Most people know the Chiefs’ offense is good. Many people think of Andy Reid as one of the best offensive minds in football. At this point, most Bears’ fans know that when Matt Nagy took over play calling from Reid, the Chiefs’ offense improved.
By improved I mean it was heroically resuscitated from a mid-season collapse, improving in all important categories, especially points per game. The Chiefs averaged 25 points per game in the first 11 games, 12 points per game during the 3 week slump, and 30 points per game in the 5 games after Nagy took over play-calling in week 13.
The purpose of this article is to go a little deeper into the numbers and see what specifics might be encouraging for the Bears. I made a half-hearted attempt to look for discouraging numbers without success. I’ll leave that to one of the less optimistic WCG contributors. My Bear colored glasses have grown into big heart-shaped glasses-straws that I am eagerly drinking Bear-aid through at the moment, and I’m unable to see any cracks in the paint.
2017 Chiefs receivers were the openest in the NFL
According to the NFL’s NextGenStats, Chief receivers had a league leading 3.59 yards of separation at the time a throw was released. That’s over 10 feet of separation and it was ahead of the next team (Seattle Seahawks) by .48 yards. The distance between the Chiefs and #2 (1 ft 5 1⁄4 inches) is greater than the distance between the 2nd place Seahawks’ 3.11 yards and the 30th place Lions’ 2.67 yards. It’s rare to see one team dominate any stat by that much.
What does this stat mean? It means the receivers were open, and while it doesn’t clarify whether this is because of scheme, receiver talent, or quarterback decision-making, I argue the biggest factor has to be play-calling and scheme. I’d be more worried about the impact receiver talent if the Chief’s fastest receiver, Tyreek Hill, was a huge outlier. But Hill’s average separation was 3.5 yards, just below the Chief’s average, well below Albert Wilson’s at 4.1 yards, and above Travis Kelce’s 2.9 yards. If you do think this is all on Wilson’s ability to get open, it’s worth noting he’s set to be a free agent, and I think he would be a good grab.
Could this stat be affected by quarterback decision making? You could argue that a quarterback who was unwilling to throw a contested catch and only comfortable throwing to a wide open receiver would bias this stat favorably. But you’d expect such a quarterback to have overall poor production (Smith had over 4000 yards in 15 games) and take a high number of sacks (the Chiefs offense allowed a very average 37 sacks).
For comparison, the 2017 Bears had 2.83 yards of separation, ranking 25th in the league. On many occasions this season, we saw the potential for Mitchell Trubisky to thrive when throwing to open receivers. Trubisky is a very accurate quarterback in the sense that his good throws are right where they need to be and he can hit an open receiver in stride. This gives players like Tarik Cohen the chance to maintain their momentum after the catch and work their magic in space. More Bears being more open should mean a lot more completions and a lot more YAC for the 2018 Bears.
Alex Smith’s 2017 advanced stats impress in three important areas
Pro Football Focus released their advanced “signature” stats for all 2017 quarterbacks this week, and Alex Smith was top three in three crucial areas.
Number one, he led the league in passer rating on deep balls with an incredible 131.4 (nearly 20 points above #2 Matthew Stafford’s 111.6). Before Alex Smith met Matt Nagy—and to be fair, for a while after he met him—he was known as someone who was pathologically averse to throwing deep balls. This changed over time in Kansas City and was most obvious this year with Smith pushing the ball more aggressively than ever, leading the Chiefs to rank 3rd in the league in passing plays greater than 40 yards (14).
The narrative around this change has been that drafting Patrick Mahomes “lit a fire under” Smith. This may very well have been a factor, but it would be silly to assume that Nagy—Alex Smith’s QB coach/offensive coordinator for the past 5 years—had nothing to do with it. Whether Nagy was instrumental in fostering Smith’s deep ball skill or was just able to capitalize on it, this still bodes well for the Bears. Rookie quarterback Mitchell “Mister Biscuit” Trubisky ranked 4th in deep ball passer rating with 108.1.
Number two, Smith was 2nd in the league in “adjusted completion percentage” with 78.6%. While Smith’s unadjusted percentage of 67.5% was similarly impressive, I think PFF’s adjustments—which remove throw-aways, dropped balls, and batted passes—provide a better metric. This number is especially impressive when considering the above average number of deep shots Smith was taking, and is likely in part due to the level of separation the receivers/scheme was providing. Trubisky did not perform well in this area on average, but showed his ceiling to be right up with Smiths. He had several weeks where he was among the league’s best, and (in part thanks to limited pass attempts) pitched a perfect 100% in the Week 13 Pretty Boy Bowl against the 49ers.
Finally, Smith had the 3rd lowest percentage of “turnover-worthy throws” in the league with only 2.1%. This PFF metric attempts to isolate the quarterback’s role in interceptions, counting bad throws that a butter-fingered defender fails to capitalize on against the quarterback and forgiving QBs for random plays where a receiver deflects a good pass into a defender’s hands. The downside of this metric is that it adds some subjectivity compared to looking at raw turnover numbers, but I believe this is outweighed by the benefits. This stat was also one of Trubisky’s strengths, coming in 14th in the league with 3.1%—an impressive accomplishment for any rookie, especially one forced to make his hay on so many 3rd and long desperation attempts.
Smith career splits show that Nagy (or at least Kansas City) was able to get the best out of his last QB
The similarities between Smith and Trubisky have been mentioned before, and the above three specific shared strengths are just an example. Seeing Nagy get the best out of Smith speaks favorably toward Nagy’s ability to get the best out of the Biscuit.
Alex Smith was drafted in 2005, and struggled early with the 49ers, but found success at the end of his time there. Smith reached the NFC championship game in his last full season with the 49ers before an injury and a supercharged Colin Kaepernick cut his time short.
Smith came to Kansas City at the same time as Matt Nagy, and Nagy would be his QB coach for three years before becoming his offensive coordinator for the last two. It’s a shame so much changed in Smith’s setting at the same time he and Nagy were introduced because it makes it harder to know how much of Smith’s transformation was due to Nagy (and how much was due to Reid, the weather in Kansas City, or the difference in uniform colors). Nevertheless, Nagy is at least partially responsible for Smith’s growth, and it’s encouraging to know that he did, in fact, blossom under Nagy’s tutelage.
To spare him embarrassment, I won’t post the stats for Smiths rookie or sophomore seasons here, but is definitely necessary to exclude them from any fair analysis. For the most fair comparison, I decided to compare Smiths best four years in San Francisco (also his last four) to his best four years in Kansas City (also his last four, only omitting his first year transitioning to a new system).
The results below are undeniable improvement across the board.
Completion % - SF 62.1% KC 66%
Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt - SF 5.9 KC 6.67
TD to INT ratio - SF 1.9 KC 3.0
Passer Rating - SF 89.6 KC 96.2
QBR - SF 51.7 KC 57.9
A good quarterback should improve over time. Right now, the Bears have a talented young rock-lobber who I believe is a good quarterback, and they desperately need him to improve over time. It wasn’t clear that would happen under John Fox and Dowell Loggains. Under Matt Nagy and Andy Reid, Alex Smith’s improvement was impressive and culminated in a terrific 2017 season. I, for one, will sleep so much better at night knowing the development of the Bears’ precious franchise pigskin-chucker is in the hands of Matt Nagy.