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Bears down: Debunking theory of significant regression in 2020

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Many have soured on the Bears as of late, so let’s take a look at some data and realistic outcomes that could refute those doubts.

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Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears have taken a pounding from national media pundits in recent weeks.

Ever since the 2020 draft concluded, analysts have begun predicting how NFL teams will fare in the upcoming season, and few of them have been all that kind to Chicago. From being deemed to have no chance to win the NFC North to being considered the second-worst team in the league, essentially all negative bases have been reached within the month of May.

There were several national media analysts who predicted the Bears’ regression in 2019, despite numerous fans still predicting at least a playoff appearance, if not a second consecutive year atop the NFC North. To their credit, they did foresee many of the things that went wrong for the Bears last season. Mitchell Trubisky failed to make the leap in his third year, the offensive firepower was generally lacking, and the defense failed to replicate its incredible turnover production from the year before, as strong as the unit was in 2019.

Those concerns seemed reasonable, both in the moment and in retrospect. Nobody predicted the Bears’ woes at tight end, and few were able to forecast the extent of the regression they faced along the offensive line. However, despite Trubisky’s improvements in 2018, he was still wildly inconsistent, and those encouraging flashes were few and far between in 2019. As a result, the passing attack was lackluster.

The Bears’ defense had 28 interceptions in 2018—the most by a team since the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense in 2013—as well as six defensive touchdowns, which is an extremely high bar to match two years in a row. The unit was still one of the league’s stronger defenses, but they predictably were unable to put up the same numbers they did in 2018, leaving more responsibility to their offense, which they proved incapable of handling all that well.

And who knows? The national media could end up being right about the Bears yet again. However, this year’s narrative seems to be much more flawed than the argument that was brought up leading into last season. The team is not without its concerns, sure, but given the talent they have on paper, it’s hard to imagine them actually performing like the divisional basement dweller some see them being.

To help provide some context that refutes these claims, let’s break down into sections some of the most popular theories as to why the Bears will experience further regression in 2020, and analyze how these could end up being false when all is said and done.

Theory 1: They have no quarterback

Let’s get this out of the way first: the Bears definitely have a less-than-ideal situation at the quarterback position.

Mitchell Trubisky is what he is at this point, and what he is is not their franchise quarterback. They brought in Nick Foles to compete for the starting quarterback position, which is admittedly not the flashiest option they could have brought in. Bringing in a Cam Newton or even an Andy Dalton would have likely brought more upside for the 2020 season. That said, the upside that the Bears have is definitely hindered by not having premier talent at the most important position in football.

However, what many seem to forget is that the Bears managed to finish with an 8-8 record despite, well, underwhelming quarterback play. Trubisky was objectively among the worst starting quarterbacks in the league in 2019, and somehow, someway, Chicago avoided falling below .500. It’s hard to imagine their offense getting that much worse to the most they collapse and fall to four or five wins, simply because you can’t really get much worse than the product they put forth last year.

Trubisky finished 10th in the league with a bad throw percentage of 18.4 percent, despite finishing 29th in air yards per completion, according to Pro Football Reference. While big names like Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes both finished with similar bad throw percentages to Trubisky, both placed in the top 10 in air yards per completion. This essentially means that Trubisky had easier throws to make on a down-by-down basis than most quarterbacks, yet he still finished as one of the more inaccurate passers in the NFL.

Comparing Foles’ data to Trubisky’s is somewhat difficult, considering Trubisky has a larger sample size in recent years. However, when throwing in Foles’ statistics from both 2018 and 2019, thus creating a large enough sample size to formulate more than half of a year, it makes up a somewhat more accurate depiction of what to expect from him when comparing him to Trubisky.

