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The 2016 Chicago Bears were 1-6 in close games (games decided by a touchdown or less) last season. That’s very important.
Winning close games is much closer to a coin flip than a a tangible trait a quarterback or head coach has. In the 320 seasons from 2006 to 2015, only 15 teams (4.6%) were more than two games under .500 in close games. Of those 15 teams, every single one of them had an improved record the next season. Here’s the list:
Every narrative you’ve been fed about teams winning close games and it having tangible value is factually incorrect. There are very few teams that win or lose significantly in close games in the regular season, and that number either corrects itself in-season or the next season with only one team being the exception (we’ll get to them in our AFC South preview). The NFL’s draft structure makes it so that you’re punished long-term by winning close games at a significant rate, because you’re playing above your talent and you get a worse draft position. That doesn’t include the psychology that goes into a coaching staff and front office that goes into an offseason thinking they need to keep a “winning” team together when really they outplayed their talent.
The opposite is true for teams that lose a significant amount of close games in a season, and it’s why all 15 teams in a decade with the same diagnosis of the Chicago Bears have won more total games the year after they lost a significant amount of close games.
The Bears are +110 to win over 5.5 wins in 2017 according to Bovada. Teams with the diagnosis of Chicago’s 2016 season averaged an improvement of 4.53 wins (putting the 2017 Bears projection between 7-9 and 8-8) with the median improvement being 5 wins (putting the 2017 Bears projection at 8-8). 11 of 15 teams with the 2016 Bears’ diagnosis (73.33%) won at least three or more games the year after they lost a significant amount of close games, which is the number of wins they need to hit on that +110 bet on Bovada.
Chicago will improve in 2017 just based on the nature of the sport. Now let’s get into their talent.
Backs: Quite honestly, I was surprised at how good the Chicago Bears’ offensive efficiency numbers were last year. The team was 6th in yards per carry, 7th in yards per completion, 8th in sack percentage, 9th in TFL percentage and just 18th in completion percentage, which may not seem like something significant enough to mention until you realize Matt Barkley threw 216 passes for them last year.
Unfortunately, the full numbers explain why they didn’t tap into their potential. They ranked 20th in run percentage last year, despite yards per carry being the strength of their team overall, due to the fact that they were 3-13 with 7 losses of multiple scores, the second-most in the NFC behind the San Francisco 49ers (9) and the third-most in the NFL (Cleveland Browns, 10).
If they can put themselves into manageable situations, and they do better not coughing up the ball (29th in fumble percentage), then Jordan Howard (5.2 yards per carry as a rookie) could easily become one of the biggest names in the league in 2017. The Bears also added Tarik Cohen (a 5’6″, 179-pound back from North Carolina A&T with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash) in the fourth round, and he could make a case to be the number two back in Chicago.
Both Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford, 2015 and 2014 fourth-round picks, averaged fewer than four yards per attempt behind Howard and made up for 94 carries last season.
In the passing game, there was another fatal flaw. Despite the fact that yards per completion and sack percentage ranked in the top quarter of the league last season, the team was 29th in interception percentage. A lot of that falls on Barkley’s lap.
Barkley had 14 interceptions in 216 passes, while Brian Hoyer threw none in 200 and Jay Cutler threw 4 in 137. Barkley and Hoyer are now 49ers. Cutler will be in the booth for Fox Sports this fall. There’s total turnover at the quarterback position this season, which could lead you to hope that the Achilles heel of the 2016 Bears offense, turnovers, is behind them.
The team’s first move at the position this offseason was signing Mike Glennon, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, to a three-year, $45 million contract. Glennon has thrown 15 interceptions on 630 passes, giving him a 2.38% interception percentage in his career. That number would have been good enough to rank 26th in the league last year among teams, but it’s more than a one percent difference between Chicago’s 2016 interception percentage (3.40%). Having one fewer interceptions every 100 throws if a fairly big deal. I’m unsure if it’s worth $45 million though.
In the draft, the team move up from the third overall spot to the second overall spot to draft another quarterback, Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina. He had a college interception percentage of 1.75%, which would have ranked 11th in the NFL among teams. Even if you don’t like the names at quarterback for Chicago, you need to realize that really the only thing holding them back on offense last season was turnovers, and it’s going to be legitimately hard for the team to have a higher interception percentage than Barkley and Cutler pushed the team towards in 2016.
Pass-Catchers: The team doesn’t return two of their top three receivers from a team that was seventh in yards per reception last season. Alshon Jeffery (52 receptions, 15.8 yards per reception) signed a one-year, $9.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. Eddie Royal (33 receptions, 11.2 yards per reception) is still a free agent after his release.
The only wideout with more than 25 receptions from 2016 who is returning in 2017 is Cameron Meredith (66 receptions, 13.5 yards per reception). The team is banking on Kevin White, a 2015 first-round pick, to take a big step this year. White has 19 receptions in four games (9.8 yards per reception) over two seasons after two left leg injuries landed him on the injured reserve list in back-to-back season.
The Bears brought in Kendall Wright (one-year, $2 million deal) and Rueben Randale (one-year, $775,000 deal), but their contract numbers tell you how much the team thinks of them. On the other hand, it’s clear that Chicago thinks a lot of new signing Markus Wheaton (two year, $11 million deal), who missed 13 games in Pittsburgh due to a shoulder injury and only had four receptions in 2016. The former third-round pick averaged 17 yards per reception in 2015 and recorded 107 receptions (14.1 yards per reception) in his rookie contract.
