The Bears are building an offensive identity centered around running the ball.
The Bears? Coached by Matt Nagy? Running the ball?
Yep. That’s exactly what’s happening.
Nagy, the coach who apparently told a FOX broadcast crew in 2019 he wasn’t hired to run the I-formation, is committing to the run. Nagy, who infamously said “I’m not an idiot,” when asked about needing to run the ball more last year, is running the ball more this year.
It’s not just that Nagy’s calling runs to check a box and quickly get back to throwing the ball 50 times a game. The Bears are running with purpose, building off those plays and establishing a true identity on offense – something they fell woefully short of doing in 2019.
“I think it just creates rhythm for our offense and it’s nice to have an identity,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We know what we can lean on, and that’s our run game and our O-line up front creating holes and establishing the line of scrimmage.”
What that chart shows is the Bears, in situations where a run or a pass is not obvious, are running the ball more than any team in the NFL through two weeks.
Those are the plays where an offense establishes what it wants to be. And the Bears’ commitment to the run is, first and foremost, the product of Nagy’s own self-scouting in the offseason with an emphasis on how he can tailor his offense to the players he has.
“We were able to have very honest, frank conversations as a whole staff, but that always comes because of the leader,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “He's going to set the tone for how the staff room works and how the staff works. And he's a very humble person. He's very willing just in general evaluate himself.”
Credit should be given here, too, to offensive line coach Juan Castillo – who was hired, in part, to help devise a run scheme Nagy could trust.
“Coach Juan’s scheme that he has for us is going to work wonders for us,” running back Tarik Cohen said back in August.
So far, it has.
Here’s a striking way in which Nagy’s shift has played out. He’s called consecutive running plays for David Montgomery 13 times through two games in 2020; through six games in 2019, he’d called consecutive runs for Montgomery just 21 times.
And Montgomery is really good on consecutive carries – he’s picked up 74 yards on them this year, good for an average of 5.7 yards per attempt. It massively helps the offensive line, too – the interior of which (James Daniels, Cody Whitehair, Germain Ifedi) is playing at a high level. With those guys getting great push up the middle, Montgomery has more lanes to run through and more opportunities to do what he does best: Turn a four-or-five-yard carry into seven or eight yards.
“It’s nice to lean on that and it’s something we feel comfortable with,” Trubisky said. “So we’re just going to keep getting better and keep going with it.”
And again: This isn’t just Nagy calling run plays without any purpose. About one in every three of Trubisky’s passes have been off play action; last year, only one in five of his attempts came using play action.
And! Trubisky is more effective on play action this year:
Building a good play-action attack off running the ball will help Trubisky and the Bears’ offense as defenses counter-scheme against Montgomery and the run game.
This is not all to say the Bears’ offense is some well-oiled machine. It’s not. They didn’t score a single point in the second half against the New York Giants on Sunday, and it took three quarters for them to find the end zone against the Detroit Lions in Week 1.
And will this run-oriented identity last more than a couple games?
I tend to think it will. It’s important to note this is the offense the Bears installed during training camp. Last year’s offense – centered around throwing the ball with three receivers on the field – is not what Nagy installed in 2020. It’s unlikely the Bears go back to that unless injuries dictate it.
“I felt like last year, because of certain reasons, I felt like we were very predictable, and we made it easier on defenses last year,” Nagy said. “I feel like this year, throughout the course of the season, I hope that that’s not the case.”
And there are other encouraging signs for the longevity of the Bears’ run-game identity. Nagy appears to have spent his whole offseason fitting an offense to the players he has, not fitting the players he has into his offense. Montgomery looks awfully good, as do Daniels/Whitehair/Ifedi. Trubisky’s having a decent amount of success on play action.
Nagy, too, has seemingly changed his coaching DNA. Maybe he wasn’t hired to run the I-formation. But he was hired to win.
And the offensive identity the Bears are building? He can win with it.