FNQB: Winning with Bad Offensive Lines, and the Chicago Bears
The offensive line is the defensive unit of an offense. The rules of football make this the case. Fundamentally, football offense is six players who are allowed to move the ball through deception, speed, power, or precision. The defense is allowed to play with 11 guys, and since 11 guys would stop 6 guys pretty easily, it’s the other five who determine the success or failure of the entire unit. Or something like that.
One piece of conventional wisdom that seems to hold true throughout the years is that if the offensive line is poor at doing it’s job, there’s not a lot that can be done with the other six players to sustain offense over a long period of time. This has been extrapolated by some writers to the belief that offensive efficiency and offensive line efficiency always correlate perfectly. That’s not so much true. Once we ascend to the above league-average levels of offensive efficiency, the determinate of greater success tend to be more related to the synergies between a quarterback, his receivers, and his coaching staff. There are situational advantages to having a dominating offensive line over an adequate one, making these synergies stronger, but great teams have great players on and off the offensive line.
This article will not focus on those synergies. This article will look at the teams that have managed to enjoy great success with poor performers on the offensive lines. A bad offensive line is not a rarity: you can look at any really bad offense, and you’ll find that the offensive lines struggles are paramount to the failure of the unit. What’s rare is to see a really poor performing line, and a team that wins in spite of it.
Roughly two teams per year make the playoffs with a poor performing offensive line since 2005, meaning that competency on the OL is a common factor with about 83% of the last 60 teams to clinch a playoff berth. That number is a lot higher if you throw out the contributions of the NFC West division, which has featured four bad offensive lines since Seattle’s broke down a half-decade ago. The division has been won by the Seahawks and Cardinals every year since the Rams last won it in 2003.
Offensive line performance can be bad for any number of reasons. Look at the Pittburgh Steelers. While no one thinks they have an excellent group of offensive linemen, but the reason they rank up near the top of the league in sack rate every year is because of Ben Roethlisberger, and the way he tries to move the ball. The Steelers offensive line has been on many a list of poor performing lines, but I’m not sure it would really be accurate to characterize the Steelers as a team that wins in spite of their offensive line. Often, they’ll have to win in spite of their entire offense. But over the decade, it’s been a joint effort from the offense and defense to win two championships and make the playoffs 7 out of the last 10 years, which includes 2010.
The inspiration of this article — the 2010 Chicago Bears — have no such claim to offensive competency. That didn’t matter last Monday, when Chicago blew out Minnesota on the road, and clinched the NFC North for the first time since 2006. They put up 33 offensive points against the Vikings mostly with a quick passing game and runs that hit the defense quickly. The Bears still do a lot of schematic things to protect their offensive line from itself. And since the Bears dropped to 4-3 in Week 7 prior to the bye, they’ve been very successful on the offensive side of the ball, all things considered. The team is 6-1 after the bye, and that’s not a cheap 6-1 either. Not bad for a team that appeared (and was) incredibly fortunate to be anything else besides 2-5 at the bye week.
It’s not rare for a team to improve in the second half of the year the way the Bears have. What is rare is for an offensive line to perform like the Bears did over the course of the season, and for them to still win the division. The Bears are one of only two teams with five wins and no losses in their division, and they did it in a brutal pass rushing division (NFC North), while playing against another great pass rushing division (NFC East), and shut out yet another great pass rushing team (Miami). The Bears skirted all year around great mismatches on the lines, and had zero offensive consistency all year. But at the end of the season, things don’t look so horrible for a Bears offense that still ranks very low in most measures, but is finding ways to score a bunch of points with or without the help of the defense and special times.
I set out to find out whether something similar has every been done before, whether a team has ever made the postseason with a line that performed as poorly as the Bears line did in 2010. Quickly: I’ll point out that there’s a difference between a poor performing offensive line, and a line that performs adequately even though it’s vastly outmatched. The latter is a good way to describe the 2010 Indianapolis Colts. That’s a weak group, but it performs well because the Colts receivers and quarterback know exactly what they need to do to ensure Peyton Manning is never sacked: get the ball out quickly, and never, ever run it. The Bears OL doesn’t do that. It has accomplishments in spite of its performance. That’s a key difference.
Do the results suggest teams are becoming more adept at succeeding despite no running lanes, and all sorts of pressure on the quarterback? They are inconclusive, but interesting nonetheless.
A list of offensive protection units similar to that of the Bears’ this year would be a list of really bad offensive teams. The Bears are a bad offensive team. They are not the 2008 Lions, the line most recently as bad as Chicago’s is right now. Other really bad lines of recent would include the 2007 Chiefs, the 2006 Lions, the 2006 Raiders, the 2005 49ers, 2005 Vikings, and well, the 2004 Bears. Those seven teams averaged fewer than 4 wins per year. Only the 2005 Vikings managed a winning record, until this Bears team, which could end up winning twelve games.
