LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- As part of his preparation for each game, first-year Bears coach Matt Eberflus meets each day with members of the team’s revamped analytics department to forecast potential decisions in advance.
The Bears made a new investment in analytics this year after the arrival of Eberflus and new general manager Ryan Poles. But Eberflus has also pointed to the importance of trusting his gut in making the right decisions throughout the course of a game.
“It’s been relatively good,” Eberflus said of how he has balanced analytics with feel. “Every situation is different. We certainly haven’t been perfect, but we’ve been pretty good giving our guys a chance to win a game in the end. But I think that’s a balance you have to have.”
Whether it’s the analytics or Eberflus himself, the Bears have proved to be quite conservative at key points early this season. That was once again the case Sunday during the Bears’ 20-12 loss to the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
Facing a third-and-3 from the Giants’ 5-yard line late in the first quarter, the Bears handed off to running back Khalil Herbert, who gained just one yard. Eberflus then elected to send out kicker Michael Badgley, whom the Bears signed Saturday in a pinch, for a 22-yard field goal that cut Chicago's deficit to 7-6. That would be a theme of the day, as the Bears didn't find the end zone once in the loss, with Badgley’s leg accounting for all 12 of their points.
The Bears’ win probability if they'd made a fourth-and-2 conversion would’ve jumped to 51.1%, whereas a field goal moved it to just 41%, according to a Pro Football Focus decision model. A failed attempt on fourth down in that situation would've lowered their win probability to 38.4%.
Late in the game, Eberflus was faced with another difficult decision. The Bears trailed 20-12 and had fourth-and-2 from their own 45-yard line with 3:15 remaining. Eberflus sent out punter Trenton Gill, who successfully pinned the Giants back to their own 3-yard line as Eberflus had hoped. New York was also working with a quarterback in Daniel Jones who was hobbling on an injured ankle.
The Bears’ win probability with a conversion would've been 8.1%, according to the Pro Football Focus metrics. The punt dropped them to just a 2.2% chance. Eberflus’ plan went exactly as he hoped until Bears rookie Velus Jones Jr. muffed the ensuing punt from the Giants.
Of course, the Bears’ analytic models are a private matter and not for public consumption – they surely differ in some ways from what Pro Football Focus or other data-driven entities can provide. But there seems to be a lack of aggression as Eberflus and his staff confront these decisions throughout the course of games. Either their analytics suggest playing conservatively or Eberflus simply prefers that route.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley, a former Bears assistant, has developed the reputation of being one of the most aggressive and analytically driven decision-makers in the NFL. He trusts the numbers to guide his in-game calls, and Los Angeles converted 64.7% of its fourth-down attempts in 2021, a number that ranked fourth in the league. The Chargers' 22 fourth-down conversions were the most in the NFL last season.
“Our mindset’s going to be on us, it’s not going to be on the opponent,” Staley told the Athletic in August. “It’s going to be on us. So creating that fearless mindset of, we are going to be aggressive, we’re going to put the ball in our hands, we’re going to trust our guys to make plays.”
Of course, Staley also has stars like quarterback Justin Herbert, running back Austin Ekeler and receiver Keenan Allen. Chicago has a struggling offense.
The Bears haven't appeared to trust their players to make plays, and the statistics showcase why. Chicago’s offense ranks 30th in scoring, 31st in yardage and 32nd in passing yardage. Quarterback Justin Fields has endured significant struggles in his second season, sounding alarm bells inside Halas Hall.
Whether it’s trusting the analytics or his gut, Eberflus has to account for the struggles of Fields and the Bears' offense. The decisions he has made on the sidelines each Sunday don’t reflect confidence in his team.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.