The Bears have made a number of moves in free agency, and I want to use some statistics to weigh in on their likely role on the roster / value to the team. Let’s start with a look at the offense.
Davis has just 238 carries in 4 seasons so it was a little surprising to see the Bears move so quickly to sign him at the start of free agency. But a closer look reveals why they did so.
A few weeks ago I identified the typical physical profile of a running back in this offense, and Davis fits the bill, as you can see in the table below. Thresholds that he failed to hit are highlighted in red.
Davis matches the profile of backs who are usually targeted for this offense. He’s short but well built and has solid acceleration (as evidenced by the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash) and explosion (as evidenced by the jumps). This doesn’t mean he’ll magically be a stud here after being a role player in San Francisco and Seattle, but it explains a little bit about why he was on the Bears’ radar.
Another way Davis fits is in terms of his skill set. Running backs in this offense are asked to do two things: run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. The table below shows how effective Davis was doing those compared to Jordan Howard in 2018, with both compared to Kareem Hunt as an ideal (on-field) back for this system. I highlighted cells in red when one running back stood out from the other two in a bad way, and green when one running back stood out in a good way.
A few thoughts:
A 230-pound back with 4.6 speed isn’t what most fans are dreaming of this offseason. But Spencer Ware, a sixth-round pick by Seattle in 2013, could be the perfect fit for the 2019 Chicago Bears.
At this point in his career, Ware is known as a backup, but he once earned Kansas City’s starting job by rushing for 403 yards — 5.6 per carry — and six touchdowns in 2015. He held the starting job in 2016, making 14 starts and totaling 1,368 yards from scrimmage; more than Jordan Howard has managed each of the last two years. He was poised to start for the Chiefs again in 2017 before a preseason injury knocked him out and Kareem Hunt exploded. Ware reemerged late last season, rushing for 122 yards in two starts before another injury knocked him out until the playoffs.
With Damien Williams performing well in the playoffs, Ware will likely be looking elsewhere for a chance to compete for a starting gig. Where better than Chicago? On paper, he may not seem like an upgrade over Howard, and he may not be a better overall runner, but Ware can simply do things that Howard can’t. These are the things the Bears need their running backs to be able to do.
Howard excelled early in his career at running outside zone plays, cutting up the field, against the grain. With Nagy’s inside zone scheme, the Bears are asking Howard to do the opposite, to be able to take inside runs outside and he simply hasn’t done it effectively.
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.
These offenses generated the most EXPLOSIVE PLAYS this season.
#ChiefsKingdom #FightForEachOther #LARams #GoBucs #Browns #49ers #GoSaints #Steelers #Bengals #Seahawks #Panthers #Falcons pic.twitter.com/fTqyVPKckr
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 2, 2019
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.
It’s no secret that Jordan Howard struggled in 2018. DBB’s Andrew Dannehy detailed those struggles in a column a few weeks ago. Despite getting 250 carries – 6th most in the NFL – he didn’t reach 1,000 yards thanks to a dismal 3.7 yards/attempt, the 4th worst average of the 23 running backs who averaged at least 10 carries per game.
And lest we be tempted to blame this on Chicago’s offensive line, it’s worth pointing out that the Bears were 5th in total yards gained before contact and 9th in yards/carry before contact, per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Tarik Cohen, who ran behind the same offensive line, averaged close to a full yard per carry more than Howard (4.5 vs. 3.7).
So I don’t think it’s fair to blame Chicago’s offensive line for Howard’s struggles. It is worth noting that Howard averaged only 1 yard before contact this year, one of the lowest marks in the league (PFF). Tarik Cohen averaged 2.3 yards before contact, one of the better marks in the NFL. So I think that stat says more about Howard (and how he was used) than the offensive line.
To figure out where it all went wrong for Howard, I took a closer look at a few different advanced metrics used for running backs. The first is success rate, which can be thought of as a measure of staying ahead of the chains. A run is successful if it:
The Chicago Bears won’t be signing Kareem Hunt. The great debate ended before the offseason officially began, as the former Kansas City Chiefs running back, facing disciplinary action from the league for a history of violent behavior, signed with the Browns. Time will tell if he’s worth the trouble for Cleveland, but the Bears still need to add some explosiveness to their backfield if they hope to improve their run game.
Because while Jordan Howard is a good player, the Bears simply need more. Forget for a second his sub-4.0 yards per carry number. The Bears offense just didn’t function well with him on the field.
