Deja Vu: Bears Need to Be More Explosive

| February 16th, 2021

I’ve been tracking explosive plays for a few years now because they have a strong relationship to points scored. To put it simply, good offenses produce plenty of big plays. Let’s look at how Chicago did in this department in last season.

Basic Overview

The table below shows how many explosive passes, runs, and total plays the Bears produced in 2020, as well as how those results ranked compared to the rest of the NFL. Explosive passes are those that gain 20+ yards, while explosive runs gained 15+ yards. All data is from Pro Football Reference, and explosive play data is from the Game Play Finder.

A few thoughts:

  • If these results look awfully familiar, it’s because they are. The Bears were the least explosive team in the NFL in 2019 with 49 explosive plays. If you want to look on the bright side, this year actually showed a slight improvement, though they were still one of the least explosive offenses in the league.
  • You can view the full results here, but Chicago’s totals put them right in line with teams like the Washington Football Team, Giants, Jets, and Bengals. Yuck.
  • I found last offseason that there is very little year-to-year correlation for explosive plays. Based on this, you could argue that finishing horribly in this category 2 years in a row is random bad luck, but I’m more inclined to think it’s an indictment on the personnel and/or scheme.

Explosive Players

I also want to look briefly at who produced the explosive plays. I want to caution that I’ve found there is very little year-over-year consistency in these results, so a player having an explosive or non-explosive 2020 doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will repeat in 2021.

Let’s start with a look at the quarterbacks, and I want to note that passes here include sacks for a more accurate reflection of total pass plays.

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How Consistent are Explosive Players?

| June 2nd, 2020

Recently, I’ve found that explosive plays are really important to overall offensive production and explosive plays are extremely inconsistent from year to year on a team level. Today I want to look at explosive plays on an individual level to see if players can be fairly reliable counted on to be more or less explosive than expected.

The Set-Up

Like with the team-level data, I used performance from 2014-19 as my sample size. I used the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder to identify all players who had at least 200 pass attempts, 50 pass targets, or 100 carries in each season. I chose these numbers as somewhat arbitrary thresholds to get a good mix of a sufficient data sample each year and a big enough sample size within each data point to make the data as reliable as possible.

I then looked up the explosive plays (runs of 15+ yards, passes of 20+ yards) each of those players achieved in those seasons. I used the data in aggregate to get average explosive play rates for each. Full data can be seen here.

  • Passing: on average, 8.7% of all passing plays (including sacks) resulted in explosive passes. This data did not seem to change much from 2014-19, with each year fluctuating between 8.3% and 9.1% and no clear year-to-year pattern. I also double checked that smaller sample sizes didn’t skew the data, but the rate stayed the same when I only looked at player seasons with 300+, 400+, or 500+ pass attempts.
  • Rushing: on average, 4.8% of all running back carries resulted in explosive runs. I’ll note I excluded QBs with 100+ carries in a season from this, because many of those are scrambles and thus have a much higher explosive rate, and the sample size of QBs with 100+ carries was too small to study independently. Again, this number didn’t change much year-to-year or if I had a larger carry threshold for inclusion (I checked 150+, 200+, and 250+ carries).
  • Receiving: I split this one up by position, since WRs, TEs, and RBs are used quite differently in the passing game. Overall, 5.5% of targets to running backs, 11.1% of targets to WRs, and 9.3% of targets to TEs resulted in explosive completions. Again, there was little variation year-to-year.

I then used those rates as a baseline for how many explosive plays an individual should be expected to produce based on their volume for the year. For example, a RB with 100 carries and 100 pass targets should be expected to have 4.8 explosive carries and 5.5 explosive receptions. If they actually produced 6 explosive carries and 4 explosive receptions, they had 1.2 more explosive runs and 1.5 fewer explosive catches than expected.

To save words, from here on out I’m going to refer to that as the explosive differential.

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How Consistent are Explosive Plays?

| May 26th, 2020

The Bears produced the fewest explosive plays in the NFL last year, and given the importance of explosive plays to overall offensive output, that largely explains their status as one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

So I want to look at how consistent explosive plays are. We’ll start with a team-by-team basis, and then look at it on a player-by-player level in a follow-up article.

