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Improvement by the Numbers: The 2015 Chicago Bears

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While the 2015 regular season once more comes to a close with the Bears carrying a losing record, there a lot of signs that Chicago is headed in the right direction, and there are clear indicators about what needs to happen next for Chicago to be successful.

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Standing at my kitchen sink, I can see my television. I can tell you how the Bears are doing based on whether or not this fact is relevant to my football-viewing experience. I usually watch the game sitting on my couch. When I'm excited, I end up standing directly in front of the couch instead of sitting down. However, when I'm disgusted I end up going to the kitchen and doing dishes while keeping an eye on the game.

Last year I had a lot of freshly-washed dishes.

This year was better. I needed to set aside time to get the dishes done, instead of letting it happen as a part of my fandom. I wish the Bears had more wins, but real progress was made in almost every aspect of the game. I hope most Chicago fans agree with me that this year was better, but in case you are not convinced, here are some ways to measure this improvement.

Simple numbers

More wins. While not as many wins as fans would like, the 2015 Bears had a better record than the 2014 version of the same team. True, it was only one more win, but it is still an improvement.

Points. In 2014, the Bears allowed 442 points to be scored on them and only scored 319 in return--€”losing the season, as it were, by 123 points. In 2015, the Bears only allowed 397 points and scored 335 in return. That's still not good, but it's a lot better than they were. In fact, they almost cut the point deficit in half.

Blowouts. The place the last numbers matter most--”and the fact that kept my dishes unattended on a few more Sundays--€”is in blowout losses. In 2014, the Bears had 7 games they lost by 9+ points. In 2015, they only suffered 4 such defeats. At the same time, in 2014 the Bears had exactly one two-score win (versus the Falcons). In 2015, they had another, their 24-point victory over the Rams. It would have been nice to have had a bigger margin in a few of the victories, but after last year these results can only be seen as an improvement.

Penalties. The Bears committed 113 accepted penalties last year, and they earned a total of 137 flags. This year, the total is 99 penalties that counted, with 116 flags thrown against them. They were the 7th cleanest team on a per game basis this year (about 6 accepted penalties per game), compared to 20th last year (over 7 accepted penalties per game).

Analytics

The 2015 Chicago Bears were 18th in Football Outsiders DVOA at the start of the day on Sunday, with the offense ranked 10th and both defense and special teams ranked 25th. In 2014, they were 26th, with the offense ranked 14th, the defense 28th, and special teams 25th. That's improvement everywhere but on special teams, and it suggests that a solid defense-heavy draft and free agency period could do a lot to push this team to more wins.

Cutler. In 2014, Jay Cutler had an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 5.57; that was below the league average of 6.23. In 2015, Jay turned in ANY/A of 6.71, the highest of his career and above the league average (which was 6.32). In fact, it places him 11th among quarterbacks. This is slightly behind the placement he's given by Football Outsiders metrics as of Sunday morning (9th in DYAR and 8th in DVOA as of Sunday morning), but adjustments from the game against the Lions will probably land him in about the same place. Both views end up agreeing with the overall improvement from year to year (2014 saw his DYAR at 16th and his DVOA at 22nd).

The offensive line. Prior to Week 17, Football Outsiders credited the Bears with the 7th-best offensive line for pass protection in 2015, with an adjusted sack rate of 5.4%. They also listed the Bears as having the 9th-best line in run-blocking. Compared to the 2014 Bears (18th and 14th, respectively), it's clear that while fans are concerned about the offensive line, it's not quite as bad as it seems to us. Lester regularly keeps us up to date with one of the best Xs and Os features on the web, so we are probably less surprised about this than we might be. In short, I'm not worried about wherever Long ends up--€”and if I were Pace, I would focus my attention elsewhere in the off-season.

Stopping open field runs. The Bears defense has earned (really earned) a lot of criticism, and the secondary and linebackers are a particular area of concern. However, there is some improvement. The 2015 Bears do not do a good job of stopping the run initially, but at the start of Week 17 Football Outsiders placed them as 5th in the NFL at stopping runs once they break into the open field--€”by neutral measurement instead of fan anguish, the linebackers and the secondary are doing a good job in pursuit and tackling relative to their peers. This is significant improvement, as they were 24th in this category last year. This is, in fact, their highest ranking in this category in over 10 years. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this was the first time in over five years that the San Francisco 49ers fell out of the top ten in that category.

Special teams penalties. The number of special teams penalties were cut in half from a season ago, down to 14 compared to 28. It actually works out to only about 5 fewer yards of special teams penalties per game, but it is still improvement.

Areas of Concern

Defensive Line. The 2015 Bears are still sad against the run, however, earning 32nd place in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards metric (4.55); they are 25th in the Adjusted Sack Rate (5.9%) they achieved. These are actually both steps backward from 2014, when they were 30th in adjusted line yards (4.38) and 22nd in the adjusted sack rate they achieved (6.4%). Yes, there have been injuries, but this is a glaring weakness on the team.

Backup quarterback. The Bears need a plan at backup that isn't "elevated practice squad player," and they need a replacement for when Jay Cutler's not available. I watched most of the Seattle game from my kitchen, and I shudder to think that if when Cutler gets injured again, Fales is the best we can do. Ideally, there would be a young heir in the wings who is developing until he can beat Jay out at camp and then take the Bears forward. At a minimum, Chicago needs someone who can lead a scoring drive and give fans the hope that the team can tread water when the starter goes down.

Turnovers. This year, Chicago was 28th in takeaways per game, and last year the Bears were 21st. That's not turnover margin€--that's just total takeaways. The turnover margin is basically the same as it was last year, moving from -0.3 per game to -0.2 per game (23rd and 21st overall). This year they managed 17 takeaways to 21 giveaways and last year it was 24 takeaways and 29 giveaways. The problem is not as one-dimensional as thinking that the offense turns the ball over too often--€”the problem is also that the defense takes the ball away too rarely.

Overall

The Bears are better. In the first year of rebuilding a depleted roster, Pace has been able to give John Fox enough to work with that the games have been competitive. Cutler and the offensive have been doing enough to bolster a defense that still desperately needs to rediscover its identity. Special teams need work. This team needs play-makers and depth, but they are on their way to becoming a much better unit, overall, and with the potentially softer schedule ahead of them, there's plenty of reason to hope that the Bears are headed in the right direction.