Foles 2018-19 vs. Trubisky 2019

Player Games Started Passing Attempts Completion % Bad Throw % Air Yards/Completion INT % Pocket Time (seconds)
Player Games Started Passing Attempts Completion % Bad Throw % Air Yards/Completion INT % Pocket Time (seconds)
Nick Foles 9 312 69.9 10.6 5 1.3 2.4
Mitchell Trubisky 15 516 63.2 18.4 5.3 1.9 2.3

Of course, given that Trubisky played in six more games and Foles’ stats are spread out using data from his time with two different teams, this comparison is not completely flawless. All things considered, though, Foles’ numbers did not change all that much when comparison his production in Philadelphia to his production in Jacksonville.

Foles’ bad throw percentage went from 10.5 percent to 11.6 percent, respectively; still a well above-average total. His air yards per completion stayed exactly the same at 5 yards. His pocket time went down by just a tenth of a second, his interception percentage actually got better by four-tenths of a percent, and his completion percentage, though it went down by over 6 percent, still finished with an above-average rate.

Also worth considering: Trubisky and Foles had a very similar amount of time to throw, and the general depth of their completions mirrored each other. However, Foles has been generally more accurate and has played smarter football under center. While currently unknown whether Foles or Trubisky will start for the Bears come Week 1, the odds lie in the former’s favor at the moment. His consistency—as well as his prior knowledge of the team's system, having worked under both head coach Matt Nagy and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo—arguably makes him the more reliable option for them in 2020.

Foles may not be a flashy quarterback, and his ceiling may not be as high as some of the other players Chicago could have added at the position. At the end of the day, though, he will presumably be an upgrade over Trubisky’s play in 2019. If the Super Bowl LII MVP can be even a serviceable quarterback like he has proven capable of doing in the past, the Bears’ offense should see some improvements.

Theory 2: The defense has holes

A common narrative that has been stated throughout the course of the offseason is that the Bears’ defense has some holes, particularly in the secondary.

They did lose Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in free agency, and Prince Amukamara was released to free up cap space. However, there was a significant mitigation of those losses through the additions of Tashaun Gipson and Jaylon Johnson that could arguably see improvements at their respective positions.

Weighing the impact differential of Amukamara against Johnson could be difficult, as the latter is currently unproven at the next level. However, as a general point of comparison, nine rookie cornerbacks finished with a lower completion percentage allowed than Amukamara, who gave up a rate of 66.2 percent. The veteran also did not have any interceptions despite being targeted 71 times on the year. While he did have 10 pass deflections—a total that only one rookie topped and two others tied—2019 was far from the best season of Amukamara’s career.

Amukamara didn’t set an incredibly high bar for improvement from 2019 to 2020, which Johnson, the No. 50 overall pick in this year’s draft, could realistically top. While the Utah alum’s performance in his rookie campaign is a crapshoot at this stage, analyzing his film indicates that he can be a very good fit as the boundary, press-heavy cornerback in Chicago’s system.

PFF

As PFF indicates, Johnson allowed just one touchdown in 2019 and forced opposing quarterbacks to well below average passer rating numbers from 10 yards and beyond. While unknown if that level of play will translate to the NFL, his tape shows that he is a physical, intelligent and fluid cornerback who has Day 1 starting potential. As the No. 32 player on the consensus big board at NFL Mock Draft Database, which compared 41 big boards from respected draft analysts (such as myself!) for the 2020 class, many other analysts tend to agree with that.

Clinton-Dix was certainly a solid option for the Bears in the secondary in 2019, and he should move on to Dallas and provide them with quality play at the safety position. However, people tend to forget that Chicago added a more than capable replacement in Tashaun Gipson. Granted, the move fell under the radar since Gipson was signed after the draft, but he should be considered the favorite to start alongside Eddie Jackson in the secondary.

For anyone worried about a potential drop-off at the strong safety position, fear not. The metrics show that Gipson has been playing at a similar level to Clinton-Dix over the past two seasons.

