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Fixing Root Cause of Bears Offensive Problems

Analysis: Matt Nagy is gone so it's safe to go back in the water again if you're someone who likes to see an offense that really knows how to benefit from running the football.

It's good to know Bill Polian is sitting in on the interviews the Bears are conducting with head coaching candidates.

At least one of the five people talking to the football coach knows something about the game.

Bears super fan and owner George McCaskey said during his postseason press conference he'll be most interested to hear coaches' plans for bringing the most out of Justin Fields.

Without Polian in these talks, the candidates might as well be speaking in another language because the other four have no idea whether these plans are viable.

This discussion doesn't need to stop at Fields' throwing or his receivers or how they plan to implement the passing game.

In fact, the first order of getting Justin Fields on the right path should start with what he needs to work a legitimate offense instead of one forever mired in the bottom third of the league. And that is something near and dear to the hearts of many Bears fans who get dismissed as old fashioned or "meatball" Ditka types.

They need to get an actual running attack. 

This is the quickest way back from their current mess because it supports their defense and supports Justin Fields. Focusing on just the passing attack takes far too long because they need to build timing and develop Fields. Being able to actually run the ball lets them buy time to develop Fields and helps protect him.

That's why it is encouraging they talked Saturday to Green Bay offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and are going to interview Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, as well as a few of the other candidates who know how to do this. The Packers know how to run, so do the Bills. 

Running the ball consistently is the best weapon they can give to Fields because it removes down-and-distance issues leading to sacks, turnovers or failed red-zone offense. It reduces pressure on the passing game and puts it on the defense.

The Bears never had a running attack under Matt Nagy over his final 3 1/2 seasons and the first half season they did only because no one knew what to expect from him. Once they saw how the Bears stopped being a serious running team, they found stopping the pass to be easier.

There will be people beating up Nagy now for all sorts of petty things done or said to players or assistants over the course of the last three years, and this is coming out in an article written by The Athletic. These types of things are common with any coach who gets fired and they are as irrelevant now as they are amusing.

What is relevant is they can fix the mess Nagy made but doing it requires giving Fields a real running game as support.

The Big Failure

It's true Nagy never got the passing game to work this season at all and struggled much of the past three years with this. But he never had the running game working, either, except for one three-game stretch against pathetic losing teams looking for the exit door at season's end.

Teams that can run and pass always are better than teams that can only pass and far better than those who can do neither.

Nagy never understood the importance of the running attack and how it helped his quarterbacks. He said he did and he dabbled at it, but if he had been serious he would still be the coach. 

Nagy spoke instead about how their short passing game works like the running game. It might work like the running game but it is not the running game. A running game not only produces yards but also takes a physical toll on an entire defense through the course of the game. This makes a real difference late in games. A short pass takes a physical toll on a few people.

The offense the Bears designed and implemented never gave their blockers and backs a chance to produce daylight or find it.

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While the Bears struggled this year to throw, it's hidden that they were 19th, 25th and 27th in rushing the last three years even with running back David Montgomery and mobile quarterbacks like Justin Fields and Mitchell Trubisky contributing scramble yardage the offense normally wouldn't expect from pocket passers.

During Nagy's entire four years, the Bears never ranked higher than 21st in yards per carry despite scrambling quarterbacks who could easily boost such numbers. They averaged 4.1 yards a carry in 2018 and 2021, 3.7 in 2019 and topped out at 4.2 and 21st overall in 2020 when they had those three successive games against weak run defenses.

The Bears always have trouble beating Green Bay and everyone says Aaron Rodgers has their number. He still owns them. What Aaron Rodgers owns besides being a brilliant passer is a running game. 

The Bears haven't finished ahead of Green Bay in yards per carry since John Fox was coach. Minnesota had six wins against the Packers under former coach Mike Zimmer because the Vikings actually ran the ball and were able to keep the Green Bay offense off the field while putting more pressure on Rodgers to produce when they were on it.

Last offseason when free agency ended it was pointed out here how the emphasis in the NFC North had shifted to running and the Bears were trailing everyone. The Vikings and Packers already had the ability to run well. The first thing Dan Campbell did in attempts to improve Detroit was get Penei Sewell in the draft and try to build a run-blocking line that could overpower teams. 

Meanwhile, the Bears talked about short passing games. Now, because of Nagy's neglect, they have even more ground to make up at being a physical, running team so they can present a proper complement to their passing game.

More evidence of how poor the Bears offense was at running the ball was their consistent red zone inconsistency. Their third-down deficiencies reflected this, as well.

The Bears finished last in the NFL at converting third downs this season and 28th at converting fourth downs. They were 30th in the red zone. The previous season they were 31st at third down percentage and 22nd in the red zone. It was similar in 2019.

Good or even average running teams get in better down-and-distance situations so they're able to convert third and fourth downs.

Red zone misery occurs more easily when a team has trouble running. The field is smaller there and it's tougher to get receivers open. Being able to run it closer to the goal line is essential to keep defenses guessing and help the receivers be open when they do pass.

Good teams line up in tight formations at the goal line and power it into the end zone. Nagy lined up in shotgun at the 6-inch line and threw tight end shovel passes. Or he had to use 330-pound defensive lineman as a blocking gimmick because he had no idea how to pick up short yardage.

The Benefits and Getting Them

The play-action pass really worries defenses when they know an opponent can run. Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor foolishly said during this past season that play-action pass doesn't depend on a team running effectively. 

This should tell you all you need to know about the emphasis of the former Bears offensive brain trust.

In a sense, Lazor was right. Anyone can run play-action passes. But good play-action passing does require an ability to run the ball well. Defenses couldn't care less about fakes if you're going to run play-action and they know you have no ability to run the ball anyway. Go ahead, fake to your heart's content.

So one of the first orders of business for the new coach is finding a way to come up with an actual running attack to benefit Fields.

This could include different offensive line personnel at center or guards. It definitely must include better play design and blocking schemes. It probably means completely firing all the offensive coaches including line coach Juan Castillo.

It might even include a different running back, but David Montgomery always looks pretty impressive when they give him just an ounce of daylight. Khalil Herbert seems a decent complement to Montgomery, as a different style runner.

It will be interesting to see how a new coach will use Montgomery and Herbert. It's been three years since Montgomery came to Chicago and one season for Herbert but no one can really say they know what either is capable of because they haven't seen either used properly in an NFL offense.

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