We gave @ChicagoBears head coach Matt Nagy the Statcast treatment for his first pitch at Wrigley! ⚾️
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) July 17, 2019
The Bears offense showed significant improvement in 2018, but still was an average-to-below average unit overall. There’s been plenty of focus about the need to get better on that side of the ball, and that starts with scouting yourself. Some coaches have play-calling tendencies in different down and distance situations, and opposing NFL teams scout those to help their play calling in response. With that in mind, I looked at down and distance trends for Chicago’s’ offense in 2018. All statistics are from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System and Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder.
The Bears were very balanced on first down, with 231 runs and 223 passes for a 51/49 split. Unfortunately, they were not very effective on the ground, where they averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. This is a significant step down from 2017, when they averaged 4.1 yards per carry, and 2016, when they were at 5.2.
Lest we be tempted to blame Jordan Howard, I’ll note that 142 of the 231 runs (62%) were his, and those actually gained 3.7 yards per carry. So the rest of the team was actually slightly worse than Howard on 1st down. One way or another, the Bears need to figure out how to improve running on 1st down and/or run less and throw more.
Speaking of throwing it, the Bears averaged 7.0 yards/attempt on 1st down, a healthy but not overwhelming number that was right around average for all NFL passing stats in 2018. Teams always average more yards/play passing than running, but when the discrepancy is this large, you should probably consider throwing it more.
When it comes to 2nd down, context is needed. A 3-yard gain is great on 2nd and 2, pretty good on 2nd and 5, and awful on 2nd and 10. With that in mind, I split the data into 4 groups based on the distance required to get a 1st down. The table below shows the results.
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.
Personnel moves are not going to tell the story of the 2019 Bears. They could improve their roster this off-season, be a better team than they were in 2018 and STILL win fewer than twelve games. No, with lofty expectations for the coming year, everything will depend upon the improved play of their starting quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.
Here’s what Matt Nagy had to say about Trubisky’s progression into 2019 at the year-end press conference [Cut to 16:30]:
According to Nagy, his young QB has already conquered the “next play mentality” and “the steps of 101 progressions.” In layman’s terms, Trubisky knows what he is doing when it comes to running the offense. But it’s understanding what the opposing defense is up to that comes next, or as Nagy puts it, “recognizing pre-snap what he’s about to see from these defenses.” At quarterback, if you know what your 11 are doing, and you know what their 11 are doing, it just comes down to making the plays.
And Trubisky can make ALL the plays.
Look no further than those final drives against the Eagles. Season on the line. Avoiding the rush. Hitting targets deep down the field with pin-point accuracy. Every completion was met with elation from the crowd. Everyone in that building felt something was changing because something was changing.
And then Parkey happened.
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.
As the New England Patriots prepare to play in their 79th Super Bowl of the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick era, they serve as the sport’s finest example of what the Bears – and every other organization – are trying to accomplish.
We can talk about Chuck Pagano, Khalil Mack, future first-round picks, draft steals and everything else, but what this era of Bears football becomes depends almost entirely on the quality of the head coach and the quarterback. And the first year got off to an adequate start for Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky.
The Bears were a top ten offense in both points per drive and DVOA until the QB was injured. Then they slid back. They struggled for most of the playoff game, but the quarterback made enough big plays to give them a chance to win.
Then Ray Finkle blew it.
Despite what Lt. Lois Einhorn did with those uprights, the Bears coach and QB gave us hope for the future. Hope that this thing could be special.
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:
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.
The hiring of Chuck Pagano to replace Vic Fangio confirmed one thing: this is Matt Nagy’s team.
The Bears won in 2018 because of their defense, first and foremost. It was a defense and coordinator Nagy inherited. When Fangio left, it would’ve been easy to go with the continuity candidate Ed Donatell. But Nagy took a chance, bringing in someone from the outside, someone who more represents Nagy’s style.
There is no measure that tells us if being aggressive is better than being conservative defensively, but there’s no question that Fangio was on the conservative end and Pagano fits Nagy’s aggressive mentality.
During the end of the season presser, Nagy described Pagano as having an “attacking style” before saying again that Pagano is aggressive.
Pagano’s lone season as a defensive coordinator, in 2011 with the Baltimore Ravens, represents that. Pagano’s Ravens sacked opposing quarterbacks on 8.2 percent of their drop backs, even better than the 2018 Bears’ rate of 7.5. Opposing quarterbacks finished with a passer rating of 68.8, throwing for just 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, all numbers comparable to the 2018 Bears.