The Vikings appeared to make it to 9-7 mostly as a product of improved fortune. Improved offense behind the passing of Brad Johnson certainly helped, but overall, incredibly fortunate. Most recent teams just haven’t been able to win with poor performing offensive lines.
Conversely, what if we look with the best teams in the last five years with poorly performing offensive lines (though, obviously, not quite as bad as the Chicago line). The Steelers show up on there twice in 2007 and 2008. The post-Hutchinson Seahawks show up there twice in 2007 and 2008. The 2009 Packers struggled to protect the quarterback. Past them, one needs to go all the way back to the 2003 Ravens to find a playoff team with an offensive line that could not protect it’s quarterback.
There was one team to make the postseason with a line as dreadful as the Chicago Bears: the amazing 1999 Detroit Lions. That was the first year after Barry Sanders retired, and the Lions had no ability to run the ball featuring Greg Hill behind this line. But Gus Frerotte had an amazing season throwing the football when he was healthy, and Charlie Batch also had the best year of his career. Plus the Lions only got to 8-8. One year before that, the Atlanta Falcons made the super bowl, losing to the Denver Broncos there. That offensive line isn’t remembered as poor because of all the records that RB Jamaal Anderson set that year, but that team couldn’t protect it’s quarterback, which is one of the many reasons Anderson continued to get carries.
Clearly, winning teams with epically bad offensive lines come around about twice a decade. The Bears may just be one of every one-hundred or one-hundred fifty football teams that can win in spite of it’s offensive line. Both the 1999 Lions and the 2005 Vikings did a better job creating offense than this Bears team did, but the Bears are winning this year how they have always been able to win: special teams and strong defense. This is not a great Bears team, but it’s a good one. I feel safe saying that they’ve already won more games in a season than any team with an offensive line this bad in the last twenty years.
Their defense (ranked 4th in DVOA) and special teams (ranked 1st) are good enough for the Chicago Bears to make a run at the super bowl this year. Winning it all with this group of offensive linemen would be completely unprecedented, even by the 2008 Steelers, who scored defensively in the playoffs in both the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl. Of course, the Steelers super bowl hopes came down to one last drive by it’s offense. Sure, that offense instantly became the worst to ever win the championship on a game winning drive, but they were a little bit stronger up front than the Bears currently are.
An examination of the other teams with offensive line struggles similar to those of the 2010 Bears reveals a bunch of teams that either improved on offense as they were going into the postseason, or they missed the playoffs, or they exited very quietly and rather unimpressive, remaining an afterthought. There are a number of narratives under which this Bears team could hoist the Lombardi trophy, either the line made a vast and unexpected improvement, or Jay Cutler’s recent mastery of Mike Martz’ offense becomes a competency, or Devin Hester goes on an epic run of return touchdowns, letting the defense and running game do the rest. Knowing Martz, it’s not going to be that last one. Either he’s going to learn to trust his offensive line, or the Bears will figure to win in spite of no blocking, or the Bears will lose. Quickly. I think the majority opinion among pundits around the NFL is of that last option.
Winning a playoff game and making a run isn’t out of the question, especially with the Bears very much in play for a bye in the playoffs. Cutler can protect his offensive line the way Brett Favre was able to in last year’s playoffs. The Bears can still become a ground team using the weather conditions to their advantage. Devin Hester can provide whatever offense they may need off defensive stops. Robbie Gould, who hasn’t had to do much with the offense creating long TD drives, is still an accurate bad-weather kicker. Traditionally, however, teams built like the Bears tend to exit very quietly from the postseason, looking always as if they never expected to be there in the first place. In that sense, this team may be different from all the other weak offensive teams that fizzled out once they reached the bright lights of the playoffs.
Even though the Bears made the playoffs in an extremely improbable manner — division champs without showing they can do the most fundamental of offensive skills — they’ll have every chance to make these playoffs count for them. Even so, the Bears feature the worst offensive line production of any playoff team in the last 10 years, and of any division winner, perhaps ever. Eight wins may be the high water mark for a team who blocked as poorly as the Bears for the entirety of a season, and this team that is already 2 wins beyond that mark. They’ve spit on the notion that teams must be built out from the offensive line. While touchdown scoring always seems like a bit of a accident from this team, yet, the scores are coming in bunches. Even if you’re not a fan of the Bears, try to appreciate the rarity of what they’ve accomplished.