A Closer Look at New OC Shane Waldron: Trends Based On Down & Distance

| May 6th, 2024

The Bears have seen a massive changeover in offensive personnel this offseason. QB Justin Fields, RB D’Onta Foreman, WR Darnell Mooney, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, TE Robert Tonyan, IOL Cody Whitehair, and IOL Lucas Patrick, who combined to account for over 4100 offensive snaps in 2023, are no longer on the roster.

The Bears have replaced those players with QB Caleb Williams, RB D’Andre Swift, WR Keenan Allen, WR Rome Odunze, TE Gerald Everett, IOL Ryan Bates, and IOL Coleman Shelton. It’s safe to say these players are a significant net upgrade, and the Bears invested heavily (draft picks 1, 9, and 144 and $45M in salary cap spending on the veterans) to make sure that would be the case.

In addition to changing over the players, the Bears brought in a new offensive coaching staff, and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron will be tasked with turning this talent into a cohesive and effective unit. Since Waldron spent three years as the play caller in Seattle, this week I want to dig into his data to see what we can learn that might translate to Chicago. I am going to focus mostly on what his play calling tendencies were and less on how effective the offense was, because effectiveness will depend significantly on personnel and will be entirely different in Chicago.

We’ll start today by looking at Waldron’s down and distance trends, and will examine personnel groupings tomorrow.

1st down

Let’s start with examining what Waldron liked to do on 1st down. The table below shows how often Seattle called a passing play vs. a running play, how many of their passes went deep down the field (15+ yards past the line of scrimmage in the air), and how many of their runs were inside the tackles. A few quick notes:

  • To remove game situation as much as possible, I only looked at plays between the 20s in the first three quarters. This is a look at what Waldron liked to do in fairly neutral situations. These same criteria will apply to all data in this article.
  • I looked at Seattle for 2021, 2022, and 2023 so we could see what trends were consistent from year to year and what ones changed. This might give hints as to what Waldron will likely keep vs. what might shift depending on personnel.
  • I also showed what Chicago looked like in 2023, so we can get a general idea of how things might change compared to what we saw last year.
  • To put all these numbers in context, I provided the high, average, and low values for all 32 NFL teams in 2023, and where the 2023 Bears and Seahawks ranked in each category. Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.
  • All data comes from Pro Football Reference’s game play finder.

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that stands out is that Seattle threw it far more frequently than Chicago on 1st down. The Bears with Fields and former OC Luke Getsy were one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL, but the Seahawks passed at the 6th highest rate on 1st down last year and a comparably high rate in 2022.
    • It is worth noting, however, that Seattle’s 1st down pass rate in 2021 was markedly lower. When looking for differences between 2021 and 2022-23, I found 3 notable ones:
      • The QB changed: Russell Wilson was the QB in 2021, while Geno Smith took over in 2022 and 2023.
      • The RB changed: 2021 saw a committee of Rashaad Penny and Alex Collins, while 2022 and 2023 featured Kenneth Walker as the main runner.
      • The defense got worse: the 2021 team was 9th in the NFL in points/game allowed, while 2022 and 2023 were both 25th.
      • I don’t know what to think about the personnel changes. Russell Wilson is certainly no worse than Geno Smith, while an upgrade at running back shouldn’t lead to less running. So my read is that Waldron would like to run quite a bit, but didn’t feel like he could the last two years due to Seattle’s poor defense. Chicago does not have a bad defense, plus they’ll be easing in a rookie QB, so I would guess this data will look more like 2021 with a fairly run-heavy approach on early downs.
  • Seattle also had a high rate of deep passes on 1st down in 2021 and 2023, but that was very different in 2022, which suggests this might fluctuate year-to-year with Waldron rather than be a core principle of his offense.
    • Given that Caleb Williams is known for throwing deep, I would guess we’ll see a fair number of early deep shots in 2024, but perhaps Waldron will want to limit those and emphasize getting the ball out quickly as Williams acclimates to the NFL.
  • When Seattle does run on 1st down, we see another distinct difference from Chicago: Waldron runs inside at higher than the NFL average, while the Bears heavily utilized runs outside the tackle last year.
    • This trend was consistent for all 3 seasons in Seattle, suggesting that it will carry over to Chicago.
    • Given that, it’s worth considering how Chicago’s running backs have done on runs inside the tackles. The news there is not good.
      • Out of 45 running backs with 150+ carries in neutral situations (1st or 2nd down, between the 20s, 1st 3 quarters) since 2021, D’Andre Swift and Khalil Herbert rank 5th and 8th, respectively, in yards per carry outside of the tackle. When you switch to runs inside the tackle, they drop to 31st and 22nd.
      • To put it another way, they average 5.9 and 5.6 yards outside of the tackles but only 4.2 and 4.5 yards inside the tackles. The NFL averages are slightly lower inside the tackles (4.6 yards/carry) than outside (5.0 yards/carry), but the dropoff Swift and Herbert saw is much greater than that.
      • I am curious, then, to see if Waldron maintains his inside-heavy approach or adapts to his personnel and utilizes more outside runs in Chicago.
        • It is worth noting that the Rams, where Waldron was before Seattle, only saw 45% of their 1st down runs come between the tackles last year, so the inside-heavy approach was already something of a shift for Waldron.
        • It’s also worth examining the RBs in Seattle to see if they are better at inside runs:
          • Kenneth Walker III, the primary runner  the last 2 years, has averaged 5.3 yards/carry inside the tackles and only 3.8 outside the tackles in neutral situation runs in his career, so an inside-heavy scheme fits him well.
          • On the other hand, 2021 leading rusher Rashaad Penny has a comparable profile to Swift and Herbert, averaging 5.1 yards/carry inside the tackles and 7.1 yards/carry outside the tackles in neutral situation runs, while top backup Alex Collins is at 4.2 and 4.6 for those marks.
        • The consistent inside run ratio from 2021 to 2023 despite personnel changeover suggests to me this is a Waldron preference that will travel to Chicago. If that is the case, I am really curious to see how well Khalil Herbert and D’Andre Swift adapt to a style that seemingly does not play to their strengths.

