Forget intricate play design. Put aside culture change and talent upgrades for a moment. If a football team - let alone one in the NFL - doesn’t take care of possessions, and doesn’t create more by forcing turnovers: it’ll never make noise as a contender. Your roster can be as explosive and deep as possible. Your coach can be a mastermind of the game. If you’re giving the ball away and not making up for it on the strength of a quality field tilting defense, every aspect of your team might as well be hollow in substance.
In understanding how the Bears haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010 season, this is by far the greatest reason. Have a poor turnover differential, enjoy poor results on the field. In other news, water is wet. One of football’s core tenets in turnovers, regardless of roster build and plans, continually failing the franchise. If Matt Nagy is going to lift the organization out of it’s current doldrums into consistent relevancy, this matter of basic discipline is going to have to shift dramatically.
It’s simple math: take the ball away, take care of the ball, and more often than not you win. A sink or swim concept for most of the NFL.
A Smith’s game
There are a number of areas one could nitpick Lovie Smith’s coaching tenure with the Bears. A lack of a consistently reliable offense comes to mind, for one. In terms of turnovers and turnover differential, he had Chicago unmatched across the league during his nine seasons on the lakefront, though. Forcing turnovers and protecting the ball was something Smith ingrained into his core stars like Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher. It was the basis of his ground-and-pound running attacks to keep games generally safe enough and give the Bears chances to win late.
Each of the last two times the Bears have made the postseason and gone on deep runs to at least the NFC Championship Game in 2006 and 2010, Chicago was always on the plus side of turnover marks. From turnover differential (+4 in 2010, +8 in 2006), to takeaways (44 in 2006, 35 in 2010), Smith’s team set a standard for the rest of the NFL to follow.
If not for turnover prone quarterbacks like Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler (who had their own roles to play), the Bears’ numbers along these lines would be astronomically improved as well. Thankfully, Smith’s philosophy was created in such a way that it could overcome and limit an assortment of giveaways. If anything, it was unearthed because he understood that giveaways of your own would be inevitable.
An important thing to keep in mind is that a positive turnover differential and a bunch of takeaways doesn’t automatically guarantee a playoff berth. If you examine the Bears following 2010 until 2013, they were always on the plus side of turnover differential and takeaways. There are other extenuating factors like fortune in close games, stalling offenses, and injuries in play. Football is a game with nuance with multiple reasons for everything that happens. Turnovers were not the lone catalyst of Smith’s demise in Chicago being an excellent point to explain this.
Generally, if an NFL team isn’t in the plus margins of turnovers in any facet: they’re not going to be playing in the second season. That means you need a combination of quality game planning and talent to work in tandem with discipline with the football.
Playing out of their hands
Following Smith’s departure after the 2012 season and the bleed-out effect of Marc Trestman’s first year in 2013, the Bears have been nowhere close to anything positive regarding anything related to turnovers.
In 2014, one of the objective worst seasons in franchise history, the Bears were -5 in turnover differential: boosted by a respectable 24 takeaways. Following that, during John Fox’s three-year run, the Bears were -4 and had 17 takeaways in 2015, -20 with 11 takeaways in 2016 (not by coincidence a 3-13 season), and finished at 0 with 22 takeaways in 2017. Last season was the first time the Bears didn’t have a negative turnover differential since 2013. Baby steps considering where the team has lingered lately.
Now let’s examine how this applied to the 2017 NFL playoff picture and the bar the Bears likely have to reach in 2018 if they have high aspirations.
Nine of last year’s 12 postseason teams in the Chiefs (+15, 26 takeaways), Eagles (+11, 31 takeaways), Jaguars (+10, 33 takeaways), Bills (+9, 25 takeaways), Rams (+7, 28 takeaways), Saints (+7, 25 takeaways), Patriots (+6, 18 takeaways), Vikings (+5, 19 takeaways), and Steelers (+2, 22 takeaways), were in on the plus side of a turnover differential. Only the Panthers (-1, 21 takeaways), Falcons (-2, 16 takeaways), and Titans (-4, 21 takeaways) were in the negative.
On average this would set the turnover differential bar of a 2018 playoff team at +5 and around 25 takeaways. If the Bears want to make a run this year or soon, safely put their needed figures related to turnovers around roughly those marks.
For the purpose of this exercise, we’re ignoring giveaways altogether because that plays more into the team’s overall control. Like Smith had designed, you’re less risk averse when your defense is on it’s toes. That is, if your defense is stronger than your offense. The more takeaways you have, the more you can mitigate mistakes on the other side of the ball and bail the offense out. The more you create chances for the offense to make up for it’s own mistakes when you get the ball back by force.
Takeaways, turnovers, and the future
The question moving forward under Nagy’s hand is how Chicago can build on last season’s small but inherently positive turnover notes.
Because for one, the Bears broke a franchise-record worst for 11 total interceptions in 2016, and just barely eclipsed that mark last year with 12. If their turnover differential is going to slightly improve, a secondary bereft of proven ballhawks that features Prince Amukamara and Adrian Amos (two players with a penchant for not picking off passes), is going to have to step up in a big way. One could make the argument the Bears are already okay if they can maintain their performance from last season. But, there’s plenty of reason to believe 2017 was an anomaly for Kyle Fuller and Amukamara in particular.
Mitchell Trubisky is a quarterback known for being accurate and protective of the ball, so the amount of interceptions he throws likely won’t be egregious enough to sink Chicago. His margin for error becomes smaller in contribution the less the Bears’ secondary gives an assist, though.
And finally, a pass rush marked by a lack of depth and star power sans Leonard Floyd is going to have to give even more rushed opportunities to that back end. Which is a far cry to say it can regularly do until proven otherwise.
All of this boils down to the Bears’ offense fortunately being the main catalyst for playoff rebirth without further evidence. However, in a new and expected high-flying scheme, the potential for mistakes while learning are often overbearing. If the offense is what plays most into Chicago’s turnover differential, they can’t afford any flat tires or duds. Occasional offensive growing pains sink the Bears’ playoff hopes the way they’re currently constructed. On that note, at least the arrow is pointing towards the proper side of the ball.
One can call forcing turnovers and being on the plus side of the differential luck. Go with the cliche “the ball didn’t bounce our way” all you want. That ignores what previous pioneers like Smith often taught: the Bears of the 2000s created their own fortune. They didn’t let the game come to them to take care of the ball and take it away together. They aggressively pursued this endeavor every Sunday, the only way they knew how.
If Nagy’s Bears jump into relevancy, they’ll have to undertake the same simultaneously assertive and patient mantra when it comes to turnovers. Their success and jumping off point as a franchise depends on it.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.