The Bears completely overhauled their QB room this offseason, letting Mitchell Trubisky leave, signing Andy Dalton, and trading up in the 1st round to draft Justin Fields. The goal is obvious: improve a passing attack that finished last year ranked 28th in yards/attempt, 18th in passing TD, threw the 4th most interceptions, and had the 24th passer rating among 32 NFL teams.
With that in mind, I want to look at each of the additions compared to who they replaced to see how likely it is that they actually provide the desired upgrade. I’m starting today with Andy Dalton, who the Bears have insisted is still their starter.
Let’s start with a surface-level view of Dalton’s passing stats compared to Trubisky and Nick Foles, the 2020 QBs.
Since playing time has been spotty for all of them over the last few years, due to a combination of injury and sometimes being the backup, I’m going to use cumulative 2018-20 stats for all of them to give a decent sample size (600+ pass attempts for each). I’ll include the NFL average over that time period to see how each QB stands relative to their peers.
As you can see there, a first glance makes it look like Dalton doesn’t provide much improvement over the status quo. The three QBs vary quite a bit in completion percentage, but all come up well below the NFL average in both yards per attempt and TD to INT ratio. If anything, Trubisky was the most productive QB of the three (though this is not an argument for keeping Trubisky. They are all bad NFL QBs). If you’re really curious about the 2020 Bears specifically, they completed 66% of their passes, averaged 6.4 yards/attempt, and had 1.6 TD for every INT.
However, we can take a closer look to see if there’s something we might be missing. Let’s split up passes into short (less than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) and deep (15+ yards past the line of scrimmage). Here’s the same table as above, only with that split applied. Short passes are highlighted in orange, deep passes in blue.
Two distinct patterns emerge:
- Andy Dalton is a definite downgrade on short passes. His completion percentage and TD/INT ratio are both decidedly worse than Foles and Trubisky, and his yards/attempt mark does not improve on Trubisky. I should again note here, however, that all three QBs are clearly worse than the NFL average at the yards/attempt mark, which to me is the most important indicator of QB effectiveness. Foles and Trubisky have a better than average TD:INT ratio here, which is mainly due to avoiding INTs. Notice they both have a poor yards/attempt mark despite a high completion percentage, which indicates they’re dumping the ball down and completing passes that don’t really go anywhere.
- Dalton is an upgrade on deep passes, though he remains below league average in this area. This is an area I highlighted as a clear issue for Chicago in 2020 (and 2019, and 2018), so hopefully some improvement there can help them be more explosive, which is also a major recurring issue for the offense.
Now let’s look at advanced statistics, which tell you more about how a QB approaches the game than their effectiveness. The table below shows the same four groups for 2018-20 for a variety of these statistics. I grouped the stats according to what they are about; blue shows how far down the field their average passes go, orange how quickly they get rid of the ball, and green how aggressive they are when passing.
A few thoughts:
- Dalton may be more efficient than Foles or Trubisky throwing deep, but he does it less often. He’s actually more like Alex Smith in how (in)frequently he attempts deep passes. Seeing as that was the one advantage he had over the incumbent QBs, not doing it very often doesn’t exactly maximize the upgrade.
- One thing all three have in common is that they get the ball out quickly. Dalton is actually the best of the group at this, which should help the Bears’ offensive line this year.
- They also all throw into tight coverage (aggressive throws) at a higher than average rate. For Foles and Trubisky, that corresponded to throwing it deep more, but for Dalton that comes with not very many deep passes, which means he’s forcing it in on short passes. That’s not ideal, and might contribute to Dalton’s struggles short.
- Dalton’s average pass attempt is shorter than Trubisky’s, but his average pass completion goes farther in the air, indicating he does a better job of completing pass farther downfield. Still, he’s below average in this area, meaning he’s not good, just less bad at it than what the Bears have recently had.
It doesn’t look as though Andy Dalton is appreciably better than what the Bears already had at QB the last few years. He’s better throwing the ball deep, but doesn’t go deep very often, and he’s been less effective on the short stuff. Apart from going deep less often, he’s stylistically fairly similar to both Trubisky and Foles in that they all largely get the ball out quickly and complete fairly short passes.
There’s also no evidence that Dalton’s presence leads to better offensive production. The Bears scored 23.3 points/game last year, while Dalton’s Cowboys scored 22.7 points/game (with vastly better skill position players) in his 9 starts. Over his last 3 seasons in total, Dalton’s teams have averaged 22.0 points/game in his 33 starts.
There’s a reason Andy Dalton is on his third team in as many years. He’s not a good quarterback at this stage of his career, and in fact likely does not upgrade the position from what the Bears had in 2020.