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Links with Data: Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

| March 7th, 2019

By Andrew Link

In part 2 of this crossover series (that nobody asked for), Johnathan Wood and I will take you on a journey of expectations for the third-year Bears quarterback. As discussed in part 1, Mitch Trubisky has struggled with the deep ball. There were a myriad of reasons why but the gist of it is this: Trubisky was below league average, threw almost as many deep passes as anyone in the NFL, and for this offense to take a leap in 2019, that particular portion of the game needs to improve.

Esteemed data man Johnathan Wood has come up with some theories of his own and you can read about those here. And I urge everyone to go and read the full article at Da Bears Blog. But for the sake of simplicity, I will take a few excerpts from said article and share those with you all.

To approach this from a statistics perspective, I used the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder to break up raw passing statistics into deep (15+ yards down the field) and short (<15 yards past the line of scrimmage). I looked at 19 quarterbacks who were starters in 2018 and had been playing consistently for at least 4 years (full data here). I’ll note that data for deep passes only goes back through 2008, so that’s as far back as I was able to go for QBs who have played longer than that.

Here’s what I found: while some quarterbacks are certainly better deep passers than others, the amount of year-to-year variability for each quarterback is greater for deep passes than short passes. That can be measured through the standard deviation for each quarterback, which expresses how much they vary from year to year in a given statistic (bigger number = more fluctuation). I found this for each quarterback for the main passing statistics, both short and deep, and then averaged them together for all 19 quarterbacks in each category. The results can be seen in the table below.

Pay particular attention to the ratio. That’s a rough measure of how much more variable deep passing statistics are to short ones for a given quarterback from year to year. Yards per attempt and interception percentage are both more than 4 times as variable for deep passes as short ones. That is excellent news for Bears fans, given Mitchell Trubisky’s high interception rate on deep passes in 2018.

I found this to be interesting. This makes sense to a point. Surely throwing the ball deep is going to have some level of pure luck, and as you will see in the videos, there is certainly an element of luck to it. It also makes sense that the deeper the throw, the farther off-target misthrown balls will be. Imagine being able to hit your driver 320 yards and being off by a few degrees. A much larger margin of error than say, someone who hits their 3 wood 230 yards.


Worthy Adversaries

But luck can’t be everything, can it? There has to be more to it than that. I decided to look at some of the other quarterbacks in the league to see what I can key on as areas of improvement for Trubisky as he heads into his 2nd year under head coach and playcaller Matt Nagy. I scoured the tape of some of the best deep ball artists in the NFL: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson.

Disclaimer: This second part took so long to produce because I became violently ill after watching so many plays of Aaron Rodgers wearing those horrible yellow uniforms. I am feeling better now, thanks for asking.

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The Trubisky Deep Ball Should Improve

| March 7th, 2019

This is part of a series of collaborations between film guru Andrew Link of Windy City Gridiron and stats guy Johnathan Wood of DaBearsBlog. We’re excited to be working together to bring fans of both sites great content by combining our approaches.


Last time, we identified deep passes as the main thing Mitchell Trubisky struggled with in 2018, and broke down film to see why that happened. Despite making up less than 25% of his pass attempts, 75% of Trubisky’s interceptions came on deep balls, and his completion percentage on those throws was well below the league average as he missed a lot of open targets.

This week, we want to again use stats and film to see why that may or may not improve going forward.

Highly Variable

To approach this from a statistics perspective, I used the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder to break up raw passing statistics into:

  • Deep (15+ yards down the field)
  • Short (<15 yards past the line of scrimmage)

I looked at 19 quarterbacks who were starters in 2018 and had been playing consistently for at least 4 years (full data here). I’ll note that data for deep passes only goes back through 2008, so that’s as far back as I was able to go for QBs who have played longer than that.

