Throughout the early months of Nagy 202, much of the conversation around the Bears’ offensive growth has been framed in terms of personnel. Mike Davis and David Montgomery will be the pass-catching backs that Nagy’s system needs. The wide receiver room is six, seven guys deep. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton give the Bears that elusive edge in heavy sets.
If roster-structuring was the earthquake that got every NFL team's attention, the use of new-age analytics are the aftershock tremors. In 2019, there’s nothing inventive about surrounding a first-contract QB with skill position talent. The Rams did it and became a juggernaut overnight. The Eagles did it and won a Super Bowl. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy have followed suit in Chicago, and impressively so. What remains to be seen is how much the Bears have invested in taking it one step further, like other teams – Philadelphia being a prime example – have already done.
To be clear, Nagy and the Bears aren’t kicking kids off his lawn. He is, after all, a disciple of Andy Reid and Doug Pederson - both widely lauded for being on the forefront of the analytic movement. The key for Nagy is finding the right balance. He pointed to situational football - end of halves and games, going for it on 4th down - as places where the numbers can be advantage.
“Yeah, there is a weight to it,” Nagy said before Wednesday’s practice. “I’m kind of a feel person in regards to calling plays, and how I think that something’s going.
“So there’s a balance there. Everyone’s a little bit different, but I am certainly a feel guy.”
One of the poster boys of the analytics movement has been reevaluating how to handle 4th-and-short situations. Per Warren Sharp’s site Sharp Stats, here are the league-wide numbers on offensive plays run on 4th and short (anything between 1-3 yards):
2018: 188 Runs/196 Passes
2017: 153 Runs/146 Passes
2016: 150 Runs/ 170 Passes
For some more context, the Bears ranked 20th in 4th down attempts (15) in 2018. The Eagles (23) ranked 2nd, while the Rams also had 15. Nine of the Bears’ attempts were in short yardage scenarios, and came with mixed results. On one hand, they ranked 18th in 4th down passing success (67%). On the other, they were 2-2 on 4th-and-short runs. (Insert small sample size caveat, etc). And despite much of the on-paper numbers telling the Bears to go for it more often, in-game situations (like weather conditions, for example) dictate much of the decision making.
“It’s just another feel thing,” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “I don’t think it’s something that’s like, ‘hey, on the first 4th-and-3, no matter where we’re at, we’re going for it.’ I think it’s a feel thing. In the game, how your defense is playing, where you’re at on the field, how your quarterback is throwing, how your run game is going. Stuff like that. All that plays into it.”
The analytics movement, as it regards to quarterback play, has been a hot-button topic with Bears fans for a few years now. Sites like Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, and Sharp Stats see Mitch Trubisky as a 2nd overall pick who, in Year 3, still struggles with deep ball inaccuracies, forcing throws, and decision making. Fans see a Pro Bowl quarterback who’s become a vocal and beloved leader, not to mention one that led the Bears to 12 wins and an NFC North title. To them, stats like QBR, DVOA, or Passer Rating are just talking points. The Bears tend to agree.
“I see value in how your coaches evaluate you, everyone’s different,” Daniel said. “... You definitely see it. I mean, anything over 90 is pretty good. You definitely see it, but it’s not something you pay that much attention to. You can see it and go, ‘yeah, cool,’ or ‘woah, that was bad, but we won so who cares.’”
Trubisky’s deep ball has been one of the most scrutinized aspects of his game since being drafted in 2017. The analytics – this time from Pro Football Focus – say it’s a mixed bag:
Deep Left: 10/25, 337 Yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 97.5 Passer Rating
Deep Center: 4/15, 132 Yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 46.4 Passer Rating
Deep Right: 13/33, 408 Yards, 4 TDs, 3 INT, 88.1 Passer Rating
NFL’s Next Gen Stats paint a less rosy picture. DVOA puts Trubisky in the middle of the pack. Given the wide variety of answers, you can start to better understand why the Bears prefer to stick to their own internal evaluations.
“Never, [those stats] have never once come up [in meetings,” Daniel added. “It’s about protecting the football and getting the win.”