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Training Camp Diary: Miller Out, Rodgers Retiring?

| July 26th, 2021


Anthony Miller Traded to Texans

Late Saturday night, the boys over at NFL Network broke the story that Miller, the talented and temperamental wide receiver, would be leaving Chicago for the worst franchise in professional sports. My initial response was being slightly ticked that I wasted an hour writing Friday’s column, wherein I deemed Miller the “player to watch” on offense this summer. But after a bit of time, a new reaction emerged: why?

Yes, I’m sure there are folks out there, those who worship at the altar of the almighty draft capital, arguing that swapping late-round picks is tremendous value the Bears simply could not pass up. But there is a camp of pragmatists who abide by another maxim: you don’t quit on talent.

What is the cost of bringing Miller to camp this week? If he’s a pain in the ass, or a detriment to the organization, surely the late-round swap is still available from Houston (or another organization). It’s not like the additional week of work is going to turn Tyrod Taylor-to-Miller into the new Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison. The potential upside was not necessarily that Miller “figure it out” but that he simply learned to exist as role player and became a productive member of the offense.

This is the Chicago Bears we’re talking about. And while optimism is at an all-time high due to the arrival of Justin Fields, this is still a group that has been desperate for playmakers. That’s why Ryan Pace brought in Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd. That’s why Damien Williams was added to the running backs room and Khalil Herbert was drafted late. The Bears need as many playmaking options as humanly possible. And they just shipped a potential one south.

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Training Camp Player to Watch: Offense

| July 23rd, 2021


Every snap.

Every handoff.

Every throw.

Every interaction with Cole Kmet.

Every conversation with Flip and Bill Lazor.

Every single moment of Justin Fields’ training camp will be discussed and scrutinized this summer. So for now, we’re going to (a) acknowledge Fields is clearly the most important player to watch while (b) casting our gaze in a different direction for the sake of variation.

And my gaze is shifting to Anthony Miller. 

Sam Mustipher and Teven Jenkins are going to be given time to develop during the regular season. Kmet is going to be a productive tight end, especially with more competent quarterback play. Allen Robinson is a professional and understands his clearest path to another big contract is paved with production. None of these players are fighting for roster spots this summer. None of these guys have anything to prove before they start keeping score.

Miller is fighting for a roster spot. Miller does have a lot to prove. Because Anthony Miller is a good football player. Inconsistent? Sure. Temperamental? Absolutely. But he clearly has the ability to be productive at this level. He’s not Javon Wims, a decent talent with the brains of a duffel bag. He’s not Riley Ridley, a late-round draft pick struggling to navigate his way onto the active roster due to lack of everything.

Miller is a gifted athlete and now, with the emergence of Darnell Mooney, can slide into his more natural slot role and rip defenses apart with an endless supply of crossing routes (where he seems to be most comfortable). With Miller, it is going to be about attitude. It is going to be about embracing a new role. It is going to be about understanding his ceiling is no longer frontline NFL wide receiver – that ship has sailed. His ceiling is now dynamic role player. Miller can’t be Isaac Bruce. But he can be Ricky Proehl. And Proehl had a brilliant NFL career.

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Examining Chicago’s Personnel Usage/Tendencies on Offense in 2020

| June 1st, 2021

Like I’ve done the last few seasons, I want to explore how the Bears deployed their skill position players on offense in 2020 to see if there are any trends or tells for which opposing defensive coordinators can look. These are tendencies Chicago’s coaches should be aware of and look to rectify in the future.

The table below shows changes in run percentage when skill position guys who played between 35-65% of the snaps were in the game vs. on the sideline.

  • On the high end, that excludes players who played more than 75% of snaps, because their “off-field” splits would be too small to consider. That was only Allen Robinson in 2020.
  • On the low end, that excludes players who played less than 25% of snaps, because they are often mainly in the game in specific situations, where a run or pass may be expected (i.e. the 4th WR in a 4 WR set for 3rd and long, or the 2nd TE in a short-yardage set). This excluded Demetrius Harris, Cordarrelle Patterson, and a host of other role players who played a few offensive snaps.

(Note: This data is pulled from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System, which includes sacks and QB scrambles as passing plays.)

A few thoughts:

  • David Montgomery had pretty even splits when he was on and off the field. Therefore I won’t look at him any further when I split the sample into different personnel packages below.
  • This is a change from 2019, when Montgomery’s presence on the field made a run much more likely, and is almost certainly due to Tarik Cohen’s injury. In Cohen’s limited 76 plays before getting hurt, the Bears only ran it 29% of the time. He clearly had the passing downs role, and Montgomery absorbed that when Cohen got hurt.
  • Everybody else has fairly significant changes in how frequently the offense runs when they are on the field vs. off of it, which warrants further exploration.

Different Personnel Groupings

I was curious how much the personnel groupings might influence these splits, so I looked at how frequently the Bears run the ball in different groupings. Generally, there are five skill position guys (WR, TE, RB) on the field for a given play, so I split the sample up by how many of them were wide receivers.

