It’s one thing for your driver’s ed teacher to tell you something, but another thing for you to try it yourself. He could tell you “check your mirrors before you back out of your driveway” and you may or may not think it’s necessary. It’s another thing for you to actually try something and see if you agree that it’s necessary. So you try it yourself. You back out of the driveway without checking your mirrors…. run right over your mailbox. From that point on, chances are you’ll check your mirrors.
But that lesson wasn’t so easily imprinted on the Chicago Bears.
When they saw good offenses around the NFL (with or without experienced quarterbacks) having a lot of success passing the ball on 1st down, they could have taken the initiative and tried it themselves. But they didn’t. They wanted to see just how much running they could do on 1st down and *maybe* they would be the team who could get it to work.
They ignored their drivers ed teacher. Fine.
But even after trying it themselves, and seeing how miserable their performance was when running on first down, they didn’t smarten up.
They just kept running over that mailbox every time they backed out of the driveway.
Chicago’s Problem: Too Much First Down Rushing in the First Half
The 2017 Chicago Bears were the most run-heavy team on 1st down in the first half last year. And it cost them dearly. How much? This much:
The Bears gained 3.7 YPC on rushes instead of 9.9 YPA on passes. They were well below average when running the ball, but well above average when passing it. They had a better success rate as well (53% when passing vs 41% when rushing).
Yet they ran the ball more often than any other team in the NFL!
There were only two NFL quarterbacks to throw at least 100 first half passes and fewer than two interceptions on those passes.
Alex Smith and Mitchell Trubisky. That’s it.
Yet the Bears treated Trubisky as if he was a newborn that needed constant coddling and couldn’t be throwing too often for fear of something bad happening. And while Trubisky was protecting the football and being as efficient as possible with a bad receiving corps, the run game was staying predictable and highly inefficient.
This first down reluctance to pass and predictably poor rushing efficiency had dire consequences. The Bears faced the furthest distance to go in the NFL on second down, with an average of 9.3 yards to go.
Take this analogy: Elementary schools know that children are the most focused and have longer attention spans in the morning. This is why teachers jam so much curriculum into those key morning hours, and why school starts early and ends early. Imagine knowing those parameters, and opening up a brand new elementary school that started at 10:30am, released at 5pm, and devoted the final 4 hours of the day (after lunch) to primary curriculum.
That school would see horrific returns on student performance, and rightfully so. It was doomed from the start.
But that is what the Bears were doing with Trubisky. They thought they were helping him by not putting too much of the 1st down offense on his shoulders. The reality is, they were hurting him by putting him into far too predictable situations on 2nd and long or 3rd and long.
In Kansas City, the Chiefs were the antithesis of a John Fox / Dowell Loggains offense. They were one of the most pass-heavy teams in the first half.
The Chiefs passed the ball 55% of the time on first downs in the first half. The Chiefs were the 3rd most pass-heavy team in the NFL last year. When they passed the ball, they produced a 59% success rate, the 4th best in the NFL. Their run plays produced a 38% success rate, the 4th worst in the NFL.
So not only did KC pass the ball last year because it was optimal based on league-wide trends, they did a lot of what was their most successful decision from their own roster strengths and weaknesses. What a novel idea.
Expect more passing from the Nagy’s Bears on first and 10 early in games, and expect to see more efficiency for the Bears offense.
Chicago’s Problem: Not Enough 12 Personnel
The Bears were bad with their personnel usage in 2017, and that is putting it mildly. The Bears threw 58% of their passes out of 11 personnel, a below-average rate. These passes were terrible. Trubisky was successful on just 35% with 5.6 YPA.
His best grouping to pass out of was 12 personnel. 12 personnel adds an extra tight end on the field, which can act as a route runner or a pass protector. From 12, Trubisky recorded a 50% success rate with 9.6 YPA.
