Friday, May 4, 2012

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: What the Switch From Mike to Mike Means for the Bears Offense

I was listening to Hub Arkush on the radio the other day and he was complaining, like many people, about the Bears failure to address the left tackle position in the draft. His critique of the people who keep saying that getting rid of Mike Martz will fix the Bears offensive line came down to this: the Bears didn't bring Jay Cutler in to throw a bunch of short passes, so simply dialing back the offensive isn't really a "fix."

I'm going to agree with Hub on the idea that the Bears didn't bring Jay Cutler into town to run an offense they could've run with Kyle Orton. I'm going to disagree, however, with the idea that Mike Martz wasn't the biggest problem.

It's true that the problem with seven step drops is overblown. That really wasn't the biggest problem with the Bears offense, and while they've said most of it has been thrown out, you'll still see them throw deep, probably out of the shotgun and especially off of play action. The issue was that Mike Martz's offense simply didn't suit the personnel he had.

I'll say here that I still think Mike Martz's offense could work in the NFL. It's not obsolete, but the the thing that Mike hasn't wanted to admitted since 2003 is that you absolutely need four things to make it work:

1) An accurate, dropback quarterback who can throw to a spot and hope that his wide receiver will be there.
2) An offensive line with TWO stalwart tackles, capable of blocking defensive ends on an island without any help.
3) Wide receivers who can run precise routes with absolute discipline and can also make the correct read on the many option routes that Martz utilizes (Martz basically borrowed the option routes from the Run N Shoot and melded them to the old Air Coryell system to create his offense).
4) A runningback that's as good of a receiver as he is a runner.

Let's look and see where things went wrong in Chicago on those four parts:

1) I'll admit that Jay Cutler, while he definitely improved under Martz and can be a great pocket passer when he has a pocket, isn't the most natural fit for Martz's offense. Jay came from look-based schemes in Denver and in college, and you really don't need a guy with Jay's skillset to run Martz's scheme. Jay's there to exploit openings and fire the ball into tight spots. Martz got career years out of marginal athletes like Trent Green and Marc Bulger simply because you don't need a cannon arm or the ability to scramble to take a seven step drop and throw the ball to a pre-determined spot.

2)The Bears certainly don't have two great tackles, and while I'm not as hard on J'Marcus Webb as many, we're all pinning our hopes on Gabe Carimi that they can manage to have at least one. This was the biggest issue, which is no surprise to anyone. In 2010 the line was absolutely terrible and couldn't manage the scheme at all. Last year, for that brief window in the preseason and the first game and a half when they had the healthy starting five of Webb-Williams-Garza-Louis-Carimi, they were running the real Mike Martz offense and doing pretty well with it, as Jay's numbers in the last two preseason games and the Falcons game show: 47/74 (63.5%), 653 yds, 8.8 YPA, 13.9 YPC. Unfortunately, Carimi and Lance Louis went down early and, for the next four games, just as in 2010, it took the rest of the world a while to convince Martz that he couldn't run the same offense with Frank Omiyale.

3) This, after the offensive line, was also the biggest problems. Now fools like me who desperately wanted to talk ourselves out of our initial gloomy reaction to the Martz hiring looked at some superficial things, like the small and speedy Johnny Knox (6'0", 185) and Devin Hester (5'10", 185) bearing some physical resemblance to Torry Holt (6'0'', 190) and Isaac Bruce (6'0", 188). Unfortunately, there's a difference between the Bears duo and the Rams duo, and it's quite simple: Holt and Bruce were good. Holt and Bruce could run the routes, get the separation, and make the adjustments that Hester and Knox just couldn't. Devin Hester's a lot of things. Smart is not one of them. As for Knox, well, lord knows how many interceptions he caused with shitty routes and his inability to take a god damn bump on a slant route.

4) Unfortunately for the Bears, Martz, since sometime around halftime of Superbowl XXXVI, forgot the fact that the single most important player for the Greatest Show on Turf was Marshall Faulk, and forgot Matt Forte for long stretches of time. Even in the games where the Bears offensive line took a lot of heat, the biggest problem was an unbalanced playcalling ratio that led to dozens of dropbacks and few runs to keep the defense honest. Take the Saints game this year for example: the stat sheet shows that Jay got sacked 6 times, which makes the offensive line look terrible, except the first sack came in the 3rd quarter, with the Bears still in the game, down 16-13. At that point, though, Martz had called 31 passes and just 10 runs. The final ratio? 52 pass plays, 11 called runs. Sure, there are teams like the Lions and Packers that throw the ball almost exclusively, but an average, but not necessarily terrible, line like this year's Bears line is going to look worse than their talent if they're asked to dropback 52 times, mostly on 5 man protections, with just 11 runs. That, my friends, is a far more heinous crime than calling seven step drops.

Now this sets me up for the crux of my argument: the new Bears offense isn't going to be "dialed back." They're not going to be running half a playbook or running the kind of stereotypical West Coast Offense (that may not even exist anymore, if it ever did) that people associate with noodle-armed guys like Jeff Garcia. They're changing philosophies. Martz believed in moving the ball in large chunks by dropping back and throwing timed routes to pre-determined spots downfield. The new Bears offense will be more or less what Cutler ran in Denver, the Mike Shanahan variant of the West Coast that began during Shanahan's time as OC in San Francisco when he worked with the athletic Steve Young and evolved during his time in Denver with John Elway. This is a look-based scheme that's going to feature a zone-blocking based run game, plenty of designed roll-outs and play action, and a wide range of 3 and 5 step drops that stretch the field horizontally and with the 15-25 yard intermediate routes that Brandon Marshall does so well. They'll go deep the way most NFL teams do, by exploiting blown coverages and defenses that cheat against the short stuff and move up against the run.

It's worth noting, mind you, that during the 11 games (including playoffs) after the Bears prevailed on Martz to "dial back" his offense after the Redskins game in 2010 and the 5 game winning streak after the Bears "dialed back" the offense after the first game at Detroit this year, the team went 13-3 and averaged 26 PPG (32 this year during the 5 game win streak) and Jay Cutler still managed 7.5 YPA and 13 YPC. If you think of most of the longest passes Jay's thrown during the last two seasons (the 67 yard bomb to Knox against Minnesota in '10, the three long TD passes to Knox and Hester against the Jets, the 48 yarder to Hester against Minnesota this year, the two long throws to Knox against the Chargers, the 58 yard pass to Olson in the playoff game) nearly all of them have come after the Bears had supposedly gone "conservative". The Bears didn't cut anything back. They simply ran the ball and took advantage of situations rather than attempting to force them. That's what they'll be doing with Tice and Bates, and it's a good thing.

More important than just the shift in approach, however, is this crazy idea Phil Emery has of matching his personnel to his scheme. You get an offensive coordinator who wants to utilize Jay's ability to throw on the run and make laser throws to tight spots. You get big, physical receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey who can win individual matchups. You have two backs (three, really, including Kahlil Bell) who can pound the ball inside and out and catch it very smoothly out of the backfield (combined receiving totals for Forte, Bush, and Bell in 2011: 108 receptions, 1041 yds, 3 TDs). Basically, you find whatever it is your guys do best and you send them out there to do just that. Football, as much as I often imply otherwise with my 25,000 word monologues, is sometimes that simple. Mike Martz may never be able to accept that, and it's why he won't be an NFL coach again.