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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mike Martz, Mike Tice, and The Myth of a Balanced Offense

There are any number of reasons why the Bears offense has been downright awful at times for the last two seasons. Jay Cutler missing 7 1/2 games during that time period is probably the biggest, followed by injuries to key contributors like Forte, Bennett, and Jeffery. There's also the obvious answer that the offensive line couldn't block a spending cut in Congress. HEY OH. TOPICAL HUMOR.

Beyond this, though, there are schematic issues. In Mike Martz case it was a matter of talent not matching the scheme that he wanted to run. Both years that he was the offensive coordinator started with him attempting to run a facsimile of the greatest show on turf before he relented and opted for a less demanding style of offense in order to keep Jay alive. Perhaps the biggest issue leading to Martz's demise, however, was the lack of a "balanced" offense. This was in reference, of course, to Martz's pass-happy nature and the frequent battering that Cutler took as he dropped back 50 or more times in single games while Matt Forte did little more than pass block.

In response, the Bears promoted Mike Tice to take Martz's place.On the surface, Tice certainly gave Bears fans and critics want they wanted in terms of balance: the team attempted 485 passes to 470 runs, a 50.8% ratio that seems downright archaic in today's pass happy NFL, where teams threw the ball at least 56% of the time on average. Was this really "balance," though?

I was reading Mike Leach's book Swing Your Sword the other day, and he made a great comment about what balance on offense is that really struck me. Leach, the spread guru who frequently dials up sixty or even seventy passes a game was talking about his love for the Wishbone, a run-centric offense that he praised for having "balance." Given the traditional interpretation of the term, it would seem impossible that Leach's offense or the Wishbone would be described as "balanced." Leach, however, defines balance differently than most. To Leach, a balanced offense is one that, run or pass, attacks the entire field and utilizes all of its playmakers.

This really stuck with me, and I think it hints at part of the problem with the Bears offense last year. Now, I'm obviously not the first one to state that the Bears focused too heavily on Brandon Marshall last year, and I understand why they did it, but the numbers are still staggering: 40% of the Bears targets, over 41% of their completions, 46% of their passing yardage, and 29% of the Bears total yardage all went to one player.

Matt Forte, although seemingly underutilized in the receiving game versus his previous years, represented 27% of the Bears total offense as well, meaning that two players combined for over 56% of the Bears total offense.

Now, naturally you would expect a team's number one receiver and starting runningback to play larger roles in the offense than anyone else, but that's still a disproportionate amount of a team's offense coming from two players.

To put this into perspective (and to stave off the people who want to blame the over-emphasis on Marshall on Jay), compare the Bears offensive output, %-wise, to the 2008 Broncos. That year, Marshall led the Broncos with 104 receptions for 1265 yards but still represented just 27% of their total receptions, 28% of their total passing yardage, and just 20% of their total offensive yardage. The Broncos also were 12th in the NFL in rushing that year, but their starting runningbacks accounted for just 20% of their offense. In total, the Broncos starting backs and #1 receiver accounted for just 40% of their offensive output despite having, by any measuring stick, pretty good years offensively.

The strength of the Broncos offense that year, therefore, was an example of real balance. While Cutler's favorite receiver, then as now, was Brandon Marshall, the Broncos had ten different players catch at least 10 passes, with four receivers catching at least 30 passes or more. The Bears last year had just six different receivers in double digits, despite a series of injuries that would seem to have required more players to step up, and Forte was the only player besides Marshall to catch at least 30 balls.

Now, I understand that Jay forces passes to Marshall, and that he had good reason not to trust many of his other targets at times, but it was also clear that Tice called numerous plays throughout the year that were designed to get the ball to Marshall at all costs. Considering he made a big deal of the "Hester Package" and is also the man who once introduced the notoriously disastrous Randy Ratio in Minnesota, Tice focused more on designing plays for specific receivers than on a balanced, ball-distributing offensive progression.

I also get the perception that the 2008 Broncos had a superior supporting cast of receivers and tight ends than the Bears, and that may be true, but considering Eddie Royal, who caught 91 balls for 980 YDs in 2008, and Tony Scheffler, who brought in 40 passes 645 YDs, have averaged just 340 and 411 yards per season, respectively, since then it's conceivable that neither player is quite the star that they appeared to be when Cutler was inflating their value.

In any case, there was no reason that the Bears couldn't at least do a better job than they did of spreading the ball around and giving the defense reason to expect that the team would at least make them defend the entire field. As it played out, opposing defenses were generally safe so long as they didn't lose sight of Marshall or, barring that, Forte.

Now, I'm obviously not saying the Bears should deliberately under-utilize Marshall or Forte next year. Obviously those two should be the focus of your offense, but Trestman has to ensure that All of his pieces are being used effectively and that teams will respect, for instance, Earl Bennett in the slot because the Bears can and will throw to him if teams make the mistake of paying too much attention to Marshall. This seemingly obvious solution didn't happen last year, and must in the future.

For reassurance that it will, one need only look at Trestman's most successful NFL offense, the 2002 Raiders, where three different receivers caught at least 50 passes, two tight ends caught 32 and 27 passes, respectively, and where the top two runningbacks and starting fullback combined for 330 carries and 113 receptions. The result was an offense that averaged 389 yards and 28 PPG. Now that's balance. Hopefully we'll see something like that in Chicago next year. 

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