For a team that looks to be tight end-heavy, hitting on two of their receivers having decent season, with Meredith, Wheaton and White being the clear clubhouse leaders, will be a must.
The Bears brings back Zach Miller (second-leading returner with 47 receptions) to be the starting tight end. Chicago also signed Dion Sims to a three-year, $18 million contract. Sims never had more than 26 receptions, 284 yards and four touchdowns in any rookie contract season with the Miami Dolphins, but he did play in a wide zone-heavy running game that matches a lot of what Chicago wants to do out of two-tight end sets. In the second round, the Bears drafted Adam Shaheen, a 6’6″ 278-pound underclassman from Division II’s Ashland, to add a third tight end to the mix.
A team valuing tight end this much isn’t trying to throw out four receiver sets often.
Linemen: The Bears were eighth in sack percentage and ninth in TFL percentage last year, a direct reflection of their offensive line. Former first-round pick Kyle Long moving back to guard from tackle, the signing of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton after his release in Green Bay and 2016 second-round pick Cody Whitehair meshing in at center made for a drastically improved interior offensive line in just a couple of months.
It’s a bit odd that the team was satisfied with the talent of Charles Leno and Bobby Massie at tackle, but the numbers play out. The tight end-heavy team will help their bookends in pass protection, as they did in 2016. This again is going to put stress on their relatively inexperienced receivers to win their one-on-one matchups.
Line of Scrimmage: Here’s the bad news: The Bears were pretty bad on defense last year. Here’s the good news: The Bears return virtually everyone to get another season of experience in Year 3 of Vic Fangio’s Chicago stint.
Outside of Cornelius Washington signing with the NFC North rival Detroit Lions (two-year, $5.83 million deal), there was no significant loss of talent in Chicago. The one thing that the Bears did well last season was get after the quarterback (eighth in sack percentage) and outside linebacker Willie Young (7.5 sacks), outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (7 sacks), defensive end Akiem Hicks (7 sacks) and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (4 sacks) are all slated to play another regular season in Chicago.
2015 second-round pick Eddie Goldman, an all-rookie team defensive lineman, missed 10 games last season due to ankle injuries. Him merely returning to the lineup could improve the Bears’ 21st-ranked yards per carry mark and 24th-ranked TFL percentage mark. Opposite of Hicks is a competition at defensive end between Mitch Unrein, who re-signed for a two-year, $2.26 million deal, and 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard.
One would expect that the Bears have better efficiency numbers at the line of scrimmage with Goldman and potentially Bullard making more plays in 2017 than they did in 2016.
Backs: The linebackers and defensive backs in Chicago need to force more turnovers. They were 29th in fumble percentage and 28th in interception percentage. Despite the team being the 28th-most passed on team in the league in terms of run percentage, they were not great against the pass, either.
Teams could have their way with the 2016 Bears defense, and the run game was simply the path of least resistance against a team that lost the third-most games by multiple scores league-wide. They were 19th in completion percentage and 15th in yards per receptions on top of their very poor interception rate.
Despite serving a four-game suspension for PEDs, 2016 free agent signing Jerrell Freeman recorded 110 tackles in 12 starts last season. Another 2016 signing in Danny Trevathan missed seven total games last year and landed on injured reserve list due to a patellar tendon injury. If those linebackers, along with 2016 fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkoski, are able to stay on the field, the run defense in general should shake out better than they did in 2016.
The Bears also finished 19th in completion percentage and 15th in yards per reception defensively in 2016. They suffered no real losses this offseason in their defensive back unit, but signed cornerback Marcus Cooper to a three-year, $16 million deal, cornerback Prince Amukamara to a one-year, $7 million deal and safety Quintin Demps to a three-year, $13.5 million deal. There’s reason to assume that those three should play significant roles in the 2017 season.
The returning Bears of note in the secondary are safety Adrian Amos (30 starts in his first two years in the league), cornerback Kyle Fuller (former first-round pick who started 30 games in his first two years in the NFL before missing all of 2016 due to a knee injury) and cornerback Deiondre’ Hall (a second-year fourth-round pick). The team also spent a fourth-round pick on Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, who can also contribute as a return specialist. Jackson fractured his leg in October.
There’s no reason to think that the competition added between Cooper, Amukamara, Demps, a healthy Fuller and potentially Jackson wouldn’t make the secondary a stronger unit in 2017.
2017 Prediction: The 2016 Chicago Bears had a good offense outside of turnovers. The 2017 Bears return no quarterbacks from their 2016 season, so there’s hope there that it can start humming fairly quickly.
It will be an offensive-led team in 2017, but there’s room for optimism for improvement at the line of scrimmage (Eddie Goldman returning from injury), at linebacker (16 full starts from their two 2016 free agent signings) and in the secondary (four significant bodies added with former first-round pick Kyle Fuller coming off of a missed season). If I were a betting man, I would bet that this isn’t the type of team that repeats itself as one of the bottom five teams of 2017.
Assume this team trends on the lower end of the .500-ish cluster, with them never really being in the driver’s seat to control playoff destiny, but they’ll show improvement this year. This is a team that is probably a year away due to their passing offense and questionable defense, but there are pieces in place to make sure that they don’t go 3-13 again. They shouldn’t surprise anyone if their loss column is just single digits next season, which Vegas is begging the public to take.
Video Breakdown: Chicago’s Pass Rush by Charles McDonald