Here’s what I found: while some quarterbacks are certainly better deep passers than others, the amount of year-to-year variability for each quarterback is greater for deep passes than short passes. That can be measured through the standard deviation for each quarterback, which expresses how much they vary from year to year in a given statistic (bigger number = more fluctuation). I found this for each quarterback for the main passing statistics, both short and deep, and then averaged them for all 19 quarterbacks in each category. The results can be seen in the table below.

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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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Breaking Down Every Single Mitch Trubisky Interception From the 2018 Season

| February 15th, 2019

In his sophomore campaign, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky saw statistical improvement across the board. He completed a higher rate of passes, threw for more yards per attempt, and was much more efficient throwing touchdowns. The one area where he regressed from his rookie campaign (statistically speaking), was throwing interceptions. He threw them on 2.8% of his passing attempts in 2018, compared to just 2.1% in 2017. If he had stuck to his 2017 rate he would have been intercepted only 9 times. He threw 12 picks.

Throwing fewer interceptions is a good goal for Trubisky in 2019, but what does he need to improve to make that happen? In order to figure that out, we need to break down the film, because not all interceptions are created equal. Sometimes it’s the quarterback’s fault, sometimes it’s on the wide receiver, and sometimes it’s hard to tell. In general, I think you can group them all into one of four categories:

  • Bad decisions. These are throws that should never be made because the receiver isn’t open and a defender has a good chance at an interception. Bears fans have seen plenty of these in the last 10 years, with balls being chucked up into double or triple coverage.
  • Bad throws. The target is open, but the pass is off target. The problem here comes not in the choice to throw but in the throw itself.
  • Miscommunications. The quarterback thinks the wide receiver is running one route, the wide receiver runs another route, and the defensive back is the beneficiary.
  • Receiver errors. The receiver is open, the pass is good, but the ball bounces off of the target’s hands and gets intercepted.

The first two are both the fault of the quarterback, though in very different ways. The third one makes it pretty much impossible for us to assign fault. The last one is the fault of the target.

As I did last year, I want to look more closely at each of Trubisky’s interceptions to see which of these categories they fall into, and then consider what we can learn from all 12 together. Special hat tip to Andrew Link of Windy City Gridiron for providing all the GIFs. If you’re a fan of the Bears, you should definitely follow Andrew on Twitter.


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Link: What Went Wrong with Trubisky’s Deep Ball

| February 12th, 2019

By Andrew Link

Filed under the “trying something new” category comes a collaboration of personalities, strengths, styles, and even blogs. I am very excited to bring a unique cross-over between Da Bears Blog and Windy City Gridiron.

This off-season project started months ago as a few random Twitter comments sparked an interesting idea. There are tons of analytics folks out there in the NFL world, and an equal amount of film buffs. But something hit Johnathan Wood and myself at the same time: what if we used the analytics to tell the story and confirmed/de-bunked with the old “eye test?”

The result is something that we both think is pretty cool and hopefully Bears fans will enjoy this as well. I urge you to read Johnathan’s article before going any further (although I will be taking excerpts from his article in this one).

Trubisky was really good on short stuff, but struggled throwing the ball deep. This isn’t a surprise to anybody who watched the Bears this year, but it’s good to see the numbers backing up what we all observed. Stay tuned tomorrow, when Andrew Link of Windy City Gridiron will look to the film to see what went wrong to account for Trubisky’s deep struggles.

Nobody really wants to see a bunch of short throws, besides, there will be some more silver lining articles to come, so let’s focus on the deep ball. 15 yards seems to be the magic number for what constitutes a deep ball by the numbers, I am not sure I totally agree, so I mainly focused on throws over 20 yards.

Things weren’t as pretty when we look at the deep ball though, as you can see in the table below:

That’s not as good as we’d like to see. Trubisky was well below the league average in all four categories, and he even threw more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (7). Deep passes completely account for Trubisky’s uptick in interceptions as a sophomore, and improvement here would turn him from an average/above-average QB into one of the better passers in the league.