The Setup

I used Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder to track explosive runs (gained 15+ yards) and passes (gained 20+ yards) for each team season since 2014. I did this to have 5 years to compare season-over-season consistency (2014 vs. 2015, 2015 vs. 2016, etc.), giving a respectable sample size of 160 data points without going too far into the past, since the NFL is a constantly evolving league.


I started by doing a simple comparison of explosive plays a team had in one year compared to explosive plays they gained the following year. As you can see in the chart below, there wasn’t much of a relationship.

As a reminder, correlation (R²) is a measure of how strong the relationship between two variables is. It ranges from 0-1, with 0 meaning there is no relationship whatsoever. So a value of 0.027 tells us there is basically no relationship between how many explosive plays a team has in one year compared to how many they will have the following year.

I’ll note I did similar looks for explosive runs and passes when separated out from each other and got similar results (R² < 0.07 for both). I also looked at all three in terms of explosive rate (explosive plays/total plays), and got similar results. I don’t feel the need to pepper this article with a bunch of similar graphs that show no results, but if you’re curious, the full data set and graphs can be seen here.

This then, would seem to suggest good things for the Bears. Just because they were unexplosive in 2019 does not mean the same will be true in 2020. 

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Is Producing Explosive Plays More Important Than Avoiding Negative Ones?

| May 18th, 2020

I did some work last off-season examining how important explosive plays are to an offense’s production, and found that there is a strong relationship between the number of explosive plays (runs of 15+ yards, passes of 20+ yards) and overall offensive performance (measured in either points/game or DVOA rank). I have updated that information to now include 2018 and 2019 data and still found a strong relationship, as you can see in the graphs below.

Correlation (R²) can be loosely interpreted as how much of the pattern is explained by that variable, which means explosive plays account for roughly 40-60% of overall offensive production, which is quite a high number, and consistent with values from the 2018 season alone. Seeing the same relationship across multiple seasons of data provides additional credibility to the relationship.

(Side note: just like in 2018, total explosive plays shows a stronger relationship with both points/game and DVOA than the % of offensive plays that are explosive, so I’ll probably just track total explosive plays from now on.)

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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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Big Plays Win Games

| August 12th, 2019

What if I told you that less than 14% of plays determine the outcome of most NFL games?

Everybody loves watching big plays in football. Highlight reels are filled with bone-crushing sacks, long runs, deep bombs to a streaking WR, and big interceptions, because those are the exciting plays fans love to watch.

It turns out those are the plays that decide games too, and I have the stats to prove it.


Earlier this offseason, I wrote about the strong correlation between long runs and passes and overall offensive success, which got me thinking about what other plays might prove to be crucial to a team’s success. I ended up settling on four types of plays, which I will briefly describe below:

  • Explosive run: a carry that goes for 15+ yards
  • Explosive pass: a pass that goes for 20+ yards
  • Sacks
  • Turnovers

My hypothesis was that the team who produces more of these big plays than their opponent will usually win the game. To test this, I tracked all four categories for all 256 NFL games in 2018, along with the final score of each game.

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Mathematical Proof the Bears Need More Explosive Plays on Offense

| March 4th, 2019

I recently ran across this Tweet from NFL Matchup on ESPN – a terrific account you should definitely follow on Twitter if you want to be a better educated football fan. It got me thinking about Chicago’s offense and explosive plays.

Seeing as I’ve already written about Mitchell Trubisky’s struggles throwing the ball deep and Jordan Howard’s lack of explosive runs, I figured the Bears probably ranked towards the low end in this area. Using Pro Football Reference’s fantastic Game Play Finder, I was able to track these stats for every team in 2018 (full data here, slight discrepancies for the 17 teams shown in Tweet above, but all were within 1 or 2 plays).

As you can see in the table below, the Bears did indeed not do very well when it came to explosive plays.

We can see here that the Bears were slightly below average in every category, meaning there is need for improvement in explosive plays across the board. I’ll also note that percentages are calculated simply: (explosive plays/total plays)100; I figured this might be a useful metric since there is a some difference in how many plays teams run, especially when you split it up into run and pass plays.

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