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When Matt Nagy was named the 16th head coach in Chicago Bears history, he won over a few longtime fans of the team by showing early on a healthy appreciation and knowledge for the team's notable history.
But Nagy made a fascinating callback to a Bears legend on Monday when he was bemoaning the team's penchant for negative runs this season holding back the entire offensive operation.
"Some are mental errors, execution-wise," Nagy said. "Other times we could put Walter Payton back there and not get any yards."
That's an eye-opener for sure. It has less to do with knocking Payton down off of his exalted perch in the NFL annals, we suspect, and more to do with his own team's limitations.
Was Nagy all but throwing his offensive line under the bus a day after the Bears lost in overtime to the New York Giants? Well, not necessarily. The qualifier about mental errors could apply to the backs or the blockers, certainly. And even the last part about Payton also technically could be self-criticism by Nagy, suggesting that he has called some plays that wouldn't have worked because of the opponents' defensive looks.
But Nagy stepped up his dialogue Monday after talking for weeks about needing to clean up the run game and its general lack of effectiveness on a consistent basis. By and large, even with Tarik Cohen having a monster game and Jordan Howard doing some positive things against the Giants in Week 13, it was a bad day for unsuccessful run plays.
If you count zero-yard runs, the Bears had 10 in the loss to the Giants — on 32 attempts. Six of them came on first-and-10 plays. Backup QB Chase Daniel was responsible for three of the nil runs, fumbling on all three. Howard had two no-gain runs and three negative rushes. Cohen had one minus and one zero.
It's easy to see how these plays helped contribute to the Bears having to play from behind the sticks too often, or leading directly to punts or turnovers. All told, if you add in the passing game, the Bears ran 77 plays and 29 of them (37.7 percent) either gained zero yards or lost yardage, which is a whopping totals. Daniel's pick-six also led to early Giants points and put the Bears in an early hole.
League-wide, I decided to look at the number of negative runs — prior to the Week 13 Monday night game — each team had to see where the Bears fell. The numbers ... well, they're not great.
The Bears rank 26th in the league in frequency of runs that lost yardage at 11.2 percent. (Here's the full list, if you're interested.) As you can see, NFL.com breaks it down to runs to the left, middle and right, although I personally wouldn't read too much into that and say, for instance, that the Bears' 17 negative runs to the right are solely the fault of RT Bobbie Massie; there are too many variables to make those kinds of sweeping statements in most cases.
But it's clear Nagy's offense has work to do to clear up the minus runs. Of the 10 highest-scoring offenses in the NFL, eight of them ranked in the top half of the league in lowest run percentage. The Bears rank fifth in scoring at 28.7 points per game but are the lowest of that group in highest rate of negative runs, with only the Buccaneers (11.0 percent, ranked 23rd) coming close to Chicago's mark in that statistic.
The Patriots topped the list with the lowest percentage in the NFL at 4.8, followed by the Saints at 5.5 percent. The worst negative-run team has been the Falcons at a whopping 16.9, with the 49ers coming in second to last at 12.7 percent.
Twenty-four of the 32 teams fall in the range between 7.1 and 12.0 percent, including the Bears. But however you splice the numbers, there's little question the Bears find themselves below average here, behind both the mean (9.4 percent) and the median (9.1).
With QB MItch Trubisky likely to return for the Bears' big matchup against the Rams, the entire offensive perspective changes. Trubisky also is a better runner than Daniel, which helps. The Rams might rank 30th in rushing yards against, but they also feature a possible MVP candidate in their one-man wrecking crew, DT Aaron Donald.
Even with Donald, though, the Bears should have the chance to succeed more frequently on the ground in this upcoming game. Interestingly, the longest run the Rams have allowed this season is only 38 yards, and they have 45 stops for zero or negative yards — with Donald making the play on 14 of those.
The Rams held the Lions in Week 13 to seven such runs, but they only tackled Chiefs ball carriers the game prior one time for zero yards or a loss. On Kansas City's other 19 runs, the average was 5.2 yards. The Bears might not be as explosive as the Chiefs are offensively, but Nagy's offense clearly shares a lot of the same DNA, and he'll be looking hard at which run plays the Chiefs used most successfully as a way of helping his own run game out.
And the hope after that would be that Nagy won't have to make any more statements like the one above, where he's suggesting that even one of the best handful of running backs in the history of football couldn't have success running the ball on some plays in his offense.