The numbers clearly show that there was something off about Trubisky’s deep ball, but there has to be a reason, right? I came up with 3 reasons why the deep ball struggled. As with many things in sports, you can make the case for different reasons on the same play. Cause and affect. Did poor mechanics cause a throw to be inaccurate? Possibly. Could a poor decision still be well thrown? Absolutely. While I had to ultimately put clips into certain categories, there are often times when you could put a play into any of the 3.

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Trubisky Was Good in 2018. But He Can Significantly Improve.

| February 11th, 2019

This is the first of a series of collaborations between film guru Andrew Link of Windy City Gridiron and stats guy Johnathan Wood of Da Bears Blog. We’re excited to be working together to bring fans of both sites great content by combining our approaches. 


Last year, I looked at  Mitchell Trubisky’s rookie season and found that, by the end of the year, he was statistically performing like a league average quarterback in every area except throwing touchdowns. So that was his challenge for 2018: throw more touchdowns without getting worse everywhere else.

Let’s see how he did. The table below shows Trubisky’s performance compared to NFL average in the four categories that go into passer rating.

Mission accomplished.

Trubisky got much better at throwing touchdowns, as is common for young quarterbacks looking to improve from year 1 to year 2, and stayed at or above average at completing passes and picking up yards. His interceptions took a slight uptick from right around league average to be higher than you would like, and we’ll look at that more closely later in this series.

Add it all up and Trubisky produced like an average to above average quarterback in his sophomore campaign, a significant improvement from his rookie season, when he was (statistically speaking) one of the worst QBs in the NFL.

But there is certainly still room for improvement, and to illustrate where that improvement needs to come I used the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder to break up pass attempts into short (less than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) and deep (15 yards or more past the line of scrimmage).

The table below shows how Trubisky performed compared to the rest of the league in short passes:

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A Deeper Dive into the Sophomore Season of Mitchell Trubisky

| February 4th, 2019

After a rookie campaign that was statistically a nightmare, Mitchell Trubisky took the sophomore jump that many wanted to see. He went from performing like one of the worst QBs in the NFL to somebody who was average to above average, and accordingly the Bears went from being one of the worst teams in the NFL to one of the best (though a greatly improved defense also played a big role there).

Now that the dust has settled a little bit, I wanted to take a closer look at Trubisky’s 2018 season to see what I could learn. (I’ll note that I have upcoming work looking in more detail at short and deep splits, so I’m not going to focus on that here.)


Breaking Out

For the first three weeks of the season, Trubisky looked like he was continuing his rookie year. At that point, it was starting to look like maybe the Bears had a bust. Then Trubisky had a monster game against Tampa Bay in Week 4 and never looked back. The distinct split in his performance can be seen clearly in the table below.

A few thoughts:

  • There’s no way around saying it: Trubisky stunk the first three weeks. He dumped the ball out faster than any QB in the NFL, threw it shorter than all but nine, and completed shorter passes than any other QB by a full half yard. Despite all of that, he still threw into tight coverage at the 6th highest rate of any NFL QB this year, and took a high rate of sacks, which were largely on him.
  • But look at Week 4 and on. He started pushing the ball down the field more, which hurt his completion percentage a bit but helped him everywhere else. His full stat line from Week 4 on: 217/330 for 2632 yards, with 22 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and a 101.0 passer rating. That’s borderline top 10 quarterback production.

Shifting Styles

But Trubisky’s play didn’t remain stagnant for the rest of the season. Instead, we saw a distinct shift in playing styles over the last three weeks of the year, which can be clearly seen in the table below.

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Football Can Be Simple & 2018 All Comes Down to Trubisky

| August 21st, 2018

There are an abundance of storylines to follow for the Bears as we creep closer to the start of the 2018 season. A small sampling:

These are all important questions worth considering this season, and collectively they will play a huge role in determining the win/loss record for the year. But there’s only one question that will decide the success Bears’ 2018 season (and beyond): how good is Mitch Trubisky?