Gipson vs. Clinton-Dix: 2018-19

Player Times Targeted Completion % Allowed PBUs INTs 2019 Passer Rating Allowed 2018 Passer Rating Allowed Missed Tackle %
Player Times Targeted Completion % Allowed PBUs INTs 2019 Passer Rating Allowed 2018 Passer Rating Allowed Missed Tackle %
Tashaun Gipson 83 53.00% 15 4 55 115.2 15.20%
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix 83 62.70% 11 5 67 69.7 10.50%

For additional context:

Save for Gipson’s 2018 allowed passer rating, he has been on par with Clinton-Dix in major statistical coverage categories, if not better. For added measure, Clinton-Dix entered the 2019 season having spent his professional career entirely at free safety, shoehorning him into a role he did not have much experience in. Gipson has also played at free safety for a good part of his career, but having played as a strong safety in Houston, he has experience on the boundary side of the field. While unknown if the season-ending back injury Gipson suffered in December will have any lingering effects, the odds are strong that the Bears will still see quality play at both safety positions in 2020.

The Bears also replaced Leonard Floyd with Robert Quinn off the edge, a move which could end up having a bigger impact on their defense than many realize. While Floyd was a versatile and athletic player who did make plays for Chicago, he wasn’t very good at doing the most important thing an edge rusher can do: sack the quarterback. After tallying seven sacks as a rookie, his sack totals decreased each year, finishing with just three sacks in his last season with the team.

Quinn is just over two years older than Floyd but has been in the NFL for five years longer than the 2016 first-round pick. Even in his down years, Quinn has proven to be a more productive pass-rusher than Floyd at his best. The two-time Pro Bowler won’t top the 19-sack season he had with the Rams in 2013, but his production over the past two years with the Cowboys and Dolphins shows he’s still a dangerous presence for opposing quarterbacks.

Quinn vs. Floyd: 2018-19

Player Sacks TFLs QB Hits QB Hurries QB Pressures
Player Sacks TFLs QB Hits QB Hurries QB Pressures
Robert Quinn 18 22 37 25 60
Leonard Floyd 7 12 23 28 49

The lengthy, athletic and polished Quinn should bring the Bears the dynamic force off the edge they’ve been lacking alongside Khalil Mack for the past two seasons. Windy City Gridiron’s own Robert Schmitz took a dive into Quinn’s game and mentioned the Rule of 3—the philosophy of having three dominant pass-rushers to guarantee at least one of them sees one-on-one battles on a down-to-down basis. With Quinn, Mack and Akiem Hicks up front, the Bears’ pass rush could prove to be tough to stop.

This, in turn, could help the Bears’ secondary force more turnovers, as an even more productive pass rush could force opposing quarterbacks to make hurried throws. Granted, part of this will depend on Johnson and Gipson filling in well in the starting lineup, but there’s palpable upside when placing them among the likes of Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson.

Not to gloss over what the Bears already have on defense, their unit finished as the eight-most efficient defense in the league in 2019, even after dropping from 27 to 10 interceptions compared to the year before. They still allowed the fourth-fewest points per game, the eighth-fewest total yards per game, and the seventh-highest quarterback pressures per drop back rate. Three full-time starters are no longer on the roster—Floyd, Amukamara and Clinton-Dix—but all three of them were replaced by players who project as being just as good, if not better than those Chicago lost.

Combining the potential upside they have in their secondary combined with their imposing front-seven, which also features the return of a healthy Akiem Hicks, the underrated Eddie Goldman, a blossoming Roquan Smith and a steady Danny Trevathan, there’s reason to expect the Bears to finish with one of the most efficient defenses in the league again.

Theory 3: Their offensive line didn't improve

An admittedly valid concern is that the Bears did not address the offensive line much this offseason. Four of their five Week 1 starters from a unit that had a disappointing 2019 season are still on the team—which was to be expected, to be fair—and they did not use significant cap space or draft capital on adding talent up front.

All things considered, though, the Bears did make one move that could make up for that lack of personnel acquisitions: new offensive line coach Juan Castillo.

Harry Hiestand, the coach whom Castillo will be replacing, is known as one of the best offensive line coaches in football, and while he helped Chicago’s unit perform well in 2018, there was a bit of a philosophic mismatch between Hiestand and Nagy. While Nagy’s offense is rooted in a zone-blocking scheme, Hiestand tends to focus more on a power run scheme. Castillo has more experience in zone-blocking offenses than his predecessor does, which could provide for a less complicated scheme to understand for the Bears’ offensive line.

