John Kaufman - Across the Board Sports
What Do We Think About the 2019 Chicago Bears?
After watching the Chicago Bears offense perform versus Green Bay and Denver (and honestly, I’m playing it really fast and loose with the word “perform” here), we think that the Bears offense is, well, offensive. To our eyes. And our stomachs.
What Do We Know?
We know that, miraculously, they are 1-1 after dropping their opener to Green Bay, 10-3, and then beating Denver in week two by a score of 16-14, thanks to the worst roughing the passer call in NFL history. We know that this team should be 0-2.
What Can We Prove?
We can prove that this team is in a lot of trouble on the offensive side of the ball.
So far in 2019, Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky have been atrocious. Nagy’s play-calling has been awful this year. And Mitch simply isn’t progressing at all as a quarterback. He is making the same mistakes that he made as a rookie.
Let’s start this analysis with Nagy so we can see exactly what the issues are.
Last season the Bears went 12-4 and won the NFC North by 3.5 games. They made the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. Of course we all remember how their season ended last year, getting bounced from the playoffs by Philadelphia in the Wildcard round thanks to Cody Parkey’s infamous Double Doink kick. (Incidentally, is Al Michaels just the absolute best, or what?) That was as gut-wrenching a moment for Bears fans as perhaps they’ve ever had to endure. But aside from a massive dose of bad luck, the 2018 season was a successful one for Chicago. And they can thank their head coach for that.
Nagy’s play-calling was outstanding last year. According to Pro Football Reference, the 2018 Bears converted 41% of their third down plays (82/200) which was the 12th-best conversion rate in the NFL. They were great on fourth downs as well; they converted 60% (9/15) of them, good enough for the 11th-best rate in the NFL. They really stood out in the red zone though. Of the 54 plays they ran in the red zone, they scored touchdowns on 36 of them. That’s a scoring rate of 66.7% and was the 6th-best in the league. The 2018 Chicago Bears were excellent on the plays that matter most in the NFL, and we should applaud Nagy for that.
Additionally, Nagy’s play-calling in neutral game scripts and in games in which he had a lead was excellent as well. (He was slightly sub-optimal on first downs in neutral game scripts, however, calling run plays at a rate of 54.4% which was just a touch over the NFL average of 51.1%.) But when the Bears were up by eight points or more last year, Nagy called pass plays on 44.4% of all their plays, which ended up being the 9th-highest rate in the NFL. This is significant because we know that passing is more efficient than running in the NFL. (That’s not new information for you. I don’t care how casual a football fan you are, you already know that passing yards per attempt have always been higher than rushing yards per attempt. This simply means that passing plays gain more yards than rushing plays. But like I said, you already knew that because – dang, human – you sure is smart!! Now me, on the other hand…)
Calling a lot of passing plays in games in which he had a lead of eight points or more shows us that Nagy understands that playing conservatively by running the ball on every down is not a guaranteed recipe for turning a lead into a win. Sure, sometimes killing the clock by running the ball is advantageous. Sometimes it’s the only way to go. But too often we see coaches go into their shells when they have any kind of lead, and what seems to happen all too often? Their conservative approach ends up costing them the game. What’s that old saying? “All the Prevent Defense does is prevent you from winning.” Exactly. Last year, Matt Nagy’s play-calling can only be described as efficient and intelligent, and that directly and positively impacted his team’s win-loss record.
Fast forward to 2019 and there’s only one question we need to ask:
What the hell happened?
According to Pro Football Reference, through their first two games this year the Bears are:
-28th in third down conversions (6/26, or 23.1%)
-9th-worst in fourth down conversions (1/3, or 33.3%; NOTE – seven teams have not attempted to convert a fourth down yet)
-20th in red zone conversions (1/2, or 50%; they have made TWO TRIPS to the red zone in two games! Two! That is last in NFL, by the way)
-28th in score percentage (22.7% on 22 drives and 125 plays; NOTE – this is the percentage of your drives that end in an offensive score)
-18th in plays per drive (they are averaging 5.7)
This is abysmal, obviously. The Bears aren’t doing anything well on offense. Nothing. And it’s Matt Nagy’s fault.
