Can the Chicago Bears Battle Back Into Playoff Relevancy?
Entering the 2014 NFL season, the NFC North was one of the more up-for-grabs divisions in all of football. The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Detroit Lions all had some weak spots, but all figured to be capable to take the division crown.
Even the Minnesota Vikings had the rumblings of being able to make some noise and shake up the division.
Through Week 7, though, the race to the top is becoming a two-team affair, as the Packers and Lions are both 5-2 while Chicago is just 3-4 and the Vikes are looking up at all three with a 2-5 record.
While the Packers are beginning to click on offense, the Lions are managing to win with stifling defense and without Calvin Johnson. So is there any way the reeling Bears can right the ship before it gets too late?
The Front Man
Cutler has been a very good fantasy football signal-caller this year, but his on-field productivity isn't quite the same when viewed through our Net Expected Points (NEP) lens.
NEP puts a number on the cumulative successes and failures of players throughout a season and indicates how many points a player adds to his team's point totals.
Cutler's Passing NEP through Week 6 was 25.62, meaning the Bears earned nearly 26 points from having Cutler at the helm as opposed to a league-average quarterback.
That ranked 14th among all passers this year.
But in an abysmal Week 7, where he recorded a Passing NEP of -11.65, Cutler did the Bears a huge disservice by taking points off the board. Within the context of that same game, Ryan Tannehill posted a Passing NEP of 12.51, meaning there was a 24.16-point disparity created from quarterbacks alone.
Cutler was barely above average to begin the week, and this debacle will plummet his score to 13.97, which would have ranked 22nd entering the week.
The onus is on Cutler to get the most from his weapons, and despite their strong individual performances, he might be the biggest issue for the team going forward.
The Lead Back
Forte, on the ground, hasn't been stellar, but that's not really a surprise as his impact is most apparent through the passing game. Among 36 running backs who have seen 50 or more carries, Forte's Rushing NEP (-7.07) ranks just 25th. Don't let the negative score fool you entirely. While, obviously, a positive score is great, the average among those 36 runners is -2.25.
Running the ball just isn't very efficient in the cumulative.
On a per-rush basis, Forte fares a little better but is just 22nd in the subset in Rushing NEP per play.
Forte really affects the game through his pass-catching ability. He has been absolutely stellar this season, and posted a Reception NEP of 8.10 in Week 7 to lead the team. He entered Week 7 with a Reception NEP of 20.70, second among all running backs.
Forte's absurd reception count (52) and productivity on those catches have inflated Cutler's metrics. What about those other three pass-catchers?
The Big Three
Cutler's struggles are astonishing considering his receiving options.
Entering Week 7, Jeffery's Reception NEP (38.89) ranked 10th among receivers, and Marshall's (29.42) ranked 24th. Bennett's Reception NEP of 34.79 was 5th among tight ends (and would rank 21st if we include both tight ends and receivers).
Clearly, the receivers aren't to blame, but they were practically absent in Week 7.
Jeffery had just two receptions for nine yards. Marshall's 6-for-48 was healthier, but neither were able to change the course of the game because of Cutler's play. Their combined Target NEP in the week (-5.64) indicates that the Bears lost nearly a touchdown when Cutler threw their way.
Despite having some of the most lethal offensive weapons in the league, the Bears continue to struggle. Cutler is the first place to look to point the finger, but is the defense pulling its weight?
Not Your '85 Bears
Overall, the Bears defense has been average, ranking 15th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play before playing the Dolphins and allowing 27 points.
That ranking, not surprisingly, is just the combination of uneven pass and rush defenses.
Their pass defense, per-play, ranked ninth before Tannehill happened, but things are beginning to look shaky for the secondary as a whole.
With Charles Tillman out for the year and emerging rookie Kyle Fuller exiting Week 7 early with a broken hand, the Bears are running thin at cornerback, and safety Chris Conte has been struggling through a medley of injuries including concussions and, recently, a shoulder injury.
That's still, somehow, probably preferable to their rushing defense. The Bears are continuing to struggle stopping the run and rank in the bottom-five of the league.
The Bears can't stop the run right now, and if their secondary continues to deplete, even more of a burden will be placed on Cutler to score points for the Bears.
It's up to Jay
Narratives and pundits like to point to quarterbacks as the main source of nearly any team's problems. In this case, though, the success of the Bears really does come down to Cutler.
It's also fair to point to the defensive woes in Chicago, but injuries and a lack of talent are the primary issues on the defensive side of the ball, and these issues are much harder than finding a more efficient passer.
The Bears defense of old isn't coming through the door any time soon, and if they want to make a final push for playoff contention, both the numbers and pundits can agree that the future of the Bears season relies on one man.