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Why Chicago’s Quarterbacks Struggled in 2016

NFL: Chicago Bears-Minicamp
Not pictured—the real answer on third down
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I took a second look at how the 2016 Chicago Bears used the running game on offense and tried to figure out why the passing game was leaned on so heavily despite the revolving door at quarterback and the wide receiver struggles. Because I had previously questioned whether or not the Bears were abandoning the run because of the scoreboard, I wanted to look at a few other trends.

As I noted elsewhere, the Bears converted only 37.8% of their third-down attempts in 2016, placing them 21st in the NFL. Additionally, despite facing a sub-82 passer rating from their quarterback collective, the Bears also only ran the ball on third down 15% of the time when the league average across the last three years was 20%. Finally, the Bears only ran the ball when facing 7 to 9 yards to go about 20% of the time, whereas the NFL as a whole did so 27% of the time.

It’s time to look at how play-calling worked with individual quarterbacks. Note that because I am looking at play-calling, for this analysis I am including plays that were called back due to penalties and I am including sack totals in with passing plays. This will cause my totals to be slightly different than official totals.

The Brian Hoyer-led offense was by far the most pass-happy, with 54 passing plays and 2 running plays on third down while facing an average distance to go of 7.75 yards. 34% of these third down plays resulted in a first down or touchdown, and one of those was a third-and-1 converted by Paul Lasike. A lot of the “unsuccessful” passing plays were short completions that did not achieve a first down and gave the appearance of movement without really threatening the other team.

Finding the middle ground was the Jay Cutler offense, with 60 third down attempts witnessing 8 running plays (at about 13%) with an average distance to go of 7.2 yards. 35% of these third downs attempts were successful, including 6 of the 8 runs. This is the best conversion rate for rushing attempts seen alongside any of the starting quarterbacks, and it matches up pretty well with a similar bump in success on second-down runs as well.

When Matt Barkley was in, the offense faced 65 third downs and needed an average of 7.42 yards each time. Running plays came up more than 18% of the time, and a total of 45% of these ground-based third down attempts were successful. Strangely, even when the Bears were within a score of winning or were actually ahead, the running game was not used in a balanced way to take the pressure off of Barkley, despite the unreliability of his receiving corps at points.

Jordan Howard, personally, was asked to rush 16 times on third down across all three quarterbacks and faced an average distance to go of 6.13 yards; he converted just over 56% of the time. Meanwhile, Paul Lasike and Jeremy Langford were called on to rush on third down six times together and converted 5 of them, but their average distance needed was only 1.16 yards.

Before digging too deep, it’s worth noting that not all quarterbacks faced the same quality of defense, and that there’s a lot of nuance I cannot possibly hope to break down just with numbers. However, there are some key observations that are worth making before looking at a few specific plays.

First, the offense was more successful as the run was leaned on more heavily on third downs, but this was not reflected in the play-calling. The Bears converted on 44% of their 3rd-and-short attempts when passing and 80% of their 3rd-and-short attempts when running. Despite this, there were 27 pass attempts and 15 rushing attempts in this situation. Rushing attempts on third down under Cutler were by far the most successful (75%), but they were fairly reliable no matter who was in at quarterback. This chance to provide the quarterback with additional security was largely overlooked, however.

Second, once the ball crossed midfield, the Bears only ran the ball on 10 of 102 second and third downs put together, and half of those were when they needed only 2 or fewer yards. Functionally, with both Cutler and Hoyer in at quarterback, play-calling past midfield tended to disregard the Bears most consistent and reliable weapon on offense. Only with Barkley under center did the team begin to move toward the run-pass balance shown by the average NFL team, and even then the run was seldom used aggressively. This predictability put all three starting quarterbacks in a position where defenses could more readily anticipate what they would do on the most critical downs in a given drive.

While any one play can be analyzed to the point of absurdity, a couple of plays stand out. Starting with Hoyer, in the game against the Colts the game was still in reach in the fourth quarter (the Bears were down 13 to 19) and the Bears faced 3rd-and-5 from the Colts’ 6-yard line. Howard was averaging more than 7 yards per attempt against the 30th-best rushing defense team in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per attempt. Instead of running Howard, a pass play fell incomplete and the Bears settled for a field goal when a touchdown would have put them ahead.

Against the Packers and trailing by 3, Matt Barkley had the Bears at Green Bay’s 4-yard line and the Packers were out of timeouts. Howard was averaging more than 5 yards per run and the Bears had two timeouts left. Instead of a run, an incomplete pass stopped the clock for Green Bay, and Chicago settled for a tying field goal. The Packers won with a field goal and 3 seconds left. Even if the rushing attempt had failed, it would have eaten clock.

Finally, at least three times in the Tampa Bay game, out of four 3rd-and-short opportunities, the offense only ran the ball once. Even Cutler’s defenders should admit that #6 was struggling in that game, but instead of taking the pressure off of him, the call was consistently to move away from what was working.

The play-calling was not the only reason for struggles by the quarterbacks, and each player has to own his performance, but it’s telling that the same trend emerges across multiple qbs, suggesting that it’s not about the players.

This will be the last article on this subject in a while from me, mostly because I feel like I’m beating a dead horse. However, I hope I have now dealt with most of the excuses that have been offered for the run-pass balance the Bears displayed last year. I hope to have appeased the curiosity of those who wanted a deeper dig. For now, I an firmly convinced that none of the quarterbacks were given a fair chance last year. Until something changes in terms of offensive strategy, any quarterback for the Bears is likely to struggle.

All stats (or at least the raw data) come from the wonderful Pro Football Reference.