The more WR the Bears have on the field, the more likely they are to pass. That makes sense, but the significant difference in run frequency here means we’re going to have to look at each of these groups individually to see how players really impact the run/pass ratio when they are on the field.


3+ Wide Receivers

Let’s start with plays featuring 3 or more WRs, which means there are 2 total TE + RB. The most common setup here was 11 personnel, which features 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR.

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This Offense Isn’t “Ugly”, It’s Embarrassing.

| November 2nd, 2020


A few weeks ago, Nick Foles suggested the Bears win “ugly”. Let me clear something up for him.

Ugly isn’t throwing off your back foot while under no pressure and forcing passes to the wrong receivers. The last quarterback did that. And he doesn’t play anymore because of it.

Ugly isn’t failing to build a significant package of plays for your second-round tight end. Every single week.

Ugly isn’t designing a run-heavy game plan against one of the league’s best run defenses, and stubbornly refusing to deviate from that plan. (The two runs after the interference call in the end zone should have forced Ryan Pace to personally take the play sheet away from Matt Nagy.)

Ugly isn’t inexcusably being called for a delay of game weekly, often coming out of timeouts.

Ugly isn’t failing to get a first down or two and at least forcing the opponent to start their possessions in their own territory.

Ugly isn’t sucker punching a defensive back, costing your team a vital possession, and celebrating the punch like you achieved something.

Ugly isn’t dropping two passes, in overtime, on the potentially game-winning drive. If Anthony Miller and Jimmy Graham catch those balls, do the Bears win? Who knows? But it would have made it far more difficult for them to lose. And that’s the difference between being in first place and being outside the playoff picture.

No, what the Bears do on offense isn’t ugly. Ugly is too cute a word for it. What the Bears do on offense is embarrassing. And with the season now at the halfway point, it’s time to acknowledge this is unlikely to change during the 2020 campaign.

This is who the Bears are on offense. A sloppy, undisciplined, poorly-coached unit. David Montgomery runs hard. Allen Robinson leaves it on the field. Darnell Mooney gives hope for the future. The rest? Thoroughly uninspiring. Nagy changed his coaching staff. Nagy changed his quarterback. Nagy changed his tight end room. And somehow, they’re worse.

They’re 5-3. Hope is not lost for playing in January because there isn’t a game left on their schedule the defense won’t keep them in. But unless that group returns to 2018 form and starts scoring, the battle will be consistently uphill.

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Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume II: Offensive Personnel Usage

| October 14th, 2020


I already looked at a variety of statistics for the offense, including QB performance, run game woes, and explosive plays. Today I want to explore how the Bears are deploying their skill position players, using lineup data from the NFL Game Statistics Information System. This tracks how many plays the Bears have played with different combination of 11 offensive players, and splits the data into runs and passes, with yards gained for each. Combing through this data can provide valuable insights into how the Bears are deploying their personnel, and what packages have been most and least effective.


Tight Ends

The Bears completely overhauled this position in the offseason, following a disastrous 2019 campaign in which no player even hit 100 receiving yards. They gave Jimmy Graham a big contract, spent their 1st pick (43rd overall) on Cole Kmet, and brought in veteran journeyman Demetrius Harris.

I want to start by looking at Cole Kmet, who has been very quiet so far as a rookie despite receiving a good bit of training camp hype. Through five games, Kmet has played 102 snaps, seen 3 pass targets, and caught 1 ball for 12 yards. This is hugely disappointing, and worrisome for his future; when I looked at rookie seasons for TEs drafted in the 2nd round this offseason, I found that tight ends who are going to be good are typically involved in the offense right away. The only tight ends drafted in the 2nd round over the last 10 years to receive fewer than 30 targets in their rookie seasons are Vance McDonald, Adam Shaheen, Gavin Escobar, Drew Sample, and Troy Niklas. Of those, only Vance McDonald has done anything in the NFL. Kmet is currently on pace for 10 targets.

It’s fair to argue a rookie should see their production increase as the season wears on, so I looked at all 19 players in that study through the first five games of their rookie season. You can see the full list here, but Kmet has the 3rd fewest targets, least amount of catches, and the least number of yards through that time period. And for all of those categories, the bottom four (not including Kmet) are from the list of five names above. It’s early, but right now Kmet most closely resembles Troy Niklas and Adam Shaheen, which is very not good.

Because I was curious about Kmet, I split out lineups involving him vs. those who don’t, and also sorted by the number of tight ends on the field. The results, as you can see below, are certainly illuminating.

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ATM: Anthony Miller’s No-Show Sunday Proves Bears Need Allen Robinson

| September 22nd, 2020


Last week a strong argument emerged that the Bears might be better off not extending Allen Robinson’s contract, instead relying on Anthony Miller to be the team’s top wide receiver.

That argument died on Sunday.

