Want to know what the Chicago Bears’ offense will look like in 2018? Perhaps start by talking to Chase Daniel.
Yes, new Bears head coach Matt Nagy is the man installing this system. But Daniel has seen it, played in it and watched it grow from when he and Nagy first crossed paths. Daniel has now reconnected with Nagy in Chicago and believes this scheme has matured immensely since it first started taking shape.
“I think this offense has evolved so much from 2013 to now 2018,” Daniel told PFW in June. “Six full years of this offense. We’re constantly having to evolve because defenses are constantly having to evolve. We try to attack them; that’s what [Nagy is] doing first and foremost.”
There aren’t too many players who have had more exposure to cutting-edge offensive design recently than Daniel. The journeyman QB arrived in Chicago with little starting experience over nine NFL seasons (two games) but ample time to witness and absorb some of the league’s best offensive systems.
In Daniel’s 2009 rookie season with the Saints, they won the Super Bowl, as Sean Payton and Drew Brees created aerial art. Then, Daniel helped with the incubation of the Chiefs’ offense, along with Nagy, under Andy Reid in 2013 when the team more than doubled its scoring output from the year before their arrival. Daniel also was in Philadelphia to see the creative seeds planted by Eagles head coach Doug Pederson in 2016, the foundation for their championship run last season.
Daniel, Mitch Trubisky’s expected backup, has a great feel for what Nagy — who spent several years learning from Reid and Pederson — will cook up in 2018. A Bears offense that appeared stuck in the dark ages now could be thrust into hyperspace under Nagy’s watch, borrowing ideas from all over the football galaxy.
“You can just see the creativity brewing in the offensive staff room that’s just been out of this world,” Daniel said. “You get a little bit of Oregon stuff from [Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich], you get a lot of Kansas City stuff [from Nagy] and then you pull from Philly stuff, New Orleans stuff and you sort of make it your own.”
The personnel elements are falling into place. Trubisky’s rookie season offered equal doses of caution and optimism. The Bears’ pass-catching group might have improved as much as any NFL unit this offseason, adding physical marvel Allen Robinson, speedball Taylor Gabriel and rookie slot threat Anthony Miller at receiver, along with do-it-all tight end Trey Burton. They join a potent RB duo in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, plus the makings of a respectable offensive line.
The biggest difference, however, might come with the scheme.
A Bears offense that — aside from a few well-timed gadget plays — was too traditional, predictable and conservative might now join the ranks of the most diverse, hard-to-defend and aggressive units out there.
“I keep using the word calculated, but it needs to be smart,” Nagy said. “You need to have a little bit of calculation with how aggressive you’re going to be. But overall, we’re going to be much [more] aggressive than we are conservative.”
Nagy cut his teeth under Reid in Philadelphia, where they teamed with Pederson to start rethinking the bounds of what a West Coast-steeped, pass-centric system could entail. That process carried over to Kansas City with a Chiefs team starting from a worse place than where the Bears are now. They ended 2017 ranked fifth in total yards, sixth in scoring. The Chiefs had talent, but their daring and innovative design can’t be overlooked.
Harnessing his play-calling chops the past two seasons, Nagy arrives teeming with possibilities. What the Chiefs and Pederson’s Eagles did last season has a great amount of overlap and provides a snapshot of things to come in Chicago.
“The offense we’re building, it’s one of the reasons why I chose to come here,” said Burton, who came from Philadelphia. “I love what Nagy is bringing.
“You watch what he did last season, it’s what we did in Philly. Same offense. Same concepts.”
The concepts run far deeper than throwing more and running less often. In fact, at its core, the system works because of the threat of doing anything anytime. Nagy, who said he expects the Bears’ playbook to be “70 to 80 percent” of what he ran with the Chiefs, has gone out of his way to highlight the importance of the run and the need for a deep threat to open things up to keep defenses honest.
“We’re going to go downfield, and we’re going to test you,” Nagy said. “Not every ball is going to be complete, and that’s OK. It’s going to stretch the defense. It’s going to open it up for guys like Jordan and Tarik to be able to do some things in the run game.”
But there’s also a new dimension being implemented into the Bears’ offense.
In football, there are two types of plays — it’s either run or pass, right? Clearly, not all runs and passes are the same, but at its most boiled down, the QB is either handing the ball off (or running it himself) or throwing it.
True. But now, more NFL teams are adding a more cutting-edge piece to the equation. The run-pass option (RPO) is that third variation, the either-or threat to really make a defense guess what is coming.