Bobby Massie is what he is at this point, but the Bears do have two former Pro Bowlers on their offensive line in Charles Leno Jr. and Cody Whitehair (yes, Pro Bowls are far from the end-all, be-all of how good a player is, but the point remains both players had good 2018 seasons). James Daniels is still developing and has shown signs of promise, and committing more to a zone-blocking scheme could be beneficial to his athletic skill set.

The Bears were able to bring in Germain Ifedi on a veteran minimum contract, which could prove to be great value for them in 2020. Sure, Ifedi hasn’t become the standout some expected him to be when he was a first-round pick in 2016, but his play has leveled out somewhat over the last two seasons. He finished with a career-high PFF grade of 58.8, giving him an average grade for the season. While his previous three seasons saw lopsided grades in the direction of either pass blocking or run blocking, his 2019 campaign saw a bit less fluctuation, as he finished with an above-average 63.3 grade as a pass blocker and an average 57.6 grade as a run blocker.

For reference, Rashaad Coward, who started 10 games at right guard for the Bears last year, finished with a 51.7 total grade. His run-blocking grade was slightly higher than Ifedi’s at 60.5, but his pass-blocking grade came in at an abysmal 38.0 in 424 reps in pass protection. Coward should serve as solid depth for 2019, but Ifedi provides an upgrade in the starting lineup.

Ifedi’s problems with penalties are well-documented—he has 53 penalties in his four seasons in the NFL. That said, a move to right guard could potentially help limit those issues, as they typically cause fewer penalties than tackles. He is a big, powerful blocker who could bring some nastiness to Chicago’s offensive line that the group lacked in 2019. He isn’t a fantastic starter by any means, but as a placeholder, he should get the job done.

The Bears did not go all-out in fixing the offensive line, but the hiring of Castillo to fit Nagy’s system could be a bigger move than many expect. Bringing in an upgrade at right guard, even if it isn’t a massive one, should help the unit out, as well.

Theory 4: They have no weapons

Another concern regarding Chicago’s roster is their perceived lack of offensive firepower. Some have gone as far to say that the Bears have no weapons outside of Allen Robinson, which along with uncertainty at the quarterback position, could provide some issues in 2020.

Robinson is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver and a borderline top-10 player at his position. After a decent 2018 season coming off of a torn ACL, he ended the 2019 campaign with 98 receptions, 1,147 yards and 7 touchdowns. He played a vital role in Chicago’s offense last year, as his 154 targets made him the third-most targeted player in the league. His physicality, athleticism, route-running prowess and reliable hands make him a legitimate weapon.

While the Bears don’t have any other proven stars on offense, they have a handful of young, up-and-coming weapons who could step into bigger roles in 2020, and perhaps none of them is as intriguing as Anthony Miller.

His 52 catches, 656 yards and two touchdowns look decent, but it’s his performance in the second half of the season that provides the most intrigue. Miller seemed to hit his stride after a slow start to 2019, as his route-running looked more effective, and his processing speed seemed to pick up as the season progressed. The statistical pace he was on late in the year would have seen him put up fantastic numbers had it been spread out for a full season.

Miller will need to show that he can stay healthy and play consistently for a full season, but the flashes he has shown indicate he can be a long-term threat in Chicago’s offense.

Ted Ginn Jr. isn’t as dynamic as he used to be, but the veteran is still an athletic deep threat who can produce downfield—he placed 8th in the league with 12.4 yards before catch per reception with the Saints in 2019. Fifth-round pick Darnell Mooney finished an average speed grade of 9.25 in Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score system and should bring plenty of explosiveness to the table.

