Monday, June 20, 2011

Bears Offensive Coordinators: A History of Incompetence (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept Mike Martz)

One of my more optimistic beliefs going into the 2011 season is the idea that an improved offensive line and another year's worth of practice, the second year of the Mike Martz offense in Chicago should be much more productive and hopefully feature more of the deep ball (especially the Dagger play. I love the Dagger )as well. Although my love/hate relationship with Martz is well stated, I'd really love to see this offense do the kind of things that a Mike Martz offense does well, rather than the things we've grown accustomed to seeing out of Martz in Detroit and San Francisco when circumstances and personnel dictate that he let his "genius" run amok.

Anywho, this guarded optimism for Year Two of the Martz Era has led me to look back at some of the previous offensive coordinators the Bears have had in my lifetime in order to compare examine their failings and what the Bears will hopefully do differently from here on out.

Ron Turner (1993-1996, 2005-2009)
Ron Turner spent nine of the last eighteen years as the offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, and the results were decidedly mixed. I wasted a lot of breath before the 2009 season explaining why much of the criticism that Turner took was unfair, and how personnel problems had had more to do with his failings than anything else, only to be rewarded with a miserable season that torpedoed Ron's career. In last June I wrote this piece, in which I apologized for my mistaken beliefs, explored what had been Ron's undoing and came to the conclusion that Turner's greatest failing was his inability to adapt his plan of attack once it was apparent that the Bears offensive line was not going to allow him to utilize the power running game that he wanted to run.

Turner's offense was a bit of a throwback, one very similar to the one his brother Norv ran under Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. It was entirely predicated on running the football. Without a running game, Turner's playbook was considerably compromised as his passing game relies almost entirely on play action. Watch this video of Rex Grossman's highlights from 2006 and you'll see that almost all of Rex's success came off of play-action.

If teams could take away the run (something all too common in 2007-2009) and Ron was forced to throw the ball more than he was comfortable with, he attempted to move the ball with a low-risk, short yardage passing offense that was ill-suited to Cutler's abilities in the long term. He had some success with Orton in the first half of 2008 and with Cutler in the first four games of 2009, but teams quickly learned to sit on the short routes that Turner wanted to run and Turner was unwilling (which was understandable to an extent thanks to the poor offensive line he had) to attempt to go deep with any consistency. Mike Martz certainly went overboard at times in his attempt to force the ball downfield, but he does understand the necessity of using the deep ball to open up the defense even when the risk of a negative play is high (the Cutler to Knox 59 yard bomb against Dalls comes to mind).

In the end, Turner wasn't a terrible offensive coordinator when he was allowed to run the offense he wanted to run, but his inability to step outside of his comfort zone ultimately doomed him. Martz managed to show during the teams five game winning streak last year that he could, in fact, scale back his offense in order to protect Cutler, as the Bears during the second half became one of the best team's in the league in terms of running the ball and converting third downs. Turner never showed that ability to switch gears, something that's apparent when you note that in all but two of his nine seasons at the helm his offenses scored more points in the first half of the season (average of 21.1 PPG) than the second half (19.2 PPG).

Gary Crowton (1999-2000)
The Gary Crowton Era was truly one of the more interesting experiments in Bears history. Crowton was the head coach at Louisiana Tech from 1996-1998 where he, like Hal Mumme at Kentucky during the same period, was one of the first to implement the modern spread offense (although that's always up for debate) and his pass-heavy offenses stunned the nation. In Chicago, Crowton was supposed to introduce this offense to the NFL while also tutoring young QB Cade McNown. Did I mention that Crowton was somehow supposed to do this with Shane Matthews and Curtis Enis as his starting QB and runningback?

Considering the talent that Crowton had to work with, the results he gained in his first year were rather remarkable. Crowton managed to coax 4,136 passing yards out of Jim Miller, Shane Matthews, and McNown, the most the Bears have had in a season....ever. He nearly managed a 1,000 yards rushing from Curtis Enis (Enis finished with 916, although he got there at 3.2 yards a clip) and one year wonder Marcus Robinson had the best season a Bears receiver has had (1400 yds, 9 TDs).

So what went wrong? A couple of things. For one, outside of a few jump balls from Cade to Marcus, the deep ball was hardly present at all in Crowton's offense. This was a trademark of the original spread offenses, where horizontal passes were the staple. Mike Leach would eventually introduce the vertical element with great success at Texas Tech (and the arrival of Randy Moss and Josh McDaniels to the Patriots would introduce an NFL version of the spread offense with a vertical attack that would only lead to the highest scoring team in history), but Crowton's version relied heavily on bubble screens and shallow crosses to generate most of its yardage. Shane Matthews averaged just 6.0 yards per attempt and fewer than 10 yards per completion, while McNown was hardly better at 6.2 and only Miller averaged a respectable 7.1 ypa.

The short passing of the offense was effective at moving the ball in 1999 (particularly under Jim Miller who had 422 yards against the Vikings and 357 yards against the Chargers in back-to-back games), but didn't translate into points, something I've pointed to time and again when discussing the illusion of Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton's production under McDaniels in New England and Denver. The spread could hide the complete dearth of talent on the Bears offense between the 20s, but it couldn't score in the red zone, as the Bears averaged just 17 PPG despite ranking 8th in the NFL in offensive yards.