Calling the two passes Miller didn’t catch drops is disingenuous. Both would’ve required phenomenal moments from the young receiver. But Miller has that ability! What changed from Week One when he made those plays to Week Two when he couldn’t? How can the Bears rely on him when they don’t know what they’re getting from week-to-week?

Dan Pompei was among those who promoted that idea that the Bears could have a number one receiver in Miller. Nobody questions that Miller has the talent to be The Guy, but NFL history is littered with talented wide receivers who never developed the consistency to be The Guy. See: Price, Peerless.


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Least Explosive Team in the NFL, or the Story of the 2019 Chicago Bears

| February 4th, 2020

I’ve been working my way through the Bears’ 2019 performance to see what changed from 2018 that caused them to slip from 12-4 to 8-8. Today, I want to look at explosive plays, which I found last season have a strong correlation to overall offensive performance.

There are a variety of definitions for explosive plays depending on who you ask, so I want to clarify I’m using parameters laid out by ESPN NFL Matchup, which counts any run that gains 15+ yards or pass that gains 20+ yards as explosive. Let’s start with a preliminary look at how the Bears did in 2019 relative to the rest of the NFL. All data is from Pro Football Reference, with explosive play information coming from the Game Play Finder. Pass percentages were calculated including sacks and pass attempts as pass plays.



That’s ugly.

If you want to compare to 2018, the Bears slipped across the board. They had 71 explosive plays in 2018, with explosive rates of 7% overall, 5.3% on runs, and 8.4% on passes. All of those numbers in 2018 were slightly below average, ranging from 18th to 21st in the league, while they are all bottom 2 in 2019.

So what happened to cause such a slump? Like I’ve done when evaluating both the running and passing games, I want to break down what it looks like for individual Bears players and/or position groups from season to season. That information is shown in the table below, with all cells formatted by 2018 / 2019 data. (I’ll note the pass rates are a bit higher for pass catchers than QBs because they are only out of targets and exclude sacks and throwaways.)


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Bears Beat Giants, Move To 5-6

| November 25th, 2019

Travel day for me. (Buffalo rocks.) So here are some quick thoughts on a tedious, boring win over the Giants.

  • Trubisky has started using his legs and he looks like a different player when he does. Why this element of his game was absent for so long no one knows. But if Mitch is planning to save his career over the next two months, his legs are going to be a big part of it.
  • Ben Braunecker’s drop was terrible. But the Bears got the first down on the following play. This game would have been a blowout – 20+ points – if Trubisky’s decision making were better.
  • Even the touchdown pass to Robinson was not a good throw. It was behind the receiver. Mitch has the physical tools to play QB in the league. But right now he lacks the guts to play the position well.
  • Khalil Mack tormented Nate Solder.
  • You thought the Bears had a bad kicker?
  • Nick Kwiatkoski couldn’t play in coverage last season. That ain’t the case anymore. Kwik is now a well-rounded player that’s going to get money to be a starter this off-season. That money should come from Ryan Pace. Keep your own.

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Bears at the Bye: Offense

| October 14th, 2019

With five games under the belt, the Bears are roughly 1/3 of the way through the season. Let’s check in on how they’re doing, starting with the offense.


Explosive Plays

I wrote this offseason about the importance of explosive plays (passes of 20+ yards or runs of 15+ yards) to an offense’s overall success, finding there is a very strong correlation between explosive plays and points scored. Chicago’s offense produced explosive plays at a slightly below-average rate in 2018, and I believed they were poised to improve dramatically in that category this year, and thus improve overall as an offense.

So far, the exact opposite has happened, as you can see in the table below.

The Bears have turned into one of the least explosive offenses in the NFL. They currently have 11 explosive passes and 2 explosive runs, and their current explosive rates would have ranked 31st and 32nd of 32 NFL teams in 2018 (I didn’t have time to compile the numbers for everybody in 2019 so far).

The run game is particularly egregious, as the lowest mark in the NFL last year was 3.1%. 1.7% is not even in the same ballpark. The Bears are 20th in average yards per carry before contact and 29th in yards/carry after contact, but I’m inclined to blame the offensive line more than the runners. Most of the time first contact seems to come not from one player in space, which might give the runner a chance to break a tackle and keep going, but with multiple front 7 players hitting the RB at the same time. It’s worth noting that the Bears’ running backs haven’t been great either though; Player Profiler ranks David Montgomery 36th among running backs in juke rate (evaded/broken tackles per carry), while Tarik Cohen is 55th. In Montgomery’s defense, he is 9th in the NFL in broken tackles per carry, according to Pro Football Reference.

I wrote this offseason that getting rid of Jordan Howard would help Chicago’s run game be more explosive, but so far they’re producing explosive plays on the ground at less than half the rate they did last year. Part of the problem is that Tarik Cohen and Mitchell Trubisky – who combined for 14 explosive runs on 167 carries last year, have no explosive runs so far this year, but David Montgomery only has 1 in his 69 attempts, and that’s far worse than Howard’s rate of 1 every 25 carries last year (which was already one of the worst marks in the NFL).

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