Don’t forget about 2019 fourth-round pick Riley Ridley, either; though he didn’t play much in 2019, he was a well-regarded prospect coming out of Georgia who placed No. 75 on NFL Mock Draft Database’s consensus big board for the 2019 class and was seen as a second- or third-round pick by most heading into the draft. The polished route runner could step into a bigger role in his sophomore campaign. Cordarrelle Patterson is a versatile gadget player who can be used as a mismatch at multiple positions, and Javon Wims could see some touches if he makes the team, too.

Many will poke fun at the Bears having seemingly endless tight ends on their roster, but the fact of that matter is that they improved significantly at a position that holds utmost importance in Nagy’s scheme.

Sure, Jimmy Graham is past his prime, and history shows that rookie tight ends normally don’t make a big impact in their rookie years, indicating that Cole Kmet won’t put up monster numbers this season. But lest we forget, the Bears’ tight ends were historically awful. No tight ends on the roster managed to top 100 yards on the year, which leaves this year’s group with a mind-numblingly low bar to reach. Say what you want about the rest of the offense, but having such poor production at a crucial position in a West Coast-based system certainly played a role in Chicago’s collapse. With the talent they brought in at the position this offseason, there’s literally nowhere to go but up.

The ground game also struggled significantly in 2019. David Montgomery showed some flashes in his rookie campaign and placed sixth in the league with 28 broken tackles. However, he finished 42nd out of 45 running backs in defense-adjusted yards above replacement, according to Football Outsiders. His 3.7 yards per carry was the second-lowest total among running backs with over 200 carries.

Montgomery’s progression will be contingent on both his own development and the improvement of his offensive line, which didn’t do him many favors last season: he placed 26th in yards before contact per carry. No matter where he ran the ball, Chicago’s offensive line struggled to provide help for him.

This is how Chicago’s offensive line performed in terms of how well, or rather, how poorly, they blocked for the run:

  • Adjusted line yards per rush: 3.86 (29th)
  • Adjusted line yards over left end: 3.19 (28th)
  • Adjusted line yards over left tackle: 4.84 (6th)
  • Adjusted line yards over middle/guard: 4.03 (25th)
  • Adjusted line yards over right tackle: 2.72 (32th)
  • Adjusted line yards over right end: 3.3 (24th)

As previously mentioned, a change towards a zone-blocking scheme should provide for a less confusing fusion of schemes in the run game.

Montgomery has proven the ability to make defenders miss with good agility, and he also has a well-built frame, a high motor as a runner and smooth hands out of the backfield. His vision and processing quickness were hit or miss in his rookie campaign, though, but that’s to be expected to some extent in one’s rookie season. With Tarik Cohen never having topped 100 carries in a single season of his professional career and Ryan Nall having just two NFL carries to his name, the Bears will likely make the Iowa State alumnus a bellcow back in their offense, which should lead to him putting up solid numbers on the ground this year. It’s just a matter of whether those numbers will be efficient, and if the change in blocking scheme and personal improvements on his end both lead to promising results, he could potentially top 1,000 yards when all is said and done.

There are a lot of “what ifs” surrounding Chicago’s group of weapons, but between massive upgrades at the tight end position and the potential that young talents carry at wide receiver and running back, there should be plenty of room for improvement for their offense. Part of that will be tied to their offensive line and quarterback play, but the potential is there for the Bears to improve offensively. If that comes to fruition and they can put forth even a mediocre product on offense, their defensive firepower could be enough to get them to compete for a playoff spot again.


Is this all to say that the Bears will bounce back to their 2018 ways? No, it is not. Is this to say that the Bears will even return to the playoffs in 2020? Not necessarily. With the talent in the NFC, they will have plenty of intimidating teams vying for a spot in the postseason. That’s far from the point of this exercise.

However, Chicago still has a strong core in place, including one of the league’s top defenses. Whether they improve off of their 8-8 record from last season will likely hinge on if the offense can improve, but there is young talent on that side of the ball that still has potential to grow quite a bit.

The Bears are by no means a perfect team, but it appears that the narratives regarding their additional demise have been built around exaggerations. Barring major injuries or an unforeseen disaster, the idea of Chicago being as bad of a team as many outside of the city expect them to be appears unlikely.