27 plays. The numbers weren’t impressive anyway).
Take a closer look at that middle column, when Long and Daniels, the starters for 2019, were on the field together.
The Bears averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt (after factoring in sacks) and 5.2 yards per run with that duo on the field! For context, the Bears’ season averages in those categories were 6.5 and 4.1, respectively, and league averages for the year were 6.4 and 4.4. The best team in the NFL in each category came in at 8.1 and 5.1 for the two marks, both below the Bears’ with their starting offensive line.
The obvious caveat comes in that this is a small sample size, only 189 snaps out of just over 1,000 for the total season. That’s roughly 3 total games, and was spread out against the Jets (64 snaps), Patriots (44), Dolphins (39), Vikings (29), and Buccaneers (15).
This is certainly not enough to suggest that the Bears had the best offense in the NFL when their starting offensive line was playing, and that’s not the claim I’m making here. But I think it is enough to say that their offense was appreciably better with their starting offensive line than when any one of those starters were missing, and it makes me excited to see what they can do in 2019 with all five members (hopefully) healthy.
[Quick side note: Kyle Long still has a massive impact on the run game. The Bears averaged 4.9 yards per carry with him on the field and 3.5 yards per carry without him. It was slightly better when he was paired with Daniels than Kush, but replacing him with Daniels and Kush with Witzmann had a noticeable negative impact on the ground in particular. Also note the few snaps Daniels and Kush played together were even worse in this department.]
One final thing I wanted to check was whether or not these numbers were just indicative of the quality of defense the Bears happened to face when Long and Daniels played together. After all, the Dolphins, Jets, and Buccaneers had awful defenses last year, finishing in the bottom 1/4 of the league in most major categories. To account for this, I looked at how the average offense performed against each of those teams in 2018, and weighted the results by the number of snaps played against each team. The results can be seen in the table below.
Here we can clearly see the Bears’ positive results with Long and Daniels on the field were not due to the quality of defenses they faced. Instead, the offense performed at a level far superior to average when their starting offensive line was playing. That is excellent news for the Bears considering that offensive line will be back intact in 2019. If they can stay healthy, they should help the entire offense be well positioned for the expected year 2 improvement under head coach Matt Nagy.