The other problem with Crowton's offense is that the NFL figured it out rather quickly. In 2000, the Bears dropped all the way down to 23rd in the NFL in both passing and total yards and dipped to 13.5 ppg. Part of this could be blamed on the increased role of Cade McNown, who was a miserable failure as we all know, but Shane Matthews (64.0 rating, down from 80.6 in 1999) and Jim Miller (68.2 vs. 83.6 in 1999) both had their numbers drop dramatically from their 1999 campaigns as well. As Chris Brown of SmartFootball noted the other day when discussing "constraint" plays on offense, bubble screens and the rest of the "razzle dazzle" (as it was derisively referred to by then-Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham) that the Bears utilized under Crowton were plays that could be used against defenses that were taken unaware by the offense and weren't fundamentally sound in their approach against it, but they weren't base plays that could consistently beat defenses that knew they were coming. Crowton lacked the talent and the will to attack downfield or run the ball between the tackles, and he was ultimately doomed.

I also never understood why the team decided to pair the overly-conservative Dick Jauron with the "innovative" Crowton, especially since the disconnect between them became rapidly apparent and led to Jauron not so subtly encouraging Crowton to leave for BYU in 2000.

John Shoop (2000-2003)
There may be no more frustrating human being in Bears history than John Shoop. That may be shocking considering all of the Wannstedts and McNowns and Cedric Bensons out there, but John Shoops term as offensive coordinator sticks in my craw like no other. No NFL organization can actually expect its fans to believe that the organization is focused on winning a championship if they willfully employ an offensive coordinator who has nothing other than contempt for the idea of offensive football.

Shoop took over for Crowton during the last few games of the 2000 season, when Crowton smelled the way the wind was blowing and left to take over as head coach at BYU. Shoop was hailed for restoring sanity to the Bears offensive game plan, as he ran the ball 39 times in his debut game against the Patriots and called a very conservative game plan through the air that allowed Shane Matthews to complete 22 of 27 passes. The fact that the Bears gained just 102 yards from those 39 carries (just 2.6 yards per carry) was ignored, even though it was a terrifying glimpse of things to come. The Bears followed up that win over the Patriots by losing a shutout at San Francisco (gaining just 104 yards of offense) and winning the season finale over the Lions thanks to an RW McQuarters interception return for a TD that hid the fact that the offense gained just 286 yards and averaged just 6.3 yards per passing attempt.

Shoop's inherent cowardice became apparent in 2001, when the team ranked 26th in the NFL in total yards and managed just 192 yards per game through the air. The great defense and good fortune (+13 in turnovers) of that team led to a 13-3 season and hid Shoop's deficiencies to an extent, but the grumbles were already beginning before a 4-12 2002 campaign brought them to a fever pitch. Shoop's 2002 offense finished 27th in the NFL in points, 29th in yardage, and managed just 190 yards through the air. By this point it had become apparent that Shoop's entire offense consisted largely of unimaginative runs up the middle by the slow-footed Anthony Thomas, the long-since obsolete bubble screen (the only holdover that Shoop had kept from Crowton's attack) and an absolute refusal to consider a downfield attack. Quarterbacks during the Shoop Era averaged a whopping 5.7 yards per attempt.

While Shoop's hallmark will always be his cowardly lion approach to the passing game, the Kordell Stewart experiment of 2003 should always be noted for showcasing the best of Shoop's brilliant game plans. As mentioned before, my favorite play will always be the play-action QB draw, in which the QB draws the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage before running right at them. Brilliant!

Terry Shea (2004)
It's always hard to judge Terry Shea's one year run as offensive coordinator fairly, since Rex Grossman's injury crippled the team and left Shea to run the show with Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, and Chad Hutchinson. The offense averaged 344 yards per game and 20 PPG under Grossman and had a balanced attack (192 ypg passing, 152 ypg rushing). We'll never really know what could have been, since the Quinn-Krenzel-Hutchinson triumvirate managed only 214 YPG and 13 PPG. Part of the problem was an offensive line that allowed a team-record 66 sacks, although Grossman only took five sacks in his three games and the other three QBs were all incapable of reading a defense and frequently stood there waiting for the hit, but Shea had his problems regardless. He had a playbook that was incredibly long and complex and yet the product on the field was incredibly unimaginative. He was over-reliant on the quick out and the HB draw, and it was his damn fault that Quinn was on the roster in the first place, so I can't have too much sympathy for the guy. Either way, I have no doubt the team was better off firing him when they did.

So those are four men who've run the show in the time before Mike Martz. While the poor first half last year left the Bears attack mired in the bottom half of the league statistically, the increased offensive output in the second half (from 18 to 23 PPG) and offensive outbursts like the 31-26 victory over the Eagles, the 40-14 win in Minnesota, the 38-34 comeback over the Jets, and the 35-24 blowout of the Seahawks in the divisional round give me hope that the team is pointed in the right direction. Martz showed last year that he was far more versatile than Turner, while his commitment (and Jay Cutler's ability) to throw the ball downfield prevents opposing defenses from squatting in the short passing game and prevents Martz from making the same mistakes that doomed Crowton and Shea, and the fact that he's not an unblinking idiot makes him far superior to Shoop. Hopefully this all translates into a Bears offense that (gasp!) scores points consistently in 2011 and beyond.