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Fact or Fiction: The Bears Had to Pass More in 2016

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
This is what the Bears’ offense should look like.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears had a Pro Bowl running back in Jordan Howard this year. More than that, they had a running back who was fourth in the league in yards per attempt and third in the league in yards per game. However, they also had an offensive coordinator who shied away from the run. One possible justification for Loggains’ play-calling was that he didn’t have the chance to run Howard more simply because the Bears spent too much time playing from behind. I dealt with that argument a little bit here. However, at that time I promised a deeper look at the patterns, and here is my first attempt at just that. Before digging into actual plays however, I wanted to get a sense of what was happening across the league.

Across the NFL in 2016, teams elected to run the ball on first down about 50% of time, with this rate dropping to only 41% of second-down plays. For those who are concerned that one year is too small of a sample size, I went ahead and looked at a 3-year average (2014-2016) and found that the rates were 51% and 41%, respectively. Across 96 “offensive NFL seasons,” that’s some real consistency. This is especially true when third down is considered, where both the single-season and three-year average saw runs only 20% of the time. Finally, while 2016 saw runs on 37% of fourth-down plays, the average across all three years falls to 34%.

How about the Loggains Offense of Bears? They rushed at a rate of 49% on first down and 41% of the time on second down. That is more or less on track with the rest of the NFL. However, on third down they only ran the ball on 15% of plays. On fourth down, they only ran the ball 29% of the time. That’s a pretty dramatic dip. In each case, the Bears ran the ball only three-quarters as often as their average NFL peer.

In fact, it’s dramatic enough that it’s time to look for an explanation. One easy answer is that the Bears weren’t moving the ball on first and second downs well, and so that forced Loggains to call for more passing plays on third down.

We need to consider distance. Conventional wisdom holds that teams facing longer distances need to pass more on later downs, and so this should be reflected in the stats. With 10+ yards to go, teams across the last three years have tended to rush 43% of the time (42% in 2016); this makes sense, because many of those situations will be on first down, as teams try to whittle away what they need on the next couple of plays by running. This is part of how they “stay on schedule.”

By contrast, NFL teams rushed 53% of the time when faced with 3 yards or fewer to go (across three years or just in 2016—take your pick). Again, this makes sense-teams pound the rock, move the chains, and stay on schedule. Thus, it shouldn’t be too surprising that teams needing 4 to 6 yards rush only 35% of the time (34% in 2016) while teams needing 7 to 9 yards rush only 28% of the time (27% in 2016). So far, the trends in the NFL “fit” and they show some pretty good consistency when putting last season into context with general trends. Teams mix it up and are more likely to run early, but then they tilt more toward the passing game when they need to pick up the longer distances.

What about the Chicago Bears? Looking to distance instead of down, we see a pattern similar to what we saw earlier. They matched the general trend in the NFL pretty well with 10+ yards to go with running plays 41% of the time, and they loved dialing up the run on short-yardage situations (59% of the time). However, it’s in the middle ranges that things get interesting. If the team needed 4 to 6 yards, they ran it 36% of the time. Perfectly respectable. A hair above average, but not to a degree worth more than a comment.

However, if the Chicago Bears needed 7 to 9 yards they only ran the ball 20% of the time (remember, the average across the league was 27% in 2016 and 28% across the last three years). In other words, the Bears abandoned the run. Facing third down? Pass! Facing a long conversion? Pass! In both cases, it wasn’t just that the Bears followed what would be conventional wisdom. Instead, the 2016 Bears (with three different quarterbacks including a person who joined the team with a 43.7 passer rating) went to extremes to avoid the run in tight situations. The Bears actually faced “long” distances short of ten yards (plays requiring 7 to 9 yards in order to earn a first down) only 12.5% of the time. That is functionally the same as the 13% rate faced by all NFL teams in 2016.

None of this suggests a team that is committed to the run, nor does it suggest a team that pursues a balance in its offense. It suggests a team that uses the passing game as a crutch, despite having a collective passer rating for the year of 81.8.

Verdict: Fiction. The Bears were not forced to pass by circumstance. They adopted a pass-happy mentality independent of what was called for by the situation.

Next week, I’m going to break down the tendencies by which quarterback was playing and compare all three to the Adam Gase offense of 2015, as well as try to spotlight a couple of places where pass plays killed drives.

As usual, most stats are from Pro Football Reference. Comparisons to other running backs are from Sporting Charts.