The best kept secret about Matt Nagy’s pending “Spread Coast” offense is just that: a secret. Even with the practices held at Halas Hall this spring that have offered an early work-in-progress glimpse, no one knows what to expect out of Nagy’s attack except Nagy himself. The players and coaching staff are piecing together what their scheme should look like and are learning the intricacies on the fly. Quite literally everyone is new to the playbook and it’s demands. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Nagy is likely still tinkering what he expects from Mitchell Trubisky and company. An offense that features so many contrasting West Coast and spread concepts is naturally an offense that needs experimentation and trial and error.
Before the offense is able to attain this experience in game action, we can mostly accurately glean what Nagy plans to design for the Bears based off of his two years as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator from 2016 to 2017. While Nagy didn’t take over play calling duties until the final stretch of the 2017 season, he had a heavy amount of influence on Kansas City’s tendencies. That’s in the form of strength and weaknesses emphasis.
Nagy’s input with mentor and offensive guru Andy Reid at the helm helped evolve formerly known game manager Alex Smith into a generally apt playmaking quarterback downfield. It helped turn Travis Kelce into an All-Pro tight end. It helped transform Tyreek Hill into one of the NFL’s elite game breakers. This was based on a focus of what the Chiefs’ offensive roster did best, getting the football into their hands in the most optimal positions, and continually hammering that point forward with efficiency.
Let’s examine specific aspects of what Nagy focused on with Smith and his peers, specifically in 2017 where he took on more responsibility with Kansas City, and what that means for Trubisky and a fiery Chicago supporting cast.
Warren Sharp, who does great work with Sharp Football Stats, provided these baselines and tracking numbers.
In 2017, the Chiefs ran a total of 1,038 offensive plays. They passed the ball 59 percent of the time (617 attempts) and ran the ball 41 percent of the time (421 carries). That’s a ratio that’s carried on throughout Reid’s career in any offense he’s overseen.
Given Nagy’s extensive work with Reid in Philadelphia and Kansas City since 2008, this a number that should manifest in Chicago. A six to four overall run-pass ratio with the passing weapons the Bears now have offensively such as Allen Robinson is the easiest bet to make. Trubisky is going to throw the ball early, often, and with consistent regularity.
Yards after catch vs. yards in air
It almost goes without saying, but sometimes a quarterback’s pass targets need to do some of the work on their own once they have the ball. The defenders they leave lying in their wake in turn are counted towards a passer’s statistics. So, we have to examine how often a receiver is making his quarterback look better in this aspect, and how often the quarterback is delivering strikes to a spot without any following work from the receiver.
Last year, Smith was 18th in the NFL with another 60 to 40 percent ratio in terms of yards in the air, and yards after the catch, respectively. He completed 53 percent of his passes in the air, but had an emphasis of guys like Kelce and Hill making defenders look silly in the open field. An effective offense does necessitate a good balance like this. In Chicago, it’s about Trubisky being able to create yards on his own when the occasion arises.
With the notoriously shifty Taylor Gabriel and aggressive Anthony Miller joining Tarik Cohen, something says the instances where Trubisky is asked to do the elite heavy lifting will only come at a moderate rate. For posterity’s sake, Trubisky was at 49 percent air yards, and 51 percent yards after the catch in his 12 rookie starts. Those numbers need to flip, and dramatically. Expect this figure to also hover around 60 percent in favor of air yards to 40 percent for yards after the catch for the Bears: a solid step up.
Passes short of the first down marker
The caveat here is that Nagy, nor any coach, can control the final decision their quarterback makes. Coaches can scheme a quarterback’s pass targets past first down markers, a receiver has to run his route past or close to that first down marker, but ultimately the quarterback is the one that pulls the trigger.
This is something that Nagy, try as he might, could not change in a 34-year-old quarterback like Smith. Throughout Smith’s lengthy career with the 49ers and Chiefs, he’s been known to be uber-conservative as a passer, rarely taking risks. He’s a quality decision maker that rarely turns the ball over. A major part of that, though, is that he hasn’t always taken shots, and doesn’t test the defense as much as he should on field-tilting plays like third downs. He’s careful to a fault.
Smith had 155 passes in situations where the Chiefs needed to convert in 2017. 49 of them were short of the sticks. 60 percent of his passes in these situations in terms of actual completion percentage were short of the sticks: 21st in the NFL. Not ideal when you’re seeking an offense that keeps defenses on their toes.