Ryan Pace staked his career on Trubisky by trading up to draft him in 2017, and doubled down this offseason with pretty much every move he made intended to put Trubisky in the best possible position to succeed. He hired an offensive-minded head coach who trained under one of the best QB mentors in the game in Andy Reid. He brought in an abundance of new pass catchers to replace the less than stellar cast of a season ago. He spent a 2nd round pick on James Daniels and hired Harry Hiestand to shore up the offensive line.



The excuses of last year are all gone, and Trubisky is now firmly entrenched as the face of the franchise. Now it’s on Trubisky to prove that Pace’s trust in him is well founded. And that needs to happen now, in 2018.

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Excluding Cleveland: How Quickly Do Perennially Bad Offenses Actually Turn It Around?

| June 5th, 2018

Chicago’s offense has been consistently bad for the last four years, ranking in the bottom ten in points scored each of those seasons. It’s been especially awful the last two years, when a host of QB issues have left the Bears 28th and 29th in that same category.

But hope springs eternal, and dramatic changes this off-season have fans dreaming of a high-powered offense. Gone is the old-school John Fox, replaced by offensive-minded Matt Nagy. QB Mitchell Trubisky enters his second season, as do Tarik Cohen and Adam Shaheen, and the dreadful skill position groups have been overhauled with the additions of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, and Anthony Miller.

Just how big of a leap can this offense take in 2018? Optimists are quick to point to the 2017 Rams, who went from consistently bad offenses for years to the NFL’s top scoring unit in 2017 on the heels of a new offensive coach, overhauled WR group, and growth from 2nd year QB Jared Goff. Is that big of a jump an outlier, or something that happens regularly? I dove into the numbers to find out.

Crunching the Data

I looked at where every NFL team ranked in terms of points scored each year for the last decade (so 2008-17), then looked at teams that matched recent trends for the Bears. I looked at three different groupings this way:

  • Bottom 5 for 2 years
  • Bottom 10 for 3 years
  • Bottom 10 for 4 years

Once teams who fit that bill were identified, I looked at the offense the year after those bleak seasons to see how it performed.

Before I get into the results, I should note that I decided to exclude the Cleveland Browns from this. Their offense has ranked in the bottom ten every single year for the past decade – a truly remarkable feat of consistency – and this meant that they drowned out other samples. Full data can be viewed here.

[Editor’s Note: What you just read is the saddest paragraph published on this site in the fourteen years of its existence.]

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Data Entry: Establishing Ryan Pace’s draft profile, day 1

| April 3rd, 2018

 

Now that Ryan Pace has been here for a while, we can start to look at his past drafts to see what lessons we can learn from his approach. This can help us cautiously look ahead to the 2018 draft to see what he might be thinking.

With that goal in mind, I’m going to spend the next three weeks looking at how Pace has approached the three days of the draft, and then applying that approach to 2018 to see what players are likely being considered for the Bears this year. We’re starting today at the top of the draft. Let’s look first at the history, and then we’ll examine lessons learned.

Draft History

2015: Kevin White, WR, 7th overall

2016: Leonard Floyd, OLB, 9th overall (trade up from 11)

2017: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, 2nd overall (trade up from 3)

Trend 1: Go get your guy

The first thing we should observe is that Ryan Pace is not shy about trading up in round 1 to get the player he has identified as his main target. So keep that in mind as we look at mock drafts with players who might be good fits for the Bears but are projected to go higher than #8.

It’s worth noting that these have all been relatively minor trades just moving up a few spots, which keeps the cost down. Despite reportedly exploring moving up to the top of the draft for Marcus Mariota in 2015, Pace has not been willing to give up multiple high picks in these moves.

Trading up becomes a bit more difficult this year because the Bears are already without a third round pick due to trading up for Trubisky last year, but they do have an extra fourth round pick they could use.

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