Thursday, July 16, 2009

What's the Deal With Ron Turner?

So the Bears have an offensive coordinator who has now spent eight seasons (1993-1996, 2005-2008) as the guy calling the plays. In that time the Bears average finish on offense has been 18th in Points Per Game, 22nd in Total Yards, 20th in Passing Yards, and 17th in rushing yards. Those are all below average, fairly pedestrian numbers. One would think after eight years of that a team might go in a different direction. Many fans have clamored for it, and there's even a Fire Ron Turner website (I won't link there because I don't care to give those ledge jumping morons the traffic). I'm here today to tell you why Ron Turner is a good offensive coordinator, in my eyes, and how all of his critics should wait to see what he does with Jay Cutler this year before they call for his head.

I'm the last person who should defend Turner, I suppose. After all he runs one of the more run oriented offenses in pro football, and I'm a well known fan of Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Al Saunders, Mike Leach, Urban Meyer, Joe Tiller and many other advocates of pass first offenses. Not to mention the fact that as an Illini fan I should view him with at least mild disdain for his 35-57 record in Champaign. The fact is, however, that nearly all of Turners problems at Illinois had everything to do with poor recruiting and little to do with schemes.

Turner's playbook is a hybrid of the West Coast Offense and the Coryell System (named after former Chargers coach Don Coryell, the system actually predates the West Coast Offense and originally Bore that name until an article on Bill Walsh gave his offense that name). In that way its actually quite similar in scheme to the Vermeil/Saunders/Martz offenses of the late 90s-mid 00's Rams and Chiefs offenses. Turner merely utilizes the power running facet of the offense Far more than those men ever did. At Illinois it torched opposing defenses as long as Kurt Kittner and Brandon Lloyd were there to make it work. When those two disappeared, Turner failed miserably at finding their replacements, but thats hardly a knock on the scheme or the man's abilities to coach an offense at a professional level.

The key point in Turner's offense, as in most others, is the quarterback. What's also necessary is durable group of backs who can provide at least 400 carries a season. When one looks at each season in which Turner was the Bears offensive coordinator, the reasons the Bears struggled or succeeded on offense are fairly clear:

1993: 24th in PPG, 28th in Total Yards, 28th in Passing Yards, 28th in Passing Attempts, 19th in Rushing Yards, 7th in Rushing attempts. Playcalling: 45% Pass, 55% Run. Bears Record: 7-9

Jim Harbaugh struggled to adjust from Mike Ditka's offense to the new offense, and had one of his worst seasons as a professional, tossing just 7 td passes. He was benched at one point in favor of back-up PT Willis. At runningback, Turner inherited Neal Anderson, who at age 29 had already lost most of his former explosiveness to injury, he averaged just a paltry 3.2 ypc, and the offense sputtered to a halt.

1994: 24th PPG, 23rd Total Yards, 21st Pass. Yds, 20th Pass. Att., 15th Rush Yds, 6th Rush Att. Playcalling: 51% Pass, 49 % Run. Bears Record: 9-7.

Erik Kramer started the season at quarterback, and averaged a healthy 7.1 ypa and nearly 200 ypg, but was benched after a 1-2 start. After replacing Kramer with the weaker armed Steve Walsh, Turner and Wannstedt switched back to a conservative approach on offense in order to allow the defense to win games. Walsh went 8-3 while averaging just 6.1 ypa and only a 173 ypg. The Bears won a wildcard spot and a playoff game. The team still lacked a capable runningback, with halfback Lewis Tillman and fullback Raymont Harris averaging only 3.3 and 3.8 ypc, respectively.

1995: 8th PPG, 9th Total Yds, 12th Pass. Yds, 21st Pass. Att., 9th Rush Yds., 6th Rush Att. Playcalling: 51.5% Pass, 48.5% Run. Bears Record: 9-7.

The most successful passing offense in Bears history resulted from Erik Kramer and rookie Rashaan Salaam combining to give Turner the power arm and power running that fits his offense best. Kramer started all 16 games, took every snap, and threw for a franchise record 3,838 yds, 29 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions. Salaam didn't have the best yards per carry avg. (3.6), but proved to be the workhorse back that the Bears needed, providing 1,074 yds and 10 tds.

1996: 26th PPG, 21st Total Yds, 19th Pass. Yds, 10th Pass. Att., 16th Rush Yds., 11th Rush Att. Playcalling: 54% Pass, 46% Run. Bears Record: 7-9.