But the Bears passed out of 12 at the league average (15% of attempts). They instead opted to use way more 21 than league average. They aligned in 21 on 23% of pass plays, well above the league average of 5%. These plays delivered a 42% success rate and 7.2 YPA. But the worst part about 21 was that nearly 50% of the time they were in 21 they passed the ball to their RBs. And these telegraphed plays were terrible: they produced a 21% success rate and 3.4 YPA. That’s not 3.4 yards per carry, that’s yards per attempt.
When Nagy took over play calling in Kansas City, he used 12 personnel on 24% of their pass plays. The Bears are prepared for a lot of two-tight end sets by pairing Trey Burton with 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen.
Considering Trubisky’s highest rookie-year efficiency marks came in 12, and considering Nagy used it much more in KC than the NFL average and the Bears just acquired Burton in 2018 Free Agency, it’s safe to assume that Trubisky will be seeing a lot more of his favorite personnel grouping called for him to throw out of in 2018.
Chicago’s Problem: Not Enough Shotgun
Last year’s Bears used an even 50:50 split between shotgun and under-center plays. (The league average is 58% shotgun.) The play calling from shotgun was far worse than could be desired, and the offense was highly inefficient from shotgun.
While it could be argued that it was a good thing they didn’t use more shotgun because Trubisky struggled in shotgun, I would argue that they should have revamped the play calling when in shotgun.
The 2017 Bears were far too predictable based on where Trubisky lined up. Under center, they went 76% run, the fifth-highest rate in the league. In the ‘gun, Chicago called 84% pass, the NFL’s ninth-highest rate.
When trailing in the second half and in the shotgun, the Bears went 93% pass, fifth highest in football and nearly 10% over league average. These passes produced a 34% success rate and 5.1 YPA, and due to the high level of predictability, a high INT rate (1 TD to 5 INTs).
Additionally, they completely ignored the efficiency gain from Jordan Howard in shotgun. Under center, Howard dipped to 4.0 YPC with 43% success. On shotgun runs, Howard averaged 6.4 yards per carry with a 52% success rate the past two years.
Trubisky after he played 98% of his snaps in shotgun at North Carolina. He’s very comfortable with it. And that’s a perfect match for Matt Nagy
Nagy’s 2017 Chiefs ran shotgun on 72% of plays, far above Chicago’s 50:50 split. And they weren’t nearly as predictable. In shotgun, Kansas City went 73% pass, well below NFL average (79%). So while the Chiefs went shotgun and passed frequently from that formation, they used tendencies that required defenses to honor the run more than average. (The stone-age 2017 Bears took an opposite approach.)
When Alex Smith was passing, 86% of his snaps came from shotgun last year. His efficiency in shotgun was tremendous, with a 51% success rate, 8.1 YPA and a 109 rating.
Shotgun formations will help Jordan Howard. Last year’s Bears also faced the NFL’s fifth-most difficult schedule of run defenses. (In fantasy, Howard still finished RB10.). I project an easier run-defense schedule this year. And with an improved passing game, Howard’s overall efficiency should improve.
Chicago’s Problem: Not Enough Passing to the Middle of the Field
A fascinating element of Mitchell Trubisky’s rookie campaign was his dominance on throws in the middle of the field but extreme struggles to the left and right. (Review passing-cone vizzes to the right and directional-passer rating viz below.) On all downs when targeting the middle of the field, Trubisky’s 105 rating ranked 7th best among 32 qualified quarterbacks, and his Success Rate (61%) ranked 2nd best. On early downs only, Trubisky’s 114 rating ranked third of 32 with a league-best 69% Success Rate.
On all other passes, however, Trubisky ranked 39th in rating (64) and dead last in Success Rate (34%). On all downs throwing to the left and right, Trubisky’s 71 rating ranked 35th, and he finished dead last in Success Rate (34%). While Trubisky’s receivers were admittedly bad, Trubisky’s passer rating remained 34% when targeting tight ends and backs.
So what did the Fox/Loggains combo dial up? Despite Trubisky’s efficiency on early downs, leading the league in success rate, the Bears only targeted the short middle of the field on 17% of their attempts.
The middle of the field is the most efficient area of the field to target, and that especially holds true for Trubisky. But most of his 2017 throws were still to the outside.
