With one NFL Sunday left in the month of October, the Chicago Bears hold sole possession of first place in the NFC North. They’re 5-1 after six games, and FiveThirtyEight’s Elo-based projections give them an 85 percent chance of making the playoffs. Even if they played .500 football the rest of the way, they would still finish 10-6.
So why are some observers labeling their success as “fraudulent”?
The easy answer is they haven’t faced many good teams — and they haven’t won by very much. Their five conquests to date (the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers) have a combined win percentage of .379. Given that the Bears have only outscored their opponents by a total of 128-116, predictive metrics like the Simple Ranking System don’t love them. With a weak slate like that, it’s no surprise that opponent-adjusted stats like Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) aren’t impressed by their performances so far, either.
But winning five of six NFL games is never a complete accident, and there are plenty of concrete football arguments for the Bears being what the scoreboard says they are. They rank seventh in both scoring and yardage defense, thanks to a secondary that’s allowed the lowest completion rate of any team in the NFL. All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack has 4.5 sacks as part of a unit that’s tied for 10th-most sacks in the league despite blitzing less often than all but five other teams. They’re an especially good situational defense, allowing the second-lowest third-down conversion rate and lowest red-zone touchdown rate in the league.
These numbers don’t stack up to those of hallowed Bears defenses like the 2006 and 1985 units. But it’s reasonable to believe the 2020 edition will still be tough to score against for the rest of the regular season — and, likely, the playoffs.
The obvious problem is on the other side of the ball, where a quarterback combination of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky has made for one of the league’s most anemic passing attacks. The Bears rank 26th in team completion rate and passer rating, and they sit in 30th in both yards per attempt and yards per completion. As good as their situational defense has been, their situational offense has been nearly that bad: They rank 27th in third-down conversion rate and 26th in red-zone touchdown rate. The passing attack has generated just 17.5 expected points, seventh-worst in the league.
The Great NFL Passing Boom of the 2010s primed football-watching minds to correlate passing success with team success — and if there was an opportunity for defenses to cycle back to ascendance, the rise of do-everything quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson 2.0 seems to have squashed it.
If the NFL is still a pass-first league, just how badly can Chicago’s quarterbacks perform without killing the team’s postseason hopes? Let’s compare what the Bears have gotten from Foles and Trubisky so far with where the bar seems to be.
There have been 60 playoff teams over the past five full NFL seasons, and most of them have been very effective through the air. Last year, eight of the NFL’s top 10 passing offenses made the playoffs.
Here’s where the 2020 Bears stack up against the best, worst and average passing attacks — by adjusted net yards per attempt — from the past five playoff fields:
|Top 5 teams||Year||Comp%||TD%||Int%||Yds/Att||ANY/Att|
|Bottom 5 teams||Year||Comp%||TD%||Int%||Yds/Att||ANY/Att|
The Bears are definitely getting more from their passing attack than the worst-throwing recent playoff team, the 2016 Houston Texans. But “more” than Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage were able to contribute to a team that barely won the dire 2016 AFC South is not much.
In fact, if you drop the Bears’ current passing rate stats in with that field of 60, they would rank near the bottom in almost all of them: completion rate (49th), touchdown rate (34th), interception rate (56th), yards per attempt (60th), passer rating (55th) and adjusted net yards per attempt (58th).
But unlike the 2016 Texans, the Bears don’t have a productive tailback, let alone two. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue gained 1,493 yards for those Texans at a 4.06 per-carry rate, leading that season’s eighth-most-prolific rushing attack. With 2020 Bears starter Tarik Cohen already out for the season, second-year back David Montgomery has managed just 305 yards over six games, averaging 3.7 yards a pop. The team’s No. 2 active rusher? Wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, with just 70 yards.
To stay competitive for the rest of the season — let alone make noise in the playoffs — the Bears will likely have to get better at one of these phases of the game. But if Foles can’t get closer to his top form, Montgomery can’t run more effectively, and the defense can’t find an even higher gear, there’s still one element driving the Bears’ success: fumble luck.
On defense, the Bears have forced four fumbles and recovered three, while on offense, they’ve recovered all six of their own fumbles. All in all, they’ve picked up 81.8 percent of the balls that have hit the ground in their games so far, the highest rate in the NFL. For comparison, the highest recorded full-season recovery rate since 2003 was the 69.8 percent put up by the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But whether the Bears have been lucky, good or both, it doesn’t change what’s happened. They’re still 5-1, with remaining games against the 1-5 Texans, 2-3 Detroit Lions and 1-5 Jacksonville Jaguars — and two games against the 1-5 Vikings. Even if their fumble luck regresses a little, and even if they don’t play significantly better, the Bears’ hot start has given them a nearly 50-50 chance to win the division and a 17 percent shot at a first-round bye.
Bears fans probably like those odds, even if the numbers lead everyone else to call them frauds.
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