In Appreciation of Tarik Cohen

| June 17th, 2019

Tarik Cohen followed up a solid rookie campaign with a really good sophomore season in 2018. Despite playing less than half of the available offensive snaps and getting fewer than 100 carries and 200 total touches, he finished with 1,169 yards from scrimmage, scored 8 touchdowns, and was one of the most explosive players in the NFL. For good measure, he was also a 1st team All Pro as a punt returner after leading the NFL in punt return yards and finishing 5th in yards per return.

Despite all of this, I think Cohen’s limited snaps and touches keep people from appreciating just how valuable he is to the offense. Cohen’s diminutive stature keeps him from being a conventional lead running back, but he still has a substantial impact on offensive production.

And there are actual numbers to back it up. The graph below shows the relationship between the total number of touches (carries or pass targets) that Cohen gets and how many points the offense scores. In order to account for different numbers of snaps in games, I looked at Cohen touches out of total snaps for that game. So if he got 10 carries + targets and the offense played 20 snaps, 50% of the plays went to Cohen.

There’s a pretty clear trend where the offense scores more points when more plays run through Cohen. We see that anecdotally as well, as the Bears scored 27 or more offensive points all 5 times Cohen was involved in 14+ plays in a game, and only 1 time in the other 12 games (including playoffs). An R2 value of 0.65 gives a strong number to support this correlation (a value of 0 would mean there is no relationship, while 1 would mean the relationship is perfectly linear).

Some might argue that this comes largely due to inflated points scored in the 4th quarter of games where the Bears were chasing the lead, like against the Patriots, Dolphins, and Giants, which were all part of the 5 games where Cohen was involved in 14+ plays. To account for that, I looked at offensive production related to Cohen plays through 3 quarters, which can be seen in the graph below. (Quick note: I looked at number of plays instead of % of plays because there was no easy way to find total offensive snaps through only 3 quarters).

Here you can clearly see that, instead of going away, the trend actually gets slightly stronger when we only look at the 1st three quarters. The more Cohen is involved in the offense, the more points the offense scores.

I also was curious to see if the same trend continued for Cohen snaps instead of Cohen touches, with the idea being that his presence on the field makes the offense better, even if he’s not touching the ball, because the defense needs to account for him. However, I found that the correlation between % offensive snaps Cohen played and points the offense scored was 0.03, indicating there was basically no relationship. So it seems like the Bears need to actually get the ball in Cohen’s hands more frequently to maximize his impact on the offense.

Now here’s where the downside comes in: because Cohen is tiny (listed at 5’6″, 181 pounds), he can’t always touch the ball 15+ times a game. If he did that for a full season, it would be 240 carries + pass targets; for context, last year he had 190. Thus the Bears need to pick and choose when to heavily utilize him for maximum effect. They did a good job of that this year, as he was largely used most in games when the defense was struggling and the offense needed to score points (New England, Miami, New York Giants).

You could actually see Cohen’s usage ebb and flow with the offense as a whole last year. I’ve written before about how Trubisky’s playing style shifted as the season wore on. In the first 3 weeks, he did a bunch of check-downs, and the offense sputtered. In the middle section (weeks 4-14), he switched to a more aggressive deep passing attack style, and then shifted back to a safer, more conservative approach at the end of the season (weeks 15-17).

Let’s look at Cohen’s involvement in the offense through those sections of the season.

When Trubisky was playing most aggressively, Cohen was being used the most. This stretch was when Trubisky threw the most touchdowns, but also interceptions. As they geared up for the playoffs and tried to play complementary offense to win with the defense, Trubisky played more conservative, Cohen was less involved, and the offense didn’t score as many points.

It’s logical to expect that the defense, while remaining among the best in the NFL, will not be as good in 2019 as they were in 2018. Thus the offense will need to score more points, which means they’ll need to get Tarik Cohen more involved. How they do so judiciously without overtaxing their best offensive weapon will be an important but probably under the radar storyline to follow in 2019.