I expect Nagy to dial up more routes were easy or more primary reads will be to the short middle of the field, to take advantage of this efficiency edge. The last 2 years, Alex Smith averaged 7.5 YPA with a 63% success rate over the short middle, nearly 1 full yard per attempt better than to either the short left or short right.
Non-Coaching Factors that will Increase Efficiency
Coaching is massive in the NFL. I just outlined a number of things the Bears could have done with the same personnel but different coaching, and they would have seen tremendous improvement in efficiency.
But they don’t have the same personnel. They upgraded at every receiving position. They completely overhauled their receiving corps.
The Bears signed Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. Anthony Miller was drafted in the second round to man the slot. At tight end, Burton now teams with Shaheen. Nagy spoke at OTAs of how second-year RB/WR Tarik Cohen makes him “giddy” and compared Cohen to Tyreek Hill.
And lastly, you have the standard year-2 jump for a prior-year rookie QB.
Predicted Improvement from Trubisky
In 2012-2016, eight quarterbacks were drafted in the top-15 picks. From production and efficiency standpoints, we’ve seen these baby-faced rookies enter their second full offseasons, put on their first pair of Reebok Pumps, and dunk on the league. 7-of-8 quarterbacks drafted in the top 15 improved rather than regressed, and most translated that improvement into W-L jumps for their teams. Robert Griffin III – ruined by knee injuries – was the only quarterback drafted in the top 15 to not improve in his second year. Only Andrew Luck had a winning record as a rookie. But six of the remaining seven went .500 or better as sophomores. The seven non-RG3 quarterbacks produced a combined record of 37-59 (39%) as rookies, then 63-44 (59%) in year two.
Modern football is driven by passing offenses, which are driven by quarterbacks. So it makes sense that that these teams’ primary means of improvement came from quarterback improvement. Collectively, as rookies the eight quarterbacks drafted with top-15 picks in 2012-2016 combined for:
- 59% completions, 6.8 YPA, 108:94 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 78 rating.
As sophomores, the improved to:
- 60% completions, 7.2 YPA, 197:85 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 91 rating.
No sophomore slumps. Just a bunch of sophomore jumps.
Last year, Jared Goff moved from 55% completions with a 5.3 YPA and 64 rating to 62% completions, 8.0 YPA, and 101 rating. Carson Wentz improved his TD-to-INT ratio from 16:14 to 33:7, upping his YPA from 6.2 to 7.5 and his rating from 79 to 102. Two years ago, Jameis Winston’s rating, completion rate, and TD rate all improved and his team went from 6-10 to 9-7 in Winston’s second season. That same year, Marcus Mariota’s Titans went from 3-9 to 8-7 in his starts, and his passer rating improved from 92 to 96, promulgated by better TD-to-INT rates.
In Blake Bortles’ second year (2015), Bortles improved his TD-to-INT ratio from 11:17 to 35:18, his YPA from 6.1 to 7.3, and his rating from 70 to 88. Andrew Luck improved his rookie completion rate from 54% to 60% and his passer rating from 77 to 87.
All Systems GO in Chicago
There is no doubt with all of the coaching improvements, personnel improvements and typical QB growth from year one to year two that we will see a virtual offensive efficiency explosion in Chicago. I wish they didn’t play in arguably the most competitive division in the NFL, and I wish they didn’t such an overall difficult schedule. But for the reasons described above, there is no doubt in my mind the 2018 Bears are in a far better position to succeed. And I’m excited to watch the growth.
Check out the 2018 Football Preview book now at Amazon or in PDF to see more ways for the Bears to improve their efficiency, dive into my outlook for their 2018 season, and to check out the player Evan Silva thinks has the best fantasy outlook in 2018.
“There are so many preseason NFL previews available that offer fans insight into the season, however, few dig as deep as Warren Sharp’s Football Preview, with a unique view of what really matters during the season. Sharp’s detailed approach is a must read for any football fan–and it’s one of my main summer reads.”– Michael Lombardi, 3-time Super Bowl Champion, working with Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh & Al Davis
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