Why Bears' issues run deeper than Nagy's playcalling originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
These numbers show how bad Bears’ offense is, and why there may not be a fix for it
Apologies for not following Matt Nagy’s advice in what you’re about to read.
“I know that’s kind of where this world is at today. There’s a lot of negativity and people feed off of that, and we love all of that stuff right now – negative, negative,” Nagy said. “That’s just not where we’re at or where I’m at. We try to focus on the positives.”
Okay. The first positive is the Bears are 5-2. But when you’re looking at their offense, it’s hard to see anything that’s remotely close to positive entering Week 8. Just take a look at this:
Points per game: 19.7 (27th in NFL)
Yards per play: 4.8 (30th)
Yards per run: 3.8 (30th)
Yards per pass: 5.6 (29th)
Interception rate: 3.2 percent (26th)
Third down conversion rate: 35.1% (30th)
First downs/game: 19.7 (27th)
Red zone touchdown rate: 47.6% (29th)
Yikes. Behind these numbers is an offense without an identity. And behind that lack of an identity are some concerning realities the Bears need to confront and fix. If those problems can be fixed at all.
Back in late September, after the Bears won games against the Detroit Lions and New York Giants, I wrote that Nagy was developing an encouraging offensive identity based on – believe it or not – running the ball. Then Mitch Trubisky was benched in the third quarter of the Bears’ third game of the season.
And since that comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Bears’ offense has not only been ineffective. It’s been predictable, too.
But this is not necessarily a problem changing playcallers could fix. It runs deeper.
First downs are where teams build their identity. On first-and-10, outside of two-minute and late-game situations, it’s not obvious if a run or a pass will be called.
Yet the Bears, since Nick Foles’ first start, are the most pass-heavy team on first down in the NFL – which, of course, means they run less than every other team in the league on first down.
Okay, so just give Bill Lazor or John DeFilippo playcalling responsibilities and have them call more running plays. Right?
It's not that simple.
Foles is averaging 7.3 yards per pass on first down, exactly the NFL average since he took over as the Bears’ starting quarterback (per SharpFootballStats). So that’s fine.
The problem here is not only are the Foles-led Bears running it less than any other team in the NFL on first down, they’re the worst running team in the NFL on first down.
This is where the Bears’ offense feels the most broken. They’re predictable, but the only way to become unpredictable is to call for running plays that probably aren’t going to gain many, if any, yards.
There is a thought of being “stubborn” with the run, as offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. Calling more running plays, even if they’re not successful early on, could help as the game progresses.
But here's what happens if you call a bunch of ineffective running plays early in a game just to try to wring out some successful rushes later.
The Bears’ passing offense goes from league average on first-and-10 to well below average on second/third-and-long – more obvious passing downs created by failed running plays on first down.
When Foles faces second and seven to 12 yards (thinking of a first-down run that loses two yards, max), the Bears pass 88 percent of the time – highest in the NFL – yet Foles becomes an ineffective quarterback:
“There are times, I know we talked about it in the past maybe two weeks ago or so, the run game does gain momentum as it goes,” Lazor said. “So I do think you just keep those things in the back of your mind. Do you have to run the ball in a game to win? No, not necessarily, but it’s really hard when the defense knows you are throwing it every play. It gets harder and harder.”
(By the way, the Bears are averaging 1.9 yards per carry in those more obvious passing situations. Defenses know they can stop the run without committing extra defenders, allowing them to more easily play the pass – which they know is coming anyway.)
The Bears could be stubborn with those first down runs, but if they’re not working – and they haven’t recently – they’ll just be setting themselves up for a bunch of three-and-outs early in games. And that's no way to build an offensive identity.
I really don’t know what the answer is here from a playcalling perspective. The more the Bears throw on first down, the more teams will know a pass is coming. But the more the Bears run on first down, the more three-and-outs you can expect. How is Lazor or DeFilippo or Dave Ragone supposed to call plays when it feels like they're damned if they do and damned if they don't?
Maybe going back to the more under center-oriented style of offense Nagy used to start the season with Trubisky (but not switching quarterbacks…yet) would help the offensive line get more push in the run game. It’s worth a shot, I guess, since this version of the offense is not working.
The worrying thing, though, is there may not be a fix as these issues take root. The Bears, of course, have to try everything they can to get it right. But looking at these trends and tendencies, it doesn't seem like changing playcallers will be a panacea for a broken offense.