Kramer struggled to recover his 1995 form, and completed just 48.7% of his passes before breaking his neck in the fifth game of the season. 38 year old back up Dave Krieg started the rest of the season, and performed about as well as could be expected for someone his age. Rashaan Salaam also suffered from injuries and lost his starting job, and the team failed to repeat their great rushing performance from the year before. Turner left after the season to take over at Illinois.

2005: 26th PPG, 29th Total Yards, 31st Pass Yds., 30th Pass Att., 8th Rush Yds., 9th Rush Att. Playcalling: 46.2% Pass, 53.8% Rush. Bears Record: 11-5

Turner returned to the Bears after being fired by Illinois, and now was the offensive coordinator for Lovie Smith. An injury to starting quarterback Rex Grossman in the second preseason game left rookie Kyle Orton in the starting lineup, and Turner was forced to scale the offense back drastically in order to prevent mistakes and allow the defense to win games. The passing numbers on the season are admittedly awful, but the run game was outstanding behind Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson, and Adrian Peterson, and the offense did just enough to allow the team to win 11 games.
2006: 2nd PPG, 15th Total Yards, 14th Pass Yds., 17th Pass Att., 15th Rush Yds., 5th Rush Att. Playcalling: 50.6% Pass, 49.4% Rush. Bears Record: 13-3

The 2006 Bears offense was the perfect microcosm of the pros and cons of Turner's offense. When Rex Grossman got off to his hot start at the beginning of the season, the Bears ran their record to 7-0, put 31.5 ppg, and averaged 231.6 passing yards per game (336 total yards per game) despite a relatively slow start from their rushing offense. During the next 9 games, however, as Grossman hit his rough stretches, those totals dropped to 22.8 PPG and 179.3 pass yards per game, although they averaged a respectable 316.3 total ypg thanks to a healthy run game that averaged 131.9 ypg in the second half. Still, the overall numbers on the season, especially the points per game, are either respectable or very good.

2007: 18th PPG, 27th Total Yards, 21st Pass Yds., 14th Pass Att., 30th Rush Yds., 19th Rush Att. Playcalling: 57.4% Pass, 42.6% Rush. Bears Record: 7-9

What went wrong in 2007? Pretty much everything, but it all started up front with the offensive line. The line, with an average age of 31.8 years old and only one starter under 30, fell apart and allowed 43 sacks and failed to open up much of anything in the run game. Rex Grossman and replacement Brian Griese both struggled with turnovers, combining to throw 14 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Cedric Benson seemed almost sluggish at times and struggled without former partner Thomas Jones, averaging just 3.4 yard per carry. Without a run game, Turner called the highest percentage of passes in his career, a dangerous proposal behind such a shoddy line. Many began calling for his resignation during this difficult season.

2008: 14th PPG, 26th Total Yards, 21st Pass Yds., 14th Pass Att., 24th Rush Yds., 15th Rush Att. Playcalling: 54.9% Pass, 45.1% Rush.

2008, much like 2006, proved that the Turner offense works when the quarterback plays well. In the 7 games in which Orton was hot before his ankle injury, the Bears averaged 28 PPG, 226.6 Pass YPG, 109 Rush YPG, and 335.6 Total Yards Per game. After Orton's injury, those numbers dropped to 19.8 PPG, 163.8 Pass YPG, 101.1 Rush YPG, and just 264.9 Total YPG, and the critics that had silenced themselves for the first seven games came back in full force. Another serious problem with the offense was the lack of a durable back up runningback, with Kevin Jones gaining only 109 yds on 34 carries (3.1 avg.) as he recovered from an ACL tear the year before, and the most notorious problem of all was a weak wide receiver corps.

There are many statistical reasons to criticize Ron Turner, his career average unit rankings are very mediocre, and many people dislike his run-oriented nature (Turner has a 51.4% Pass/48.6% Rush ratio in his career, while the league averaged 54.2% Pass/45.8% Rush in that same time frame). Upon closer examination, however, most of Turner's struggles are more personnel oriented, with quarterback problems (1993, 1996, 2005, the second halves of 2006 and 2008), and offensive line problems (2007) being the chief culprits. During the years in which Turner's seen stability at the quarterback position (1995, first halves of 2006/2008), the team has undeniably lit up the scoreboard.

2009 will certainly be a make or break year for Turner (and perhaps Lovie Smith as well, although I doubt it), as he'll finally have the right quarterback in Jay Cutler, a healthier Kevin Jones to keep Matt Forte fresh, and a retooled offensive line to keep said franchise quarterback (hopefully) upright. I myself have no doubt that the 2009 season will be the best yet for Ron Turner as offense coordinator for the Chicago Bears.