Any time you lose a close game in the NFL, it is easy to go back and pick apart a team’s game-plan or a decision or two that led to the defeat. That is just the nature of the NFL and its fan base. Sometimes, the critiques will be accurate and on-point. Other times, they can be off-base or just inaccurate.
That is precisely what is happening now with the Bears and their fans after their loss in overtime to the New York Giants. In a game they lost by three points, there are a dozen or so plays you can point to and say, “this is why we lost the game.” One of the most common criticisms you will see today and throughout the week is that the Bears lost because they did not feed RB Jordan Howard enough in the second half after a stellar first two quarters.
By the stat line, Howard had arguably his best half of the season against the Giants. In the first half alone, Howard had 13 carries for 68 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. Howard ripped off a few big gains, and it was clear, to Bears fans at least, that he might be the key to victory in Week 13 in the second half.
However, in the second half and overtime, Howard received just three carries and gained only eight yards. Howard was on the field for only 12 snaps in the second half. For the most part, the Bears ignored the ground attack and decided to pass the ball more frequently. Were the Bears wrong not to feature their star running back more in the second half of a close game after having so much success to start the game? No. In fact, that was the right decision. Allow me to explain.
Head coach Matt Nagy is one of the more brilliant offensive minds in the NFL. He loves to incorporate analytics and probabilities into his game-plan and play-calling sequences. If something isn't maximizing the Bears' chance to win, Nagy isn't afraid to switch up their offensive philosophy for the rest of the game. That is what makes me believe he decided to go away from Howard in the second half. I believe Nagy thought that the best way to win this game was to throw the ball more in the second half despite Howard’s success in the first half.
What likely happened was that Nagy went into halftime, looked at the rushing data and decided that they weren’t running the ball well enough to continue with the strategy. Let’s examine Howard’s rushing stats again from the first two quarters of the game, and you may see what I mean.
By using success rate, only six of Howard’s 13 runs were deemed “beneficial” to the offense. Meaning, there were seven times in which the Bears ran the ball, and it put them "behind the chains," so to speak. With a backup quarterback in the game, that success rate isn’t good enough. Although conventional strategy has always been to run the ball a lot with a backup quarterback, putting him in unfavorable down and distance has never made much sense to me if the run game isn’t working.
When the Bears have Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, they are more likely to stay committed to running the ball early in downs because they know he can convert long down and distances with his arm and his legs. But with Chase Daniel in the lineup, it becomes even more important to be in manageable distances. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t happening consistently enough for Chicago. In the first half alone, there were four times in which Howard lost yardage on first down.
Now, you can counter with the point that Howard had two big runs — of 22 and 25 yards — that led to touchdown drives. Those big, explosive runs helped Chicago stay in this game. While those runs are incredibly valuable, it’s the 14 other runs that went for just 29 yards that caused the Bears’ offense to struggle. On some occasions, those “unsuccessful” runs led to turnovers as they forced Chase Daniel to play out of his comfort zone. Look no further than the first drive of the game.
On first down, Howard lost two yards, putting the Bears in second-and-12 from their own 12-yard line. The Bears were forced into an obvious passing down, and the Giants picked off Daniel and returned it for a score. Did Howard force Daniel to throw the interception? Of course not. But it’s those types of runs that can change the course of a game because of the position they put your offense in.
In the second half, Nagy and the coaching staff thought they could beat the Giants through the air and avoided rushing the ball unless they had to. To their credit, I think they were right in changing up their plan of attack.
In the second half, Daniel attempted 24 passes, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt. The Bears were a significantly better offense in the second half when they opened up the passing game and ignored rushing the ball on early downs. In the first half, they had an overall success rate of only 39 percent. In the second half, that jumped to 48 percent as they averaged well over six yards per play. It’s fair to wonder: if the Bears employed this strategy earlier in the game, would they have jumped out to an early lead?
While the Bears didn’t win this game, what should be encouraging to their fans is that they have a head coach who can adjust on the fly and change the game plan to maximize his team's chance to win. Ultimately, it didn’t work out well enough in this game, and they ended up with a loss.
However, don't blame the "lack of a rushing attack" as the reason the Bears lost this game. Truthfully, that was the least of their problems. The Bears are still one of the best teams in the NFL, despite the loss. Once Trubisky gets back into the lineup, I would expect to see a more balanced offense for reasons listed above. Nevertheless, Sunday’s loss will be one that will be discussed ad nausem.