In week one against the Packers, Chicago took a first quarter lead on an Eddie Pineiro field goal. Green Bay answered back with an Aaron Rodgers touchdown to Jimmy Graham in the second quarter. The Packers then iced the game with a Mason Crosby field goal with just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Thus, the game was within one score the entire time.
The Bears ran 65 plays in that game. Matt Nagy called 53 pass plays and only 12 runs.
Dialing up 53 passes in a one-score game is sheer lunacy. Somehow, it gets worse though. So if you haven’t already thrown up in your mouth a little, you may want to look away.
To end the game, Nagy called 33 passes in a row.
(Didn’t make it to the toilet? It’s cool. I’ll wait while you go change your shirt.)
In the 2019 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears traded up from the 87th overall pick to the 73rd overall pick so that they could select Memphis running back, David Montgomery. And then in their four preseason games, they barely played Montgomery at all because they repeatedly said that they liked what they saw of him in practice and that they didn’t want to get him hurt for the games that matter.
And then the Bears opened up their season at home against a very tough divisional opponent. And in a completely winnable one-score game, apparently Matt Nagy had a stroke and forgot that the last sixth months of preparations for his team had been extremely David Montgomery-focused. That’s the only explanation I can fathom for why Nagy called only 12 running plays against the Packers in the entire game. If the actual explanation is not stroke-related, I would love to know it. To be fair to Mr. Nagy, things did improve in week two. Against the Broncos, Nagy called 29 run plays and Trubisky only attempted 22 passes. And the Bears were in control of that game pretty much the entire time. So at least there is something to point to as a possible silver lining.
But if Nagy doesn’t figure out how to transform himself into the 2018 version of his play-calling self, the Bears are toast. I don’t care how good that defense is, if you can’t score in today’s NFL, you can’t win. Period. Schedule-wise, next up for Chicago is at WAS, vs MIN, at OAK, BYE, vs NO, vs LAC, at PHI, vs DET, at LAR. There are four road games in that stretch and two divisional games, so these next eight contests will be monumentally vital. The two NFC North games are almost must-wins at this point having already lost to Green Bay. The Detroit game won’t mean much if they start out 0-2 in the division by losing to both the Packers and the Vikings. They do get to face the Chargers and the Saints at home (without Drew Brees), which will definitely help. The road games at the Eagles and at the Rams are easily the two toughest road games on their entire schedule. Bears fans: by the time that week 11 game vs the Rams goes final you will know exactly what kind of team you have and if Matt Nagy figured out how to call plays again. Sincerely, my fingers are crossed for y’all.
If it feels like, so far, I am placing 100% of the blame for the Bears’ offensive woes on Matt Nagy, I apologize. He’s only responsible for 50% of it. As I mentioned earlier, the other 50% of blame belongs to Mitch Trubisky.
Mitch simply has not progressed at all as a passer from his rookie season to this year. He has not gotten any better at reading defenses. His decision-making has not improved. He hasn’t learned to move through his progressions as he should. If you saw tape of Mitch playing last weekend and also of him playing at some point in his rookie year, but you didn’t know when those games took place, you’d swear that you were watching two games from his rookie season.
But you wouldn’t be. You’d be watching tape of an NFL quarterback who isn’t improving whatsoever. And compared to what we’ve already discussed about Matt Nagy’s play-calling issues, this should be about a billion times more concerning for Bears fans. Last year, Nagy was fantastic as a play-caller. To this point in his career, Trubisky on the other hand, has barely been competent. Nagy can get back what he lost. Mitch most likely never had it in the first place.
Let’s take a gander at some of Mitch’s stats and see if we can figure out where he’s lacking. Mitch has played 28 games in his NFL career – 12 in his rookie year, 14 in 2018, and two so far this year. Here are his stats per season:
2017 – 59.4% complete (196/330), 7 TDs, 7 INTs, 6.1 Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AYA); Rushing – 41-248, 2 TDs
2018 – 66.6% complete (289-434), 24 TDs, 12 INTs, 7.43; Rushing – 68-421, 3 TDs
2019 – 58.3% complete (42-72), 0 TDs, 1 INT; Rushing – 4-19, 0 TDs
The two data points that should stand out to you here are his completion percentage and his AYA. These two metrics go a long way to explain how good a quarterback really is.
Just so we’re all on the same page here, Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AYA) is a metric that turns touchdowns and interceptions into yards and then assigns a numerical value to everything. To paraphrase Josh Hermsmeyer explanation of AYA from his site, AirYards.com: We can think of AYA like we think of fantasy points. We assign point values to the yardage and touchdowns that QBs accrue in fantasy football. AYA is similar to fantasy in that we aim to take stats and turn them into a numbers we can all understand. If I tell you that my fantasy QB scored 24 points last weekend, instantly you know that he had a very good game. AYA does the same thing with NFL QB stats.
Here’s the formula for AYA (from AirYards.com):
I am bringing this up because most of you are probably used to hearing people talk about Quarterback Rating when discussing how good/bad a QB is. Rating is fine to use, but I’m betting you’ve probably never seen the formula used to calculate it. Check out this disgusting thing (also from AirYards.com):
Nauseating, isn’t it? Who would want to deal with that formula? Stephen Hawking, maybe, but that’s probably it. The good news is that we don’t have to deal with that clunky formula because the R-squared between AYA and QB Rating is .92. (R-squared is a statistical measure that shows how good one thing is at predicting another. When the R-squared is high, like it is in our example [.92], we know that AYA is good at predicting/explaining QB Rating, and vice versa.) In other words, we can say that 92% of what QB Rating is telling you can also be explained using AYA. And since the formula for AYA is waaaaaay easier to handle, we like AYA a lot better.
For now, let’s just ignore Trubisky’s rookie season since, well, you know, he was a rookie. Instead let’s focus on his best season (year two) and the two games he’s played so far in 2019.
For reference and also for ease of understanding, I made this handy-dandy chart so that you can compare Trubisky’s AYA to a few key benchmarks in the NFL. The chart shows the AYA of the best team, the worst team, the median team (i.e., the middle number, which in this case is either the 16th or 17th ranked team), and then Trubisky’s AYA. I included 2016 when Mitch was still in college just to have a third year of recent data to display. Last, I included a random season (1995) because even though the NFL was much more run-heavy at that time, AYA hasn’t changed all that much, although there were obviously less pass attempts, passing yards and passing touchdowns in this Neolithic age of the NFL. Anyway, here’s the chart:
Trubisky’s second season was his best by far, both for him personally and for the entire Bears team. I previously mentioned that he led the Bears to a 12-4 record, an NFC North title, and to their first playoff appearance in eight years. People were excited about football again in the city of Chicago, and that hadn’t happened in quite some time. It’s safe to say that, heading into 2019, expectations were high for Mitch and da Bears.
But should they have been? I’m not so sure. Mitch’s AYA in his 2nd year was 7.2, which was 19th in the NFL. And remember, last year was his “breakout year.” It was the best that he’s ever performed. Yet, in his best season his AYA was slightly below average. That’s like having your kid come home and brag to you about a C- she got on her history test. Look, kiddo, that’s nice and all, but that thing ain't goin' up on the fridge. You gotta earn your spot up there, ya know?
Well if Trubisky’s C- AYA from last year didn’t make it onto the fridge, this year’s 4.2 AYA isn't even allowed in the kitchen. Trubisky’s 2019 AYA is 32nd in the NFL, ahead of only Ryan Fitzpatrick’s impossibly low 2.3 AYA. Similarly gross, Trubisky’s completion percentage (58.3%) is 27th in the NFL, his passing yardage total (328) is 28th, and his 0 passing touchdowns are tied for last with Cam Newton. He is, to put it nicely, not doing impressive things this year.
But it’s not just his stats that are poor. It’s his actual play on the field that is most distressing. Previously I spoke about how he isn’t improving year to year as he should, how he isn’t making progress with reading defenses pre- and post-snap, and how he isn’t working through his progressions like you’d expect of a third year QB. Well, these aren’t just wild accusations, my good people. I’m here to prove this to you as well. Next we’re going to take a look at two plays from the week one loss to Green Bay so we can see clear-cut examples of the errors Trubisky is making.
What follows is an analysis of a video posted to YouTube by Brett Kollmann. If you aren’t familiar with his work, PLEASE do yourself a favor and subscribe to his YouTube channel and follow him on Twitter (@BrettKollmann). His videos are tremendously in-depth film studies about various NFL players and teams. His work is insightful and enlightening. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough. Anyway, the photos below are snipped from his YouTube video.
The first play in question occurred on the first play of the second quarter. It was a 3rd and 9 for the Bears on their own 29. The score was 3-0 Chicago. Nagy sent in a play called “988.” This is a West Coast Offense staple and it has been run by many teams for many years.
The routes run by each player are highlighted above. The only two you need to worry about are the 8 route (post route) in yellow which will be run by Cordarrelle Patterson, and the 8 route in blue which will be run by Allen Robinson.
Here’s the concept behind this play:
Patterson is going to run his post route in front of the safety. His goal is to break his route off hard right in front of the safety’s face so that he becomes occupied by Patterson’s route. Patterson is basically a decoy on this route. His job is to pull the safety towards him so that a soft spot in the zone opens up behind where the safety originally lined up.
Robinson will run his post to that soft spot in the zone created by Patterson. The design of this play is such that 90% of the time the throw will go to Robinson. Trubisky’s read is that safety. If he follows Patterson, the ball needs to go to Robinson. If for some reason the safety sits and does not follow Patterson, Mitch should throw the ball to him. Easy.
Instead, here’s what happened:
The Packers were able to generate some pressure on this play, forcing Trubisky to scramble a bit. Trubisky feels the pressure and runs through a hole in the pocket to create some space for himself. And then he makes a disastrous decision. While running to his right he sees Patterson and decides to throw it across his body to Patterson who is running away from him. Yikes.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, as Kollmann astutely points out in his video’s commentary, probably only Aaron Rodgers and Pat Mahomes should ever even attempt this throw because they’re probably the only two QBs in the NFL with the arm strength and athleticism to actually make that throw.
Second, this play is not designed to go to Patterson, remember? He isn’t even the main target on this play. Robinson is.
Third, throwing the ball across your body to the middle of the field while your feet aren’t set is basically the biggest QB no-no of all time. Every quarterback has made this throw at some point in their high school football careers. And every one of those QBs were told by their high school head coach to never do that again. Most listen to their coach, because trying to tackle the gigantic human to whom you just threw that interception is about as fun as it sounds. For Trubisky to make this throw in his third year in the NFL is unforgivable.
Well, to no one’s shock, here is the result of Trubisky’s poor decision:
Trubisky has the red arrow pointing at him. The ball, about to fall gracefully into Packers safety Kevin King’s hands, is circled in red. And the gigantic red box is there to illustrate how much space there is in front of Allen Robinson (he is just to the left of the red rectangle) who, don’t forget, was the primary read on this play. This play was designed to go to Robinson. And he is wide open. Yet Mitch decided to throw it to a Patterson who was:
(a) not the primary read
(b) running away from Mitch
(c) absolutely covered
Again, this throw is inexcusable.
Now, King did actually drop the interception on this play, so Chicago ended up punting the ball on the next play. But that doesn’t really matter. Trubisky was given a play to execute with only one defensive player to read (King), and one primary target (Robinson). Yet he decided to try to complete a pass that most humans simply aren’t capable of doing, and to the wrong receiver, when the primary read was open on the play.
I cannot stress this enough: this is very, very bad on Mitch’s part. This is a layup of a play design and execution, yet Mitch can’t figure it out. In year three. (I am literally shaking my head right now. You could feel that, couldn’t you?)
Okay, let’s go over the second play in our example.
This play occurred in the fourth quarter with 2:08 left in the game. It was a 3rd and 10 for Chicago on Green Bay’s 16. The score was 10-3 Packers. A touchdown here by the Bears would possibly send the game into overtime, although Rodgers would have gotten the ball back with almost two minutes. And we’ve seen him do more with less in his career, that’s for sure. Bottom line though, Chicago must score here to extend this game. Nagy’s play call this time was Gun Trey Left China Y Corner. Here’s what the play looks like:
Robinson is again the primary read here. He is going to run a 7 route (flag route) to the back corner of the end zone. The two outside receivers both run in-routes. The idea behind this play is simple. The outside receiver’s in-route hopefully will occupy the outside cornerback (Tramon Williams) and keep him flat while also dragging him to the middle of the field, even if it’s only a step or two. That cornerback – sometimes called a "hang corner" when he’s in zone coverage because he may not bite on the in-route and instead hang back on the play – is the primary read for Trubisky. If he does hang back, Mitch cannot throw the ball to Robinson. If he does not hang, the ball needs to go to Robinson. On this play, the free safety (Adrian Amos) is in a real bind. Given where his usual alignment is, it will be basically impossible to get to Robinson as he nears the top of this route. So, he is not really a factor on this play. It’s all about that hang corner and how he reacts to this route combination from the Bears.
So, what ends up happening in this play? I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that it didn’t go exactly as Trubisky and Nagy had hoped.
After the snap, Amos and the slot corner immediately focus in on Robinson (blue field-of-vision cones in the pic) and start to bracket-cover (double cover) him. In fact, just before the snap Amos started sliding over to line up more on top of Robinson. Is Amos psychic? Does he get premonitions about what’s to come on the football field?
Nope. He just pays real close attention when the same team runs the same play three times in last twenty minutes.
That's right. In that crucial moment and for all the marbles, Amos and Williams knew what play Chicago was going to run as soon as the Bears lined up. They knew it because they had already seen this play run by the Bears once in the third quarter (4:00 left, 4th and 10 on the GB 34), and a second time in the 4th quarter only eight plays before this one (4:20 left, 1st and 10 on the CHI 49)! Amos and Williams said exactly that in the post-game press conference. They told the media they knew this play was coming and the ball was going to Robinson. So when the Bears lined up for this 3rd and 10 play with 2:08 left in the game, Amos and Williams must have had the hardest time trying to conceal the gigantic smiles that were about to burst onto their faces, because this game was about to be over.
Nagy tried to run the same play three times in just over one quarter of football against an NFL defense with actual NFL players on it. What’s worse is that he didn’t even try to dress the play up a little so they wouldn’t recognize it. One time he flipped the formation to Gun Trey Right, but to no one’s surprise that fooled exactly no one. Nagy is supposed to be an offensive guru. Yet he’s out here calling the same plays so often that the defense knows what’s coming. You can’t get away with that stuff in high school football, and this is the NFL! (Which will stand for “Not For Long” for him if he keeps this up.)
Moving on, let’s see how this play ended.
As you can see from the photo, Robinson (green arrow) is getting squeezed by Amos and Williams (red arrows). They know where Robinson is heading, and they know that Trubisky intends to throw it there. Trubisky isn’t helping matters much because he never takes his eyes off Robinson throughout his entire route. He stares him down the whole way. This is yet another rookie quarterback mistake.
The yellow arrow is highlighting Tarik Cohen. This is the player that Trubisky should have thrown this ball to because when Williams hangs and gets deeper to help cover Robinson, Cohen ends up wide open.
Well, the rest of this play, as they say, is history. Trubisky threw this ball even though he shouldn’t have. And since Amos knew what route Robinson was going to run, he basically ran the route for Robinson and beat him to the ball and made the interception.
Game over. Packers win.
These two plays are a microcosm of Trubisky’s career as an NFL quarterback, and Nagy’s career as a head coach and offensive play-caller: Trubisky can’t diagnose a defense and makes multiple errors that most young QBs simply grow out of, and Nagy is calling 33 pass plays in a row in a one-score game, along with calling the same play three times in just over one quarter of football. The worst part is that these are relatively easy things to fix, yet Chicago’s offense remains broken. Trubisky is in year three, but you absolutely cannot tell that by the way he plays. The errors he makes are egregious and they’re killing his team. Nagy, to his credit, is at least dialing up simple plays with simple reads for his QB. But at some point, a student’s failure has to fall on the teacher, because it is his job to coach up his player and to help him improve. So far, Nagy has failed his student. But Trubisky isn’t helping himself either.
I don’t know if these two can turn things around. I hope they can. Honestly, I do. Who doesn’t love a good comeback story? But I am seriously skeptical about Trubisky and Nagy. And you and I, we’ve put a lot of solid evidence together here which corroborates our skepticism. This does not feel like a tale with a storybook ending. I suppose, however, that I could be wrong. I mean, things could always change for the better. But if I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet on that.
But if you don't believe me just ask Adrian Amos and Tramon Williams. They had the answer long ago.
John Kaufman - Across the Board Sports