The Bears knew they had quite the headache to contend with in their running back conundrum this off-season. A migraine would be more accurate. Trading Jordan Howard, drafting David Montgomery, and signing Mike Davis was an emblem of leadership at Halas Hall recognizing Chicago’s backfield drink had to be shaken and stirred. (Sorry, James Bond.) A reasonable expectation for this newfangled backfield trio of Montgomery, Davis, and Tarik Cohen is them helping to evolve the Bears offense. They can start by dramatically lifting and shifting one specific rushing aspect alone.
Football Outsiders conducted a comprehensive analysis regarding the prevalence and success of carries from single and multiple-back formations, and how successful NFL teams were in using each in the 2018 season. (For the layman: a single-back carry is defined as any formation where there is only one other player in the backfield aside from the quarterback, and that player takes a rush. A multiple-back carry is where there are at least two other players in the backfield aside from the quarterback, and one of those players takes a rush.)
The workhorse 300-carry back is largely considered obsolete across most of the league. So it makes far more sense to condense any running backs evaluation into carry splits, formations, and their success rates. Last year’s Bears didn’t fare well with either of the formerly mentioned lineups.
On single-back carries, the Bears were 21st in rushing DVOA with a 314-attempt sample size—over 67 percent of their rushes. On multiple-back carries, the Bears were 18th in rushing DVOA with a 51-attempt sample size. Piece both facets together, and they ranked 19th overall. Let’s make the low-hanging fruit assessment: the Bears were mediocre at running the ball no matter how they lined up last year. It seems indictments of that fact can’t stop funneling in.
FO’s Scott Spratt detailed how reliant the Bears were on one back to take them to a middle-of-the-road promised land, and what it might mean for Chicago this fall:
The Bears and Colts increased their reliance on single-back runs by 19 and 18 percent, the most and second-most in football in 2018. As with the Rams the year prior, those strategic shifts followed coaching changes. Matt Nagy and Frank Reich each have ties to Andy Reid, the former as Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City, and the latter as coordinator in Philadelphia for Doug Pederson, who himself coached under Reid for the Chiefs before Nagy did. The Bears, Colts, Eagles, and Chiefs combined for just 113 attempts from two-back formations last season, and they all performed better with their ball-carriers alone in the backfield.
The Bears’ offense is going to have to balance a lot in 2019 given the increased number of competent weapons, on paper. Finding a happy medium with their running backs in Montgomery and Davis, and still properly using the explosive Cohen, poses among the stiffest schematic challenges for Matt Nagy and his staff. That each member of this trio is versatile enough to accomplish any task asked of them is a luxury the Bears haven’t been able to enjoy with their backs in a long time, let alone any of the past few seasons.
The greatest bonus this trio will offer the Bears is that they’ll allow them to be less reliant on single-back rushes—at least when the situation calls for it. No longer do the Bears have to plow ahead with a one-dimensional back and thereby telegraph how their offense will operate when that back has a partner. Aside from each player being able to stand on their legs without any help, any combination of Cohen, Montgomery, and Davis in the backfield should be a treat for Chicago’s coaches. The nightmare for opposing defenses that “Run DMC” presents is implied.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.