Setting up the Study
I’ve been tracking explosive plays for several years now because I found they have a strong correlation to total points scored by the offense. Therefore, they’re an important indicator of offensive success; by and large, good offenses produce more explosive plays.
The exact criteria I use for explosive plays are runs that gain 15 or more yards and passes that gain 20 or more yards. This is borrowed from ESPN Stats.
Normally I just track total explosive plays over an entire season, but that’s a little harder to do here since Fields only played in 12 of 17 games, and only started 10 of them. So, I’m going to take a slightly different approach and look at explosive plays per game and per play. I’m going to split the Bears’ season into three groups, and consider each group separately:
- Games Fields started and finished. There were nine.
- Games Dalton or Foles started and finished. There were six.
- Games split between Fields and Dalton. There were two: Cincy (Week 2) and Baltimore (Week 11). These are getting ignored, since I can’t easily figure out who was on the field when explosive plays happened.
This will allow me to compare Fields’ explosive play production to the NFL as a whole, but also to how the exact same offense functioned with a different QB.
I want to start with a graph for visual effect, because I think it’s hilarious.
I’ll get to a more typical table with concrete numbers in a second, but for now the graph below shows how many dropbacks (pass attempts + sacks) were needed to produce an explosive pass for all 33 QBs with 200+ passing attempts in 2021. The two Bears samples (Fields and the Dalton/Foles combo) have their dots shown in orange.
As you can see, Fields is right about in the middle of the pack, but look at the Dalton and Foles sample sitting way out to the right by itself! They’re farther away from 32nd place than 32nd is from 1st. Those QBs are truly in a league of their own.
OK, enough making fun of the crappy veteran QBs that Chicago’s last regime somehow thought were the answer to their problems the last 2 off-seasons. Now for some actual numbers. The table below shows this same data as the graph above, but also includes the Bears from 2020 and 2019, so you can see that this is not a new problem for Chicago.
A few thoughts:
- Chicago’s passing game has been among the least explosive in the NFL for years. I’m not sure if that’s due to bad scheme or bad quarterback play, but in reality, it’s probably a combination of both.
- Look at Fields though – he produced explosive passes at an above average rate! That’s not surprising considering we’ve already seen he throws it deep often and effectively, but it’s still excellent news. Explosive plays lead to scoring points.
Now, Fields is going to skew this data quite a bit because he produced plenty of explosive runs on his own this year, but I first want to look at the non-Fields running game to see if Fields’ presence impacted that at all. The table below shows some explosive running statistics for non-QB carries in games when Fields was the QB compared to games when Dalton or Foles were the QB. This looks at explosive runs on a per-carry basis (blue) and per-game basis (orange) and compares to the average for the defenses faced in each sample.
A few thoughts:
- Here we see quite clearly how Fields’ presence on the field changed what defenses had to worry about. Just the threat of him running opened things up for the running backs quite a bit, as they produced more than 2x the explosive runs on both a per-carry, and per-game basis compared to when the immobile Dalton or Foles was in the game.
- Chicago’s running backs were laughably non-explosive when Dalton or Foles was the QB, but they did produce explosive carries at an average rate when Fields was there taking up defensive attention. If you’re looking for reasons for optimism with David Montgomery going forward, he had five explosive runs on only 74 carries in games where Fields was the primary starter. For a little more context, this makes up five of Montgomery’s 18 career explosive plays on only 74 of his 714 career carries. It’s a small sample size (Montgomery missed 4 of the 9 games in Fields’ sample) but would certainly help improve Montgomery’s biggest issue – a lack of explosive production – if it continues into 2022.
Total Explosive Plays
Finally, let’s examine total explosive plays. Here I extrapolated the nine-game Fields sample and six-game Dalton/Foles sample to a full 17-game season to get the easiest comparison to the rest of the NFL. Like we’ve seen throughout much of this series, categories ranking in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while those that rank in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.
A few thoughts:
- Again, I can’t believe Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy thought Dalton and Foles were good moves the last two off-seasons. The offense with those two under center was laughably bad. Their performance extrapolated to 31 explosive plays over a full season, a full 13 below the actual worst team in the NFL.
- Look at those Fields numbers, though. With Fields on the field, the Bears had the 11th most explosive plays in the NFL, largely driven by the most explosive rushing attack in the NFL.
- That run game explosion is in no small part due to Fields’ explosive rushing ability. He was responsible for 9 of the 22 explosive rushes when he was the QB.
- The total explosive passing plays rank with Fields is slightly below average, but that’s a bit misleading. Fields produced explosive passes at an above-average frequency on a per-dropback basis, but his passing volume per game was low, which hurts him here.
- This bodes extremely well for Chicago’s offense going forward. From 2016-21, there were 31 teams who finished +/- 2 explosive plays from the Bears’ season-long pace with Fields at QB. 16 of those 31 – more than half – finished in the top 10 in points scored, while only three finished in the bottom 10. 16 of them – again more than half – scored 26 or more points/game, while only two scored less than 20. The Bears averaged 17.2 points/game in Fields’ nine game sample last year, but there is reason to believe that number should increase substantially if he continues to produce explosive plays at a similar per-game basis.
With any QB other than Justin Fields, the Bears have been one of the NFL’s least explosive offenses over the last three seasons. When Justin Fields was playing, he was able to overcome a poor scheme and weak supporting cast to lead the NFL’s most explosive rushing attack and produce explosive passing plays at an above-average rate on a per-play basis.
Given the strong relationship between explosive plays and points scored, the foundation is there for a Fields-led offense to be one of the better units in the NFL. For that to happen, the consistency between the explosive plays will need to improve, which tracks with much of what we’ve seen in this series so far.