Hub Arkush: What if Matt Nagy was only holding out and the Bears really can run the ball?

November 30, 2018

Bears head coach Matt Nagy has had a near-magical rookie year in which almost everything has gone right — with just one exception.

The Bears cannot mount an effective ground game from the line of scrimmage with their running backs.

Looking at league stats, you’ll see the Bears rank 15th in team rushing — not great but not horrible or unmanageable if it weren’t badly inflated by the scrambling of QB Mitch Trubisky — and their average gain per carry ranking is tied for 25th.

Trubisky has rushed 51 times for 363 yards, a 7.1-yard average, surpassed among signal callers only by Carolina’s Cam Newton (80-392, 4.9).

As a team, the Bears have rushed for 1,267 yards on 307 carries (4.1 YPC), earning them those 15th and 24th rankings, but running backs have rushed for just 235-835, 3.55, which would rank the Bears 31st in the league in average gain per rush, in front of only 2-9 Arizona (3.53).

Based on running backs rushing yards alone, the Bears rank 29th in the NFL, ahead of only Minnesota (30th), Atlanta (31st) and Arizona (32nd ).

Are the Bears doomed once they get in with the big boys in the playoffs?

Not necessarily with the way they can play defense, but it certainly makes the hill to climb a lot higher, a lot steeper and a lot tougher to navigate.

Perhaps the better question at the moment is can Nagy’s Bears offense, derived from what the Chiefs and Eagles are doing, ever be successful without running the football?

I doubt it.

As explosive as triple threat Tyreek Hill is for the Chiefs, and as incredible as QB Patrick Mahomes has been at throwing the football, it is RB Kareem Hunt that leads Kansas City in total yards from scrimmage with 1,202, including 824 on the ground, which ranks 5th in the NFL.

As much as was made of the firepower in Super Bowl LII with the Eagles and Patriots combining for a record 1,149 yards of total offense and 874 yards through the air, Philly RBs Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement combined for 26 carries and 155 yards rushing (6.0 YPC) and that was the difference in the game.

Or you can just listen to Nagy. When I asked him a couple of weeks ago if it was necessary for his Bears to run the football to be successful in his offense, he told me it definitely is necessary, that you cannot be one-dimensional in the NFL.

That must be why when Nagy was asked last Friday what he has to do better over the last five games of the season, he answered, “Well, stating the obvious, and I’ve been saying this all year, we’ve got to figure out how to get better at the run game.

“But now we have this little bit of a break, so it’s a nice little time for myself and the staff to reflect, ‘OK, how do we give ourselves the best opportunities to run the ball better?’”

And that must be why when Nagy was asked if too much is being made of the Bears ground game deficiencies, he responded, “Well, no. I don’t think too much is being made of it. You have to be able to run the football inevitably. You can’t be one-dimensional.

“It’s just like on defense. You’ve got to be able to stop the run.”

So with all of that, we are left with two questions.

Assuming good health and reasonable luck over the next five weeks, is all that might keep the Bears from a legitimate run at a Super Bowl finding a ground game?

And if it is, then question No. 2 has to be this: why did the Bears only give their running backs the ball 11 times last week in Detroit and drop to throw it 42?

Nagy said it was because the Lions ‘D’ is so good against the run, but it entered the game ranked 30th in run defense.

It is the one great puzzle of Year One of the Bears Nagy era.

Is the issue that they can’t run the ball, that they won’t or that Nagy has one more surprise coming for us between now and January?

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