The Bears have a problem at running back. The problem is not from the ability to run the ball with their primary back. Jordan Howard seems to have that covered, barring a major regression in his sophomore campaign. Rather, the problem is in pass-catching. The Bears’ backs are bad at it. How bad?
A nice summary can be found in Football Outsiders’ “receiving plus-minus” rate, which is defined as follows:
Receiving plus-minus estimates how many catches a receiver caught compared to what an average receiver would have caught, given the location of those targets. It does not consider targets listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion." Player performance is compared to a historical baseline of how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether it is on the left, middle, or right side of the field. Note that plus-minus is not scaled to a player's target total.
So, how do the Bears’ backs hold up compared to their league counterparts? Horribly. Of 50 ranked backs, Jeremy Langford was 43rd (and was below replacement rate in both adjusted receiving and adjusted catch rate). This is actually an improvement relative to 2015, when he was the worst running back in the league in both of those categories. Unfortunately, this time the worst in the league was Jordan Howard, who was just bad in that category (his adjusted catch rate was nearly 20% worse than replacement, which is pretty much where Langford was at least year).
Sporting Charts does things differently and tracks catchable balls and drops; Howard was the worst running back with at least 20 targets last year when it came to that statistic (14%). The year before, it was Jeremy Langford (about 17%). The two players together are decidedly limited when it comes to catching. In fact, of the 54 Bears running back seasons listed in the Pro Football Reference database with at least 20 targets, Howard’s 2016 campaign was 49th and Langford’s 2015 season was 53rd (note that this data only includes from the 1992 season forward). Langford’s 2015 season was an improvement, but it was still a middle-of-the road 25th.
This does mean that there might be some merit to the idea that a running back can learn to catch better. However, there is a difference between “regressing to the mean” and actually becoming an offensive weapon. Last year, in discussing Langford’s limitations, the idea was floated that Matt Forte needed to develop in this skill early in his career, but that is patently false. Forte’s 83% and 79% catch rates from his first two years in the NFL would have made him the most reliable receiving threat the Bears had last year, save for Daniel Brown (who in six games was targeted 20 times and essentially tied this rate).
It might be tempting to suggest that because the problems were suffered by a leading running back for the Bears both years, then it was really the quarterback who was at fault. However, the Bears had such a range of quarterbacks over this time (and 2015 Forte showed no real problems), that it is likely an issue with the players themselves.
Perhaps this is what Ryan Pace was thinking when he was drafted
Chicken Salad Human Joystick Backflip Specialist Tarik Cohen. The difficulty here is that Cohen might be fine at catching passes, but he is unlikely to represent the sort of dual-threat weapon that forces defenses to adjust in the same way that a more versatile player does.
Whoever quarterbacks for the Bears, the team is going to need flexibility that just isn’t there yet.