The Non-Trubisky Offensive Issue: Personnel Usage Remains a Problem

| February 10th, 2020

It’s no secret that I’ve blamed quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for the lion’s share of Chicago’s offensive shortcomings in 2019, while pointing out contributing factors elsewhere: tight end, run blocking, Tarik Cohen…etc. But I truly believe that a competent quarterback would have put the Bears in the playoffs in 2019.

However, it’s important not to get too fixated on one issue and ignore other problems. So today I want to look at offensive issues from 2019 that have absolutely nothing to do with Mitchell Trubisky, but instead are due to what I believe to be poor coaching decisions regarding personnel usage.

Personnel Predictability

How predictable was Chicago’s offense when several of their key players were on or off the field?

The table below shows changes in run percentage when skill position guys who played between 35-65% of the snaps were in the game vs. on the sideline.

  • On the high end, that excludes players who almost never leave the field (Allen Robinson played over 93% of offensive snaps in 2019) because their “off field” splits would be too small to be worth considering.
  • On the low end, it excludes situational players who often only come in for situations where a run or pass is expected (ie the 4th WR in a 4 WR set for 3rd and long, or the 2nd TE in a short-yardage set).

Instead, I want to look at how the Bears deployed their key skill position players as they rotated through in a game.

(Note: This data is pulled from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System, which includes sacks and QB scrambles as passing plays.)

A few thoughts:

  • The Bears overall ran the ball on 39% of plays (again, this data set counts sacks and scrambles as passes), so that’s the general number you can compare to. Javon Wims is right around that, indicating the Bears used him in a fairly non-predictive manner.
  • Taylor Gabriel skews a bit towards pass-happy settings, which tracks with him playing more in 3 WR sets after coming back from injury. The Bears ran it only 33% of the time with 3 WRs on the field. Still, his split isn’t all that bad.
  • The same can’t be said for Anthony Miller, David Montgomery, and Tarik Cohen, who all see a shift of at least 22% in run frequency when they are on vs. off the field. That’s really bad for the skill position players who played the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th most snaps for the Bears in 2019. When Miller or Cohen are on the field, defenses can key in on the pass. When Montgomery is on the field, defenses think run. That makes it far too easy to defend.
  • David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen basically have reverse splits, which is the same trend we saw with Jordan Howard and Cohen in 2018. Chicago simply has to get less predictable in how they use each player. Involving Montgomery in the passing game more – which was supposed to be a big part of the reason for him replacing Howard – would be a good start.
  • Miller also saw similar splits in 2018, which was indicative of him being used in 3 WR sets almost exclusively. He’s clearly the 2nd best WR on the Bears, and needs to be played accordingly.

The bottom line is that no NFL offense will function properly if 3 of their top 4 weapons are so one dimensional. Matt Nagy needs to get less predictable with how he uses his best players on offense in 2020.

Failure to Move Away From Tight Ends

Another issue I had with the Bears’ personnel usage in 2019 came at the tight end position. As we’re all aware, this spot was a dumpster fire for Chicago, as a combination of injuries and poor play meant that no single tight end played enough snaps to hit the 35% threshold needed for inclusion above. My issue, then, comes in how frequently the Bears still chose to play a tight end.

In 2019, Chicago tight ends accounted for 1007 snaps, an average of roughly 0.94 tight ends/snap. This was a decrease from their 1357 snaps (1.26/snap) in 2018, but I would argue it was still far too high. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Bears played only 79 snaps without a tight end on 1st and 2nd down all year (1st and 2nd down should be the best reflection of your base offense, as 3rd/4th down stats are more dictated by yardage to go), right around 10% of their total snaps in this situation. They actually had more snaps with 2 tight ends (108) than without a tight end on the field, which seems unconscionable to me given their deficiencies at the position.

The table below shows how the offense fared on 1st and 2nd down with 0, 1, and 2 tight ends on the field.

A few thoughts:

  • The 0 and 2 TE sample sizes are both small to begin with, and then very lopsided towards passing or running. That makes the smaller subset too small to put much stock in (19 rushes with 0 TEs, 26 passes with 2 TEs).
  • With that said, there’s certainly no evidence that more tight ends helped the run game, and a higher success rate with no tight ends indicates there may be a slight passing benefit there.
  • There’s an argument to be made that having 1 tight end on the field helps increase your versatility, and might help the offensive line. That’s reasonable, but is the benefit there when the tight ends are that bad? I would argue there’s no evidence here to support that’s the case, and I would have really liked to see the Bears explore more looks with a 4th wide receiver or 2nd running back instead of a tight end in 2019.
  • An offense plays 5 skill position players each snap. If I’m listing the best skill position players for the Bears in 2019, I get to #7 or 8 before I even think about putting a tight end in there (in no particular order, Robinson, Cohen, Montgomery, Miller, Gabriel, Wims are all obvious, then I’d argue Patterson over any 2019 tight end too). So why did the Bears have a tight end on the field for 90% of snaps?
  • If Matt Nagy is going to insist on using a tight end on almost every play regardless of how bad they are, the Bears absolutely need to overhaul the position this offseason. Between free agency and the draft, 2-3 players need to be added at a minimum.

Wrapping it up…

Mitchell Trubisky was the main problem with Chicago’s offense in 2019, but he was certainly not the only problem, and the evidence suggests coaches misusing their skill position players was an issue that has nothing to do with quarterback performance.

It’s a coach’s job to put his best players on the field in such a way as to keep the defense off guard and give his offense the best chance to succeed. Between playing 3 of his 4 top weapons in predictable ways and refusing to play better wide receivers or running backs over terrible tight ends, Matt Nagy failed to do that in 2019. We can only hope he recognizes these mistakes and doesn’t make them again in 2020.

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