Excluding Cleveland: How Quickly Do Perennially Bad Offenses Actually Turn It Around?

| June 5th, 2018

Chicago’s offense has been consistently bad for the last four years, ranking in the bottom ten in points scored each of those seasons. It’s been especially awful the last two years, when a host of QB issues have left the Bears 28th and 29th in that same category.

But hope springs eternal, and dramatic changes this off-season have fans dreaming of a high-powered offense. Gone is the old-school John Fox, replaced by offensive-minded Matt Nagy. QB Mitchell Trubisky enters his second season, as do Tarik Cohen and Adam Shaheen, and the dreadful skill position groups have been overhauled with the additions of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, and Anthony Miller.

Just how big of a leap can this offense take in 2018? Optimists are quick to point to the 2017 Rams, who went from consistently bad offenses for years to the NFL’s top scoring unit in 2017 on the heels of a new offensive coach, overhauled WR group, and growth from 2nd year QB Jared Goff. Is that big of a jump an outlier, or something that happens regularly? I dove into the numbers to find out.

Crunching the Data

I looked at where every NFL team ranked in terms of points scored each year for the last decade (so 2008-17), then looked at teams that matched recent trends for the Bears. I looked at three different groupings this way:

  • Bottom 5 for 2 years
  • Bottom 10 for 3 years
  • Bottom 10 for 4 years

Once teams who fit that bill were identified, I looked at the offense the year after those bleak seasons to see how it performed.

Before I get into the results, I should note that I decided to exclude the Cleveland Browns from this. Their offense has ranked in the bottom ten every single year for the past decade – a truly remarkable feat of consistency – and this meant that they drowned out other samples. Full data can be viewed here.

[Editor’s Note: What you just read is the saddest paragraph published on this site in the fourteen years of its existence.]

Bottom 5 – Two Years

Excluding Cleveland, there have been eleven instances within the past decade where teams fielded a bottom five scoring offense for two straight seasons. The teams and how they fared the following season are listed below.

Here we can see that improvements in year three run the gamut. Three teams went straight to having top offenses, four became around average, and four stayed really bad. Overall, their average rank following two years in the bottom five was almost exactly average.

Bottom 10 – 3 years

Excluding Cleveland, there have been fifteen teams in the last ten years who fielded a bottom ten scoring offense for three straight seasons. The teams and how they fared the following season are listed below.

Once again, we see that not all teams make the same improvements. Here the teams are less clustered, with a pretty good spread ranging from top-level offenses to really bad ones. Overall the average is around twenty.

Bottom 10 – 4 Years

Now let’s look at the teams from that group who kept a bad offense for a fourth year. There were five of them who stayed in the bottom ten (excluding Chicago, who we haven’t yet seen year five for); how did they fare in year five? That information is shown below (again, excluding Cleveland).

That’s encouraging. Only one team (excluding Cleveland) has managed to field a bottom ten scoring offense for five straight years in the last decade, and even they showed marginal improvement in year six. Overall, the average for these teams the year after a bad four-year stretch is right around average.

Lessons Learned

Unless you’re Cleveland, it’s hard to be consistently bad on one side of the ball for too long, which means that odds are the Bears are likely to see some offensive improvement this year. But just how much improvement is realistic to expect?

  • Seven out of the 31 teams in this sample size have jumped directly to a top ten scoring offense.
  • Another eleven ending up somewhere in the middle of the pack (between 11th and 20th).
  • Of course, that means twelve still stayed somewhere in the bottom twelve.

Looking at the seven teams who had top ten scoring offenses, I think there are some promising similarities to what Chicago is looking at this year. All of them featured either a new starter at QB or a highly drafted QB entering his 2nd season, and 2 of them featured a new coach installing a new offense.

So there is certainly the potential for the Bears to jump up to a high-scoring offense in 2018, but a more cautious expectation might be to think they end up somewhere around average. That’s where the majority of teams with a QB entering year 2 ended up; the 2015 Jaguars (Bortles), 2016 Titans (Mariota) and 2015 Raiders (Carr) all broke out of years-long offensive slumps and ended up between 14th and 17th in points scored, which is about as average as it gets. Matching that level of improvement would be an excellent sign of growth from the 2018 Bears. And with virtually the entire offense locked in for 2019 as well, it would hopefully be a sign of even better things to come.

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