For the uninitiated, every RPO starts with the option to hand off (as the O-line run blocks), but there are pass patterns built in on the back end. If Trubisky sees six defenders near the line of scrimmage, he’s likely handing off; if the box is loaded with seven or more, he can pull it back and turn it into a pass. It might look like play action to the naked eye, but the RPO truly is a read-the-defense play that develops on the fly.
RPOs caught fire in 2017, especially with the Chiefs and Eagles, who used it more frequently than anyone, and it’s one of the hallmarks Nagy is bringing to Chicago. Daniel believes the RPO will force defenses to be prepared for not two but three options in nearly all situations.
“What we are trying to do is give defenses concepts, formations and plays in sets of three,” Daniel explained. “When you have sets of two, it’s either this or that, run or pass.
“But when you have sets of threes — when you give them that third option, that RPO — and they’re all coming from the same formations? It sort of starts messing with defenses’ heads a little bit.”
The 2013 Chiefs studied what the 49ers had done using RPOs with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick and built that foundation into their offense after trading for Smith. That was Ground Zero for the Chiefs’ construction. Daniel — then-Smith’s backup, with Nagy their QB coach — said the Bears will enter training camp with a leg up in their installation.
“There was a lot more [accomplished this offseason] that we installed than we did in 2013,” Daniel said. “We tried to just like … walk. We just barely hit the surface.
“Here, the coaches are trying to throw a lot of things at us to see how we react. Guys are playing fast.”
Clearly, Trubisky’s development is crucial. John Fox and former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains appeared to cosset Trubisky after he took over in his fifth game as a rookie, having had only 13 college starts at North Carolina. In 12 Bears starts, Trubisky averaged only 27.5 pass attempts per game; the QB he replaced, Mike Glennon, averaged 35 passes.
The Bears were last in the NFL in pass attempts in 2017. Some of that clearly was leaning on Howard and Cohen. But it also reflected a lack of faith in Trubisky and a limited group of receivers and tight ends, one that looks vastly improved now.
"We were pretty much basic and everybody knew what we were going do,” Howard told NFL Network this offseason. “They knew what was coming pretty much every play, so it was pretty easy for them to stop us. Now, I feel like we're going to be a lot more creative and have defenses off balance."
Added Trubisky: “It's a wide-open attack, and it's a great offense because there are so many options within it.”
There is subterfuge to Nagy’s approach but less with who is playing and more with how they are unleashed. The Chiefs operated in “11 personnel” (one RB, one TE, three WRs) 54.2 percent of the time and in “12 personnel” (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) 24.3 percent last season. No other personnel grouping comprised more than 6.4 percent of their plays.
Instead, Nagy preferred to utilize his core personnel by switching up formations, varying motions and making everyone a target. The Chiefs used WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce in the backfield. They motioned RB Kareem Hunt out as a pass catcher. They even ran the read-option with an inverted wishbone in the red zone.
Multiplicity. Complexity. Balance. Oh, and open-mindedness.
“You bring [Nagy] an idea, he’s willing to look into it,” Daniel said. “He’s willing to take advice from anyone. The fact that he’s approachable, players love that. Even if he might think it’s a stupid idea, he’ll humor you.”
It’s easy to envision the Bears getting wild and weird — especially with Cohen, Gabriel and Burton.
Built like a quarterhorse, the slippery Cohen ran the ball 87 times and caught 53 passes as a rookie, and the way Nagy and his staff are talking him up, more work appears to be in store. “We're trying to get him the ball in so many different ways in this offense,” Trubisky said.
Gabriel can work in the slot (Nagy’s “Zebra” position), out wide or in motion; he’s also rushed 12 times for 100 yards and a TD the past two seasons. In OTAs, Gabriel clearly was the fastest player on the field.
Burton operated out of the “U” tight end role in Philly, a move-all-around spot, but it’s a seamless transition to Nagy’s offense. “It’s exactly what we did the last two years in Philly,” Burton said.
Even if the more one-dimensional Howard and Robinson (coming off a torn ACL) act as uni-taskers, there are a ton of combinations with which Nagy and Helfrich can employ. That is at the heart of what the Bears hope to do: rely on a diverse core group of playmakers; lengthen and widen the field to make defenses cover every blade of grass; and open up the playbook — run, pass or RPO — in virtually every situation.