This is a facet that Nagy undoubtedly is centering on helping Trubisky improve in (as much as he can), as the Bears’ quarterback had 66 percent of his passes, with completion rate factored in, go short of the sticks: 32nd in the NFL. When push came to shove, the Bears did not test defenders in clutch moments. You can’t be a good offense if you can’t stay on the field and throw to or past the sticks. A dynamic of the Bears’ scheme that should be a mainstay moving forward.
Tendencies and play rate on different downs
Every NFL offense has preferences and their bread and butter of what works most optimally in different offensive situations. The Chiefs shook out well with excellent balance under Nagy’s watch, and understood what fit each barometer.
First down (476 plays)
Run-pass ratio: 46 percent pass, 54 percent rush
Most frequent play (individual player): Kareem Hunt rush
Most successful play: Kareem Hunt rush
Second down (340 plays)
Run-pass ratio: 60 percent pass, 40 percent rush
Most frequent play (individual player): Kareem Hunt rush
Most successful play: Tyreek Hill pass
Third down (211 plays)
Run-pass ratio: 77 percent pass, 23 percent rush
Most frequent play (individual player): Travis Kelce pass
Most successful play: Travis Kelce pass
Fourth down (11 plays)
Run-pass ratio: 67 percent pass, 33 percent rush
Most frequent play (individual player): Multiple players, pass
Most successful play: Multiple players, pass
The 2017 Bears turned themselves into a meme with their famed run-run-pass ratio across first through third down. Based on the evidence that’s clear as day from Nagy’s time with the Chiefs, he understands the importance of mixing it up every now and then. Furthermore, he probably prefers to throw it even more than an old school football mind would like. Though, that’s the nature of the game today: short passes to get receivers in pass space have become many coordinators’ “short runs” instead.
The easiest conclusion to draw from what players and plays the Chiefs chose in individual situations is this: Hunt is obviously Jordan Howard, though I would venture to guess Cohen will get a solid amount of shots on early downs in tandem. Allen Robinson is Kelce on third down when the Bears need a conversion. And any variety of Cohen, Gabriel, and Miller can be Hill on deep shots to stretch defenses. Since we’re not sure who exactly is the Bears’ Hill (in terms of role, not a comparison of caliber), we can see that as coming from this trio until there’s clarity.
How an offense chooses to line up and attain an advantage over a defense by creating matchup issues is one of, if not the most crucial aspect of designing a game plan. The 2017 Chiefs had tremendous variety in how they lined up and were able to make defenses prepare for all types of looks. (Not included is any formation that was used only once and or not at all.)
11 Personnel (Three wide receivers, one tight end, no fullback): 54 percent (534 plays)
12 Personnel (Two wide receivers, two tight ends): 24 percent (239 plays)
21 Personnel (Two wide receivers, one running back, one fullback, one tight end): Six percent (59 plays)
22 Personnel (Two tight ends, two running backs): Six percent (59 plays)
By having a bevy of explosive talent such as Kelce and Hill, the Chiefs preached consistent versatility from their offensive players. Fortunately, with current projections, Nagy’s Bears should have even more flexibility to previously execute what Nagy liked to implement.
11 personnel is paramount with a bright receiving corps that features Robinson, Gabriel, and Miller. For many teams, this is a base offensive formation in 2018, so expect the Bears to rarely come out of it.
12 personnel, often called “Ace”, is a formation that makes sure to utilize tight ends. Given the addition of Trey Burton and status of Adam Shaheen, both are to factor in heavily for Chicago when they use this formation. This is how you set the edge in the run game offensively and get leverage on defenders. That goes especially in the red zone.
When it comes to 21 personnel, this is more about being able to have stellar blocking receivers deployed (Robinson and Miller are known for their proficiency), and having a talent like Burton line up in the backfield with Howard (or Cohen). The primary tight end in turn is likely to become Shaheen in this scenario. Most often this is a red zone formation for NFL coaches, and one that Nagy himself favors.
Finally, with 22 personnel, it’s about going heavy and preparing to anchor in the trenches. While some old school attacks like Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers used this formation everywhere and anywhere, regardless of situation: this also maintains a red zone emphasis, but with more play action. Here’s where Nagy can really have fun by having Burton, Shaheen, Howard, and Cohen on the field at the same time. There’s a reason the Bears pursued and paid Burton so handsomely in March.
While they won’t use this squad together more than rarely, it’s a joyful utilization that should see the Bears frustrate defenses that won’t know who gets the ball at any moment.
Overall, hints of how Nagy’s offense shakes out has been written on the wall in intensive detail in the form of the Chiefs’ recent attack.
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.