LAKE FOREST, Ill. - Seven decades after their T-formation offense defined the quarterback as the most important position on an NFL field, the Chicago Bears began the 2010 season with a playbook seemingly designed to render their quarterback extinct.
New offensive coordinator Mike Martz had arrived with a reputation as a quirky genius, and the quirks were revealed well before the genius.
Martz drew up game plans built around the powerful arm of Jay Cutler, whose potential to connect with receivers running long and winding pass routes was supposed to be realized by a seven-step drop into the pocket.
For Bears fans restlessly awaiting a verdict on embattled head coach Lovie Smith, at least Martz’s pass-centric scheme promised something different.
It was different, to be sure. The receivers struggled for clearance.
The offensive linemen couldn’t hold their blocks long enough for the quarterback to set up. The running backs, traditionally a staple of any Bears offense, were reduced to ground-level observers, as baffled about their de-emphasized role as everybody else. A 3-0 start belied the fact that Martz had transformed Cutler into a human tackling dummy. And then it got ugly.
The Giants, relying on a bread-and-butter defensive package that showed almost no blitzing, sacked Cutler nine times in the first half. (Nine sacks, one half: it’s an NFL record that’ll never be threatened.)
Two weeks later, the Seahawks succeeded with another approach, tormenting Cutler with a pass rush augmented by blitzing defensive backs.
As soon as Chicago’s playoff rematch with the Seahawks was set for Sunday, Martz and his fellow offensive coaches reviewed the Oct. 17 game tape with the players. The viewing was like sitting through a marathon of bad horror movies. Think of “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” followed by “Mars Needs Women,” followed by “The Howling III: The Marsupials.”
“It was kind of tough to watch,” said Bears tight end Greg Olsen.
Added Martz: “We just look at the mistakes, and they were kind of amazed at some of the things they did. That’s just where we were at the time. We just had to get better, piece by piece.”
After a defeat to the Redskins left the Bears with a 4-3 record entering their bye week, it was clear Martz had reached a crossroads:
He either could maintain an obstinate belief in a scheme that once had turned the Rams into The Greatest Show on Turf, or he could show himself to be flexible – never his strength as a head coach.
In a decision that saved both the Bears’ season and their offensive coordinator’s job, Martz adjusted the playbook to better fit his players’ abilities. Cutler’s deep drop was scrapped, decreasing the time required for the revamped line to sustain protection. Receivers’ routes were shortened and simplified. Most important was the implementation of a ground game, featuring versatile back Matt Forte, to offset defensive linemen bent on harassing the quarterback.
“I just think he had to see, once we got the line squared out and figured out, what we were going to do,” Forte said of Martz. “We couldn’t just throw the ball all the time.”
During their 23-20 loss to the Seahawks, the Bears countered 39 passes with just 14 rushing attempts. A week later, a 17-14 defeat to the ’Skins found the Bears passing 40 times, with 16 runs. Such imbalance produced too many third-and-longs – 0-for-13 against Seattle – which in turn put undue strain on a defense that relies more on quickness than strength.
Over the nine games after the bye week, the Bears ground-air ratio was virtually equal: 258 runs, 251 passes. Third-down efficiency improved. (Chicago finished 27th of 32 teams, but it had ranked last in the league.) More conversions on third-and-short increased time of possession.
“The offense,” Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher pointed out Thursday, “is the reason our defense played so good the second half of the season. They held onto the ball. They converted third downs. They ran the ball. They kept us on the sideline and kept us fresh. Everybody feels great right now, because we’ve been rested, for the most part, the second half of the season.”
Another beneficiary of the Bears’ midseason metamorphosis is the head coach. Smith, like the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, regards himself as a defensive tactician who generally gives the offensive coordinator the freedom to call plays.
How influential was Lovie Smith in dialing down the high-risk component of an offense that made Cutler vulnerable every time he dropped back seven steps? Did Smith confront Martz with a plea to exercise common sense?
Aside from Smith and Martz, nobody knows. What’s undeniable is that Smith has increased his chances of retaining his job for another three or four years, and that Martz, the quirky genius, has proven himself able to grasp the fundamental lesson of football science.
If it ain’t working, fix it.