“Super innovative,” Daniel said of Nagy’s design. “All this RPO stuff. All this stuff [you can run] with all these guys. The defense is playing the ‘where is Tarik?’ game. Moving guys around and creating matchups and advantages.”
Call it window dressing, if you will, but the explosive potential is undeniable. The Chiefs had four players ranked in the top 35 in yards after the catch last season, and some of it was scheme-borne. (Cohen was the only Bear to crack the top 75.)
Now throw in the hidden benefit from Trubisky’s undersold athleticism, rushing 41 times for 248 yards and two TDs, and there might not be too many things the Bears can’t do offensively. When was the last time that could be said in Chicago? The Bears have ranked in the top 10 in both total yards and points scored only twice since 1990.
Clearly this all adds to Trubisky’s responsibilities, and honing the timing, touch and instincts for the RPO series is crucial. The Chiefs ran RPOs on 18.1 percent of their plays last season, but the Bears could start at a lower rate than that and gradually increase Trubisky's exposure as he shows the proper mastery and earns Nagy’s trust over time.
“It's part of the process,” Trubisky said. “Just knowing that there are going to be bumps in the road and having that mentality that we're getting better every single day.
“We all believe in Coach Nagy's plan. And you've seen the progression, from the first day to now, so that gives us confidence as well.”
All this talk about the passing game is warranted. However, there’s also a situational element to calling plays and managing the run-pass distribution that appears to be on the verge of changing.
The Chiefs and Bears were at opposite ends of the spectrum in another major regard last season: On first-half first downs, the Bears ran the ball 65 percent, the highest rate of any team. In those same situations, the Chiefs ran it 45 percent — the second-lowest rate. Expand it to first and second downs in first halves, and the Bears were even farther from the median. They ran 60 percent in those situations, also a league-high; no other team was north of 54. Meanwhile, the Chiefs tied for the second-lowest run rate (42 percent).
But the Chiefs were still a darned good running team — better, in fact, than the Bears, who made a wholesale commitment to it. The Chiefs rushed for 201 more yards than the Bears despite 17 fewer attempts. This is where overlooking Howard, or believing he’s not an ideal fit in Nagy’s offense because of his pass-catching limitations, is a mistake. It’s more about getting the most out of Howard’s abilities.
Howard struggled with drops, catching only 23 passes for 135 yards last season, but he was the Bears’ best inside runner the past two years — also surprisingly effective running from the shotgun. Howard has averaged 7.0 and 6.4 yards per carry, respectively, out of the gun.
The Chiefs used shotgun 72 percent of the time, second-most in the NFL. (The Bears used it 50 percent, the 10th-lowest rate.) If Howard can continue being an effective shotgun runner, Nagy will find him plenty of work. And if Howard improves as a receiver, it adds one more option to a quietly loaded cupboard.
“If I’m on the field and catching passes, the defense will have to respect that,” Howard said.
Putting it all together, how do you sum up what Nagy is trying to schematically build? Trubisky had a pretty good 30,000-foot view back in April when he was first soaking up the new scheme.
“You have the RPO game, the play action, the quick dropback, getting the ball out quick, stuff I’ve done in my past from high school to North Carolina,” he said. “And then you have the West Coast and pro-style concepts grooved in with that. So I feel like this offense is going to utilize my talents and use what comes natural to me.”
And just imagining how diverse and fun it could be, Bears fans naturally should be excited.
** The Nagy Bunch **
For all the buzz about spread concepts proliferating the NFL, it was actually Nagy’s “bunch” formation that created some real headaches for defenses. Condensing 10 or even 11 offensive players close to the ball (the opposite of a spread offense, in essence), the Chiefs were effective running the ball — even out of the shotgun.
They also had the ability to cross up defenses with the pass in this formation, creating all kinds of “rub” routes, screen plays and mesh concepts designed to beat man defense. If you triangulate any combination of Robinson, Burton, Gabriel, Cohen, Miller or Kevin White (the forgotten wildcard of the Bears’ pass catchers), defenses don’t know who is getting the ball, who is blocking or whether the ball actually is going to the other side of the field.
“We’ve been using those all summer,” Miller said. “You put three of us out there in a tight space and just try to outnumber the defense. Pick your poison.”
It’s not as if prior Bears staffs haven’t used these concepts before — Marc Trestman and Loggains both had bunch formations — but the Bears might not have had the breadth of playmaking talent and play-calling potential they will under Nagy.
— Eric Edholm