2nd down

Let’s shift now to 2nd down, where the table below matches the table above for 1st down in terms of setup.

Generally, we see the inside run trend continue, the deep pass rate remain inconsistent year over year, and the pass-heavy approach leveling off to more around NFL average (though still well above the 2023 Bears).

However, distance starts to become important on 2nd down. While virtually all 1st down plays are 1st and 10, there is a wide range of possibilities on 2nd down, and play callers are going to approach 2nd and 10 significantly differently than 2nd and 2. With that in mind, let’s take the same data and split it into different groupings based on yards needed to gain a 1st down. Once  again, ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are in red, and data is only for plays in the first 3 quarters between the 20s.

(Note: Sorry if there are formatting issues with seeing the table. You can click on it to view the full table outside of the article)

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing I notice is that the % of 2nd down plays Seattle ran from various depths changed a good bit from year to year, so the 1st down play calls don’t seem to consistently lead to a high rate of any particular 2nd down distance.
  • After being very pass-happy on 1st down, it’s noteworthy that Seattle got considerably more run-heavy on 2nd down, especially in the shorter yardage situations. They ranked among the 10 most run-heavy teams in both 2nd and 1-2 yards and 3-5 yards to go. Of course, those pass numbers fluctuated a good bit across the 3 seasons, so maybe they won’t translate to Chicago.
  • The clearest trend is that Seattle favors inside runs in pretty much all situations, which matches what we saw on 1st down. That is a stark difference from how Chicago ran the ball under Luke Getsy, and I’m curious if that will come with Waldron from Seattle.

3rd and 4th down

Finally, let’s look at 3rd and 4th down, where goals shift pretty exclusively to gaining a 1st down to keep a drive alive. The table below shows data for all 3rd and 4th down plays (in the 1st 3 quarters, between the 20s).

A few thoughts:

  • The pass rate is once again fairly close to average over the 3 seasons in Seattle.
  • The inside run rate likely is fairly close to average in 2021-22, but took a huge spike in 2023. My guess is that is due to Kenneth Walker excelling in inside runs, and we’ll continue to see average rates in Chicago (similar to the 2023 Bears).
  • The overall 3rd down success was pretty bad in 2021, but around average each of the last two years. Seattle was really good converting 3rd down runs to move the chains the last 2 seasons, but I’m going to primarily contribute that to Kenneth Walker being an excellent runner.

Like we did above with 2nd down, let’s split this up by distance to see what that shows. Once again, if you are having difficulty with formatting you can click on the table to view it in full.

A few thoughts:

  • Like most of the NFL, Seattle typically passed on 3rd and 3+ and were fairly balanced on 3rd and 1-2 yards.
    • It’s interesting to me that they are getting progressively more pass-heavy over the 3 years in 3rd and short. I wonder if that’s a fluke or Waldron growing as a play-caller and feeling like he can catch defenses off guard by passing in there.
  • When Seattle did run on 3rd and short, they were inside of the tackles around league average (which is a good bit higher than in other situations, as inside runs are generally preferred for short yardage) until 2023. Again, I am curious to see if that is a change Waldron will take to Chicago or simply adapting to having a really good interior runner with Walker.

Lessons Learned

We’re now 1800 words and 5 data tables in, so let’s take stock of what we’ve learned:

  • Much of this data is pretty inconsistent year-over-year, so it’s hard to say for sure what trends will travel to Chicago with Waldron.
  • Two exceptions seem to be how frequently the offense passes and where the offense runs the ball.
    • Chicago was one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL last year, but Seattle under Waldron generally passes at average to above-average rates in most down and distance situations.
      • We have some evidence to suggest Waldron might want to run the ball more frequently on early downs when he trusts his defense.
    • Chicago loved to run the ball outside of the tackles, but Seattle under Waldron generally ran it inside the tackles at above-average rates in most situations.
      • This trend was fairly consistent despite changeover at running back.
      • There is reason to be concerned about how D’Andre Swift and Khalil Herbert fit in this approach, as both have been significantly better running outside of the tackles than inside in their career.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll continue learning about Waldron by examining how he deployed different personnel groupings over his time in Seattle.

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