Chicago’s defense was awesome in 2018, leading the NFL in points allowed, turnovers forced, touchdowns scored, and passer rating against. They also finished third in yards and sacks and were generally the best defense in the NFL by a wide margin. Their play propelled the Bears to a 12-4 finish, NFC North title, and the franchise’s first playoff berth in eight years.
It’s hard to expect much improvement from that unit in 2019. In fact, they’re almost certainly not going to repeat that level of dominance. So when I write that I expect the Bears to improve in 2019 and be one of the top Super Bowl contenders, that must mean I expect it to happen because of the offense.
Unlike the defense, there is plenty of room for improvement on that side of the ball. Chicago had a pretty mediocre offense in 2018. They finished:
- 21st in yards per game
- 20th in yards per play
- 9th in points per game
- 20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, an all-encompassing metric intended to evaluate an entire unit.
Outside of points per game – which was likely aided by all the turnovers and defensive touchdowns – the offense was pretty consistently below average in most important metrics. So why am I so confident the offense will improve next year, even though they probably won’t be making many significant personnel changes?
To put it simply: NFL history strongly suggests that significant improvement is coming.
I say this based on the offense Chicago runs, which is a variant on Andy Reid’s offense from Philadelphia and Kansas City. It is considered to be one of the more complicated schemes in the NFL, and teams typically don’t do well running it the first year it is installed. In year two, however, they typically get much better.
Prior to Nagy, there have been five instances over the last 20 years where somebody installed Reid’s offense on a new team: Reid in Philadelphia (1999), Brad Childress in Minnesota (2006), Pat Shurmur in Cleveland (2011), Reid in Kansas City (2013), and Doug Pederson in Philadelphia (2016). In the table below, I compiled how their offense ranked in the NFL in their first year in a variety of key metrics. The average does not include Chicago, but I did put them below for comparison.
That’s not a good list, to put it mildly. Only one offense – the 2013 Chiefs – performed like an average or better unit in the first year of this offense. That was the only instance where the team had a solid veteran quarterback in Alex Smith. Let’s look at the other quarterbacks on the list.
- 1999 Eagles: Donovan McNabb, rookie year
- 2006 Vikings: Brad Johnson (38) and Tavaris Jackson, rookie year
- 2011 Browns: Colt McCoy, 2nd year
- 2016 Eagles: Carson Wentz, rookie year
Notice the other four teams all had young quarterbacks playing meaningful snaps that year, just like the Bears did with Trubisky. And it’s worth noting the Bears had the best offense of this group, though it helps that Trubisky was in his sophomore campaign while the others with decent QBs were rookies. In that sense, struggling in the first year of a complicated offense with a young QB who is also still trying to adjust to the NFL makes a lot of sense.
Now let’s look at how those teams did in year 2 of the same system.
That looks significantly better.
Only one of the four offenses remained bad in year 2, and that was the Browns, who went from Colt McCoy to a rookie Brandon Weeden at quarterback. The other 3 all showed significant improvement, going from bad to average or better. They improved by an average of 11 spots in yards/game, 18 in yards/play, 13 in points/game, and 15 in DVOA.
If the Bears make similar improvements in 2019, they’ll have one of the best offenses in the NFL. Even if they match the least improvement from that group of 3 (8 spots in yards/game, 14 in yards/play, 11 in points/game, and 13 in DVOA), they’d be a top 10 offense.
Like those teams, the Bears have a young quarterback who has proven he belongs in the NFL and now looks to take the next step (something history also suggests is very likely in year 2 of a Reid offense). They also have some other young players who appear poised to take a step forward and help improve the overall talent level of the unit, most notably wide receiver Anthony Miller and guard James Daniels.
That, coupled with the familiarity of bringing virtually the entire offense back so the personnel are familiar with each other and the offensive system, should lead to significant offensive improvement that will more than offset the expected defensive regression in 2019. The Bears were really good in 2018, but, at least on paper, are poised to be even better and more balanced next year.