The Bears' offense isn't exactly lighting the world on fire (that'd be the defense), but overall it's hard to complain about a group that is playing well enough to have helped the team to a 7-1 record. Brandon Marshall is on pace to break pretty much every Bears' receiving record, Matt Forte is averaging five yards a carry, and Cutler is having a career average year (the difference between his quarterback rating last year and this year is .4, and only .7 off of his 2008 Pro Bowl season).
But for this edition of Point-Counterpoint, Kev and I are going to discuss the rest of the offensive skill position players, and whether or not we're worried about their production heading into the second half of the regular season.
Kev: I'll be honest, I'm not that worried about the lack of production outside of the Cutler, Forte, and Marshall trio. First things first - I'll exclude Cutler entirely, since I'm perfectly content with his production right now, and can't ask for another quarterback to also be producing.
Let's take a look at the average yards per reception of the top Bears' receivers: Marshall 13.5, Forte 9.0, Earl Bennett 11.1, Alshon Jeffrey 13.1, Devin Hester 13.5, and Kellen Davis 14.4 (!!!). What we're seeing is that while they're not getting the ball as often (which can be Cutler's fault - he can be pretty myopic at times), when they are producing, they're holding their own. Also, this shows that if Davis would actually catch the ball when it's thrown to him, he'd probably be doing all right.
With regards to the rushing game, I'd be inclined to fall back on blaming the play-calling a bit. Both running backs have been fairly consistent, and we've discussed before on the site how Bush's numbers can be skewed. When he's consistently getting goal-to-go or 3rd-and-short carries, it's harder to put up monster yards. What's worrying you so much about them?
TJ: The addition of Marshall gives the Bears the "big 3" every offense would like to have: proven guys at QB, RB and WR, but the rest of the offensive skill players have had such a minimal impact on this first half of the season that it concerns me going forward. The Bears know they can count on the big 3, but at some point someone else is going to have to step up when one of them struggles. So far, they are not.
Yards per reception is a fine stat, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Davis has ten catches this year, so his YPR is great for a tight end, but he's only getting about one catch a game, and only catches 47.6% of the balls thrown his way. Minimally impactful, he is. Bennett and Jeffrey have missed a combined five games this year, and they haven't provided much support to the offense when they've played. Bennett only catches half the balls thrown his way (16 receptions, 32 targets). Jeffrey has the second-best catch rate on the team (61%), but is still a rookie coming back from injury, so we don't know what we'll get from him upon his return.
And Hester's complaints about his limited involvement in the offense got him increased attention in all of one game. He has less catches than Bennett and Jeffrey despite playing every game, and has dropped three of the 23 balls thrown his way. Hester's catch rate: 56.5%. The Houston Texans' 2-3-4 receivers/tight ends have catch rates of 66, 63, and 67 percent, respectively. The Lions' trio of Brandon Pettigrew (65%), Titus Young (65%), and Nate Burleson (62%) are all better then Hester, Jeffrey, and Bennett. So, yeah, I'm concerned, because if one of the Bears' big 3 struggles, there isn't anyone to pick up the slack. And I haven't even discussed Michael Bush yet.
Kev: I guess we need to define what we're looking for with regards to production then. Stats are objective markers that can be used to prove subjective points, in part because they're incredibly situation-based. I can't necessarily fault the Bears' offense for not having gaudy numbers because frankly, they haven't been in that many situations where they need to force it.
I'm in the unique position of having to defend and articulate a point when I know that, inherently, the stats are against me. However, when I look around the league right now, it's hard for me to be that concerned about the Bears only having a few cylinders firing on offense right now.
I liked what I saw from Jeffrey early in the season, and I do think that when he comes back, we'll see a marked change in the offense. I think his absence has affected how the games have been called, and I really think it's play-calling that's forcing us to have this conversation.
For example, when we see the Bears in first and goal inside the five, and we inexplicably see three pass plays. If Bush gets those short yardage attempts and drives his average down, do we mind if he gets the touchdown? No, we don't. So I'm not inclined to only focus on individuals stats as long as the system is working. And overall, it is. How do I know this? Third downs and time of possession.
The Bears third down conversion percentage is up nearly eight points from last year, and they're on pace to have more third downs than last year. Is that good? Of course it is. More third downs means more drives and more sustained drives. And, the Bears are fourth in the league in time of possession, so something must be working.
If the offense would cut down on the offensive line issues (penalties and sacks) and Cutler would stop holding the ball forever, this team would be clicking. Against the Texans, they'll either take the next step, or get exposed. Either way, it should lead to growth as a team, and that's the big key as we're looking at what could be a very special season.
TJ: And I'm not saying the offense is struggling, merely that I'm worried about the lack of production by the "other guys." Jeffrey is the key going forward; he's Marshall-lite, and gives us the second big receiver option that Kellen Davis will never, ever, consistently be. Bennett's production should improve, but so far he and Cutler are not on the same page, and the offense needs him to get those first downs when Marshall's triple-covered.
I mentioned this in the comments section for Gilbert's "Offense too one-dimensional" article, but I think it proves my concerns about the offense are valid: Marshall accounts for 37% of all passing game targets, the highest target rate of any receiver this century. Teams will force the Bears' away from Marshall, meaning the rest of the gang need to step up.
Your points about Michael Bush make sense, and while I feel like his production is more akin to what we saw from previous well-paid veteran backs (i.e. not good), I'll leave that argument for another day (look at Advanced NFL Stats to compare him to other running backs this season). With Wade Phillips spouting off about double-covering Marshall the whole game (I don't believe that son-of-Bum, not completely), teams know that they have to be ready for Forte, and for Cutler-to-Marshall, but in order for the offense to win some of these tough games going forward, they'll need a little help from their (offensive) friends.