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Abandoning the Run

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Washington Redskins v Chicago Bears Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

One of the frustrating things about this season for the Chicago Bears has been the injuries the debates about the quarterback Fox’s clock management the play-calling on the offensive side of the ball. It’s pretty well-established that the Bears have a promising running back in Jordan Howard, yet they are steadfastly one of the most pass-happy teams in the NFL. Why?

I began researching this article because I mentally rolled my eyes at the often-repeated factoid that the Bears are undefeated when running Jordan Howard at least 23 times. I rolled my eyes because while teams that win tend to run the ball more, teams that run the ball more don’t necessarily tend to win. In other words, running more is a symptom of victory not a cause. Teams that are winning have a pronounced tendency to run the ball after they establish a lead, because this takes time off the clock and helps to preserve that lead. The Bears haven’t been doing a lot of winning, after all.

With that in mind, I approached the idea that the Bears are somehow too quick to abandon the run with a lot of skepticism. I thought any movement away from the run would probably explained by the score at the time. However, I like to have evidence to back up any claims that I make, and so I went through the game logs for all fifteen games played so far. I eliminated kneel downs, punts, and kicks—but I kept plays that were called back by various penalties. I wanted a sense of what plays were run and when, and this left me with 934 plays to examine.

On whole, there is a dip in the second half. In the first halves of games, the Bears have had 439 plays, and 39% of them have been runs. By contrast, in the second halves of games, the Bears have had 495 plays, and only 31% of them have been runs. Even in raw numbers, in all first halves the Bears have had 172 runs, whereas in second halves they have had 152 runs. Chicago only ran the ball more as the game went on in four games: Philadelphia, Detroit, Minnesota, and San Francisco. That’s a pretty dramatic result, in that it features all three wins.

The Familiar Narrative

A number of games strongly support the idea that the Bears only abandon the run because they have to. In the first two games of the season, the Bears ran the ball about 42% of the time until they fell behind by 9 points. Against the Texans, this happened in the middle of the fourth quarter and led to a total abandonment of the run. Against the Eagles, it happened at the end of the third and resulted in 3 run plays being called compared to 13 pass plays (those three run plays also netted 3 yards and a fumbled football). Playing against the Cowboys, the Bears ran only 12 times compared to 50 pass plays during the whole game. They also spent virtually the entire game (more than three quarters) down by 10+ points. So far, it seems like the Bears only abandon the run when they are forced to do so by circumstance.

By comparison, against the Lions, the Bears only ran 37% of the time until they established an 8-point lead. As soon as that happened, the Bears flipped the script and ran 60% of the time, grinding down the clock in the second half. With the Vikings, they ran the ball 40% of the time until they established a two-score lead, at which point they dialed up the run enough that from that point on, they were at a 50/50 balance; they followed the same trend against San Francisco, only they were even more skewed toward the run.

Finally, when the Bears visited Green Bay, as long as they were within 3 they were running the ball 46% of the time (for the game, they would average 4.1 yards per carry). After going down by 10, though, they ran the ball exactly one more time with an entire quarter of football to go. Hosting Green Bay was more of the same, in that (excluding the frenzied effort to make something happen at the end of the second half) the Bears ran the ball 40% of the time in the first half. As they fell behind, however, they moved away from the run steadily. The game against Tampa Bay told the same story, with the Bears running 42% of the time through the first half but then (facing a deep hole), the run fell by the wayside.

So far, this is a classic example of the losing team needing to pass to catch up while the winning team runs the ball to hold on. However, it’s more complicated than it seems.

Reason for doubt

The game against the Colts started with what seems to be Loggains’s comfortable level of running the ball, at about 38% of the time. Even when the Bears fell behind, the score stayed close and more than a third of all plays were runs on the way to establishing a Chicago lead; Howard was gaining more than 7 yards per attempt. Then, Cameron Meredith fumbled the ball and the Colts retook the lead. Down by just one score, even though the Bears had the 2-minute warning and two timeouts left, Chicago never returned to the rush. That might be explained by the tightening window at the end of the game, however.

Consider the Jacksonville game. Through the third quarter, the Bears were rushing 37% of the time and they spent most of the game with a lead. Notably, even with this lead in the second half, the Bears did not increase the rate at which they ran the ball (i.e. the clock was not run down as it was in the San Francisco game, for example). Jacksonville only took the lead with 2:58 to go, and it was just a 1-point lead. With 3 timeouts, the two-minute warning, and the running backs averaging 3.5 yards per carry, the Bears never ran it again. If the idea is that a team that is behind should pass more while the team that is ahead should run more, then the Bears violated the second half of that maxim.

The Giants game is also compelling. From the start of the game, through the Bears establishing a lead, all the way to the Bears falling behind by a single score, the Bears maintained a solid run/pass balance (cycling between 40 and 50% of the plays). However, that changed at 13:37 to go in the fourth quarter. At that point, Barth missed a field goal. From that moment forward, the Bears had only a single running play. To be fair, later in the game they had to burn their timeouts to preserve the clock. However, they had two possessions before that point without any real effort to run.

Another interesting note comes from the Tennessee game, when the Bears maintained a 39% run game even while down multiple scores—until Matt Barkley was intercepted in the redzone. Then, and only then, do the Bears essentially abandon the run (5 runs compared to 33 passes with 19 minutes of football left at the start of their next possession).

In the game at Detroit, the Bears were within 3 (or ahead) for the entire game. The only offensive touchdown of the game for the Bears came on a drive that featured four runs and five passes. They ran the ball 45% of the time at first, but then for only 37% of the plays of the second half heading into their final possession. In that final possession, which they started with all three timeouts and (potentially) the two-minute warning, they ran the ball exactly once on the final drive and saved a vital timeout for the locker room.

Implications

The games themselves refute the idea that the run/pass balance is determined by the scoreboard. Too often, the Bears did not dial up the run to solidify a lead, and too often they abandoned the run not at a time when they faced a particular score deficit or a particular game situation, but rather as soon as they faced a particular piece of adversity. This holds true across games featuring all three quarterbacks the Bears started this season.

What I suggest is that while Loggains might try to adhere to the classic idea that a team runs to seal the win or that a team needs to pass in order to catch up, the real trend seems to be that Loggains abandons the run when he gets spooked or worried. If things start going wrong enough, he goes for the pass play. Sometimes, this is falling behind unexpectedly late in the final quarter. Other times, it is an offensive mistake that interjects itself.

However, there is cause for some optimism. In the game against Washington, despite trailing for the entire game, the rushing attack never fell below 35%, and the second half saw two drives with a nearly 50/50 balance. Whether or not Loggains can continue to avoid this sort of skittishness moving forward is another matter.

Unless otherwise noted, all information comes from Pro Football Reference.