Matt Nagy seems to know it too. In the playoff game he used a formation with three wide receivers, one tight end and Cohen over Howard 21 times. Their next most-used formation was used five times, that also didn’t have Howard in it. Howard played just 22 snaps — 34% of the team’s total — against the Eagles. From a football perspective, signing Hunt would’ve been the easy move, but not one the Bears could make without knowing his availability. Now, they have to figure out something else.
Sometimes the best moves are the most difficult.
The biggest no-brainer of this 2019 NFL offseason is for the Bears to sign Kareem Hunt. From a strictly football standpoint, Hunt must be their top target. But, of course, it’s about more than strictly football. Those arguments were made by Jeff here and Emily here.
What we learned from the 2019 NFL playoffs is that running the ball is still really important:
Television networks and league executives want the NFL to be a passing league, but it’s tried and true that running the ball is important and the Bears just weren’t good enough at it. Despite being 11th in rushing yardage, the Bears struggled to move the ball on the ground consistently throughout the year. They were 27th in yards per carry and all of their rushing totals were inflated by having a quarterback who could routinely run for 15 yards on 3rd-and-10.
Perhaps what’s most troubling about the Bears lack of run production is that, unlike 2017, opponents weren’t trying to stop the run. Jordan Howard faced a stacked box (eight or more defenders) on just 14% of his carries, according to NFL NextGen Stats. That’s the 13th-lowest mark in the league. The player who had a stacked box the least was Tarik Cohen, coming in at 5.05%, well below Wendell Smallwood’s 6.9% rate.
Strange game. From the moment Eddie Jackson returned a Roquan Smith-forced fumble for a touchdown with 7:07 remaining in the first half, the entire building knew the game was over. Here are six specific, in-building thoughts from Bears 41, Bills 9.
(1) That was one of the loudest stadiums I’ve ever heard to start the game. The crowd noise was absolutely deafening when the Bears had the ball for the first quarter plus. The false starts upfront were completely understandable. Offensive line miscommunication should have been expected. (I could barely hear a friend two seats away from me.) There is no chance a Soldier Field crowd, with the team at 2-6 and starting a dead weight quarterback, would be anywhere near that enthused at kickoff. Impressive showing from Bills fans, in and around the ballpark.
(2) Good to see Jordan Howard running with some anger. Again, don’t look at the overall numbers. They’re mostly meaningless in a game like this. But Matt Nagy is finally starting to understand how to use Howard, especially down in the red zone. The Andy Reid offense like to throw to score. The Bears are built to ride Howard into the end zone.
(3) Two defenders stood out to me: Roquan Smith and Eddie Jackson. Smith is going to be a star in the league for a long, long time but that is expected from a top draft pick. Jackson is an incredible player. He closes on the football as good as any Bears safety since Mike Brown. He’s the rare back end guy comfortable with the football in the air and tackling in the open field. He’s got great, natural instincts.
(4) The Bears were clearly uncomfortable with the amount of running Mitch Trubisky did against the Jets last week because there were times Sunday Trubisky had acres of space in front of him. If this WAS a coaching decision, I applaud it. Trubisky knows he can run. That’ll be there as long as his legs are. But this season has to be more about processing information, stepping into the pocket and delivering the football. And in a game like Sunday’s there’s no reason for the young quarterback to take any unnecessary punishment.
Very strange game. The Jets didn’t have anywhere near the weapons to move the ball consistently. The Bears were just error-prone enough to keep the game competitive for three quarters. But it’s a win they absolutely needed. And unlike many recent vintages of the Chicago Bears, they got it. Rapid fire…
Now that we’ve seen Chicago’s new offense play four games, it’s time to examine what exactly it looks like. We’ve seen them run 271 plays, and while that’s still a fairly small sample size, it’s big enough that we can begin to pick up trends, search for predictable patterns that opposing defenses might begin to pick up on, and see if there are any situations their current approach could be improved.
Today we’re going to focus on running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, examining how much they’re playing, how effective they’ve been, and how they’re being utilized.
First I want to look at how frequently each running back is playing, and how their presence on the field impacts the offense’s performance. Data is from The Quant Edge.
(Note: I’m using success rate here instead of yards per play. That is to account for down and distance context. A two-yard play on 1st and 10 is bad, while a two-yard play on 3rd and 1 is good. The general idea is that a successful play keeps you ahead of the chains, but an exact definition is available here if you’re curious.)
A few thoughts: