For all the hype surrounding the Chicago Bears’ “thunder and lightning” running back tandem of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen in 2017, the offense as a whole was still dreadful, finishing 29th in the league in points (264), 30th in yards (4599), and dead last in passing yards (2811). It was evident week in and week out that the team’s offense was out-mentored, out-coached, and worst of all, out-manned. As Howard admitted himself, “Everyone knew what we were going to do, and they knew what was coming, like, pretty much every play, so it was easy for them to stop us,” indicating problems in the organization from top to bottom.
A New Head Coach
From the start, Chicago’s mission this off-season was to remedy its floundering attack. The process began in January when the Bears hired former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy and former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich to replace John Fox and Dowell Loggains as the team’s head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively. Although Fox and Loggains were seemingly well-liked by Bears’ players, the decision came down to leadership and scheme. The offense — and team as a whole — needed a new sense of direction, having been the seventh-most penalized team in the NFL this season, drawing 7.19 flags per game.
More significantly; however, the Bears seemed to be looking to move to a spread offense similar to the one Nagy ran in Kansas City, replete with quick play-action passing, combination routes, pre-snap motion, and option plays. This worked out exceptionally well for the Chiefs, as it afforded supreme athletes like WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce constant opportunities to get the ball in space.
Accordingly, production was enhanced all around: quarterback Alex Smith, despite his reputation of risk-aversion, led the NFL in adjusted completion percentage on deep passes, per Pro Football Focus. The offense as a whole finished top five in points per play (0.42).
That is not to say that the Bears’ offense in 2017 was entirely foreign to that of the Chiefs. For instance, Loggains employed large amounts of pre-snap motion, which helped rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky distinguish between man and zone coverages. However, as Howard pointed out, predictability was a glaring issue. Many of the Bears’ plays were pre-determined (e.g. if Tarik Cohen was flexed out before the snap, chances are, he would be the primary read). Another problem was the heavy reliance on methodically developing isolation routes. Such an offense can sometimes be effective against pure man coverages that allow for one-to-one matchups with a top target.
However, against zone concepts — which many teams are gravitating towards — it is significantly more effective to run combinations of crossing or diverging routes, as they can pull defenders out of position and leave men wide open. This is something that younger coaches like Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams and Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers have been quick to exploit. And could be why the Bears were so quick to gravitate towards Nagy.
Essentially, as Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit explained back in 2015, “This approach [of isolation routes] is fine… as long as your receivers win one-on-one.” However, with the receiving corps that the Bears fielded last season, “winning one-on-one” was much easier said than done. Even considering how much quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Mike Glennon struggled, the Bear’s wide receiver play last season was historically poor.
Kendall Wright, the Bears’ leading wideout, finished with just 614 yards on the season. Wright was the first — and only — player on the team to record a 100-yard receiving game in his 107-yard, Week 14 effort against the Cincinnati Bengals. Furthermore, no wide receiver finished the season with more than one touchdown. As much of a problem as coaching was, it was exacerbated by the more nefarious underlying issue of a weak receiving corps. That concern; however, was addressed earlier this week as free agency began.
Free Agent Frenzy
Even with Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins signing extensions well before hitting the market, this year’s free agent wide receiver class was exceptional. Headlined by deep threats Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, and Paul Richardson, this spread of talent was the perfect opportunity for the Bears to act with vigilance and pick up a foundational piece to resuscitate their offense.
At first, the Bears were not considered contenders to land any of the three “big fish.” In an NFL.com piece from earlier in March, writer Matt Harmon predicted Robinson’s top five landing spots, and omitted the Bears in favor of teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens. This was understandable, considering that the Bears future consists of a quarterback-head coach pairing that, while promising, is unproven and far from guaranteed to be successful. Particularly after Mitchell Trubisky’s tumultuous rookie season.
Ultimately, though, the Bears made a valiant pitch for both Watkins and Robinson, eventually managing to land the latter to a three-year, $42 million contract while staving off competing offers from both the San Francisco 49ers and the rival Green Bay Packers. In Robinson, the Bears get a big (6’2, 220 lbs), handsy jump ball receiver who is only just entering the prime of his career. For the Bears, who missed their top two big-body targets this past season in Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, landing Robinson should bring a world of help, primarily in situational play.
Last season, the Bears finished with a third-down conversion percentage of just 34.6 (26th in the NFL). Considering that eight of last year’s 12 playoff teams finished in the top ten in third-down conversion percentage, the Bears’ poor performance could have ended up far more pernicious had it gone unaddressed, especially since these woes had much to do with personnel deficiencies. After veteran tight end Zach Miller went down with a horrific knee injury, Trubisky was forced to turn to wide receivers Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman to move the sticks, each of whom carried his own set of challenges.
Wright, now 28, tended to struggle with his burst off the line, and was rarely able to win at the catch point without using his body due to his minute stature (5’10). Inman, meanwhile, was more explosive, and attacked the ball out of breaks, but was often unable to hold on to contested passes. With Robinson, though, much of that is remedied. While Robinson is not a burner, he wins off the line and runs crafty routes in the vertical stem. Furthermore, he has extremely strong hands, allowing him to make catches in traffic, something that should also enhance the Bears’ offense in the red zone.
After Robinson agreed to terms, a cavalcade of other various offensive weapons followed. First, tight end Trey Burton, previously of the Philadelphia Eagles. Although his 2017 production is nothing to write home about (248 yards, 5 touchdowns), this signing is a pure play on upside. Having run a 4.62 40-yard time at the Combine, Burton offers a speedier option behind the hulking second-year tight end Adam Shaheen. Considering that Trubisky thrived on quick-hitting passes to short and intermediate crossers in college, Burton could provide a reliable option for the young quarterback, and may further improve situational play. Seeing that the Eagles finished eighth in third down conversion (41.7%), the presence of Burton over the middle could end up more impactful that raw stats would suggest.
The last signing of the day was wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who came into his own in 2016 for the Atlanta Falcons with 579 yards, six receiving touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown. With the Falcons, Gabriel became a “gadget player” of sorts, serving many different roles. Aside from being a speedster with the ability to take the top off the defense, he also showed off blistering quickness, such as when he broke Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback Malcolm Butler’s ankles on a long reception in Super Bowl LI. With his combination of vertical speed, shiftiness, and agility, Gabriel was routinely manufactured touches in space, whether it be on shallow crossers, screens, or even end-arounds, in order to spark the Falcons’ offense.
Although Gabriel’s production regressed after then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took the 49ers’ head coaching job, under Nagy, Gabriel should play a similar role to the one played by Tyreek Hill back in Kansas City. The move should cause his production and impact to rise once again.
All in all, this entire off-season for the Bears has been full of high-risk, high-reward moves. Nagy was hired based on his upside as a creative schemer, particularly after taking over calling plays late in the season, despite an embarrassing second-half offensive collapse against the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card Round. Robinson was a risk on two fronts. Although his play was otherworldly in 2015 (1400 yards, 14 touchdowns), he regressed mightily in 2016, and tore his ACL in the first game of this past season. Gabriel and Burton, meanwhile, were given hefty contracts based purely on potential (up to $28 million and $32 million over four years, respectively).
Even with the risk taken into account, the Bears’ efforts must be commended. They are invoking elements of numerous successful roster building formulas. For starters, they are focusing on creating mismatches. By pairing Gabriel with Tarik Cohen, the Bears have a two-headed monster of speed and quickness to brutalize linebackers over the middle. This is only enhanced by Trey Burton, whose combination of relative speed and sure hands will only further create chaos on crossing routes and up the seam, and could make the Bears deadly on third downs. This is eerily reminiscent of the New England Patriots’ formula to success, as they have routinely exploited quickness mismatches to create open men for quarterback Tom Brady.
Assuming Robinson stays healthy, the Bear’s offense now looks extremely similar to those of the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans, both of which have incubated tremendous success in young quarterbacks. Robinson serves as both a sure-handed third-down and red-zone option and a dangerous vertical jump-ball threat, which parallels the roles served by Alshon Jeffery and DeAndre Hopkins on the Eagles and Texans, respectively.
This affords Trubisky both a vital security blanket and a dangerous home-run hitter. Meanwhile, alongside Robinson, the Bears will also have two explosive complements in Taylor Gabriel and Cameron Meredith, who should serve the roles played by Nelson Agholor of the Eagles and Will Fuller V of the Texans. Considering that part of what made Agholor so dangerous last season was the development of his strong hands and catch radius, if Gabriel is able to revert back to his level of play in 2016, when he went the entire regular season without a drop, he could have some sneaky red zone value to go along with the rest of his skill set.
Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect the Bears to follow in the footsteps of the Eagles and Patriots and waltz into a Super Bowl. When all is said and done, Robinson and Meredith could both fail to stay healthy. Nagy and Helfrich could end up way over their heads in unfamiliar positions, and Burton’s large contract could end up weighing the organization down. However; all things considered, it’s hard not to have optimism for a team modernizing its offense and building off of a proven blueprint to success. Especially one used by both of last year’s conference champions.