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Lazor’s edge: Change is often good in the NFL

A giant leap for the Bears’ 29th-ranked offense is unlikely with Bill Lazor taking over play-calling against the Vikings. But with this defense, even a small bump in efficiency could make a difference.

Bears coach Matt Nagy (right) will hand off play-calling responsibilities to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (left) for Monday night’s game against the Vikings at Soldier Field. Lazor called plays as offensive coordinator with the Dolphins in 2014-15 and with the Bengals in 2017 and 2018.
Bears coach Matt Nagy (right) will hand off play-calling responsibilities to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (left) for Monday night’s game against the Vikings at Soldier Field. Lazor called plays as offensive coordinator with the Dolphins in 2014-15 and with the Bengals in 2017 and 2018.
Dylan Buell/AP Photos

Bears tight end Jimmy Graham recalled that even Sean Payton gave up play-calling duties with the Saints. And Graham should remember: He was indirectly responsible for it.

In 2011, Payton turned over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. when he was forced to the press box after suffering a broken leg and a torn medial collateral ligament when Graham ran into him on the sideline while being tackled by Buccaneers linebacker Quincy Black.

The Saints were fifth in the league in scoring at the time, but they reached another level with Carmichael calling the plays. The next game, the Saints set a franchise scoring record in a 62-7 rout of the 0-6 Colts, scoring touchdowns on their first four drives.

In 10 games with Carmichael at the controls, the Saints averaged 37 points and 476 yards, the best in the NFL during that span. They scored 40 or more points five times. In the playoffs, the Saints beat the Lions 45-28 before losing to the 49ers 36-32.

The same thing happened to Payton when he was the offensive coordinator of the Giants in 2002. The Giants were 31st in scoring (12.7-point average) when coach Jim Fassel took over play-calling duties at midseason. They were fourth (25.7-point average) with Fassel calling the plays and went 6-2 to make the playoffs, losing 39-38 to the 49ers.

Change is often good in the NFL. In 2012, Ravens coach John Harbaugh abruptly fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Week 15 after the offense scored 28 points in a loss to the Redskins. Fueled by quarterback Joe Flacco’s incredible postseason run under Jim Caldwell (11 touchdown passes, no interceptions, 117.2 passer rating), the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

The common denominator in those instances, of course, is that the Saints and Ravens already had capable, if not above-average, offenses to begin with. In fact, that scenario arguably produced the Bears’ current plight.

It was coach Matt Nagy’s success as a play-caller with the already-potent Chiefs in 2017 — averaging 27.2 points in five regular-season games after taking over for Andy Reid — that made him the hot coaching candidate he was when the Bears hired him in 2018.

Nagy’s 2020 Bears are not in that realm. The Chiefs team he took over calling plays for was ninth in yards and seventh in points. The Bears offense he’s turning over to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is 29th in yards and points.

So while change can make a good offense better, it rarely — if ever — makes a bad offense good. Still, there’s often an immediate bump in production, even when the move is made out of desperation.

After Vikings coach Mike Zimmer fired John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator in 2018, the Vikings scored touchdowns on their first three possessions against the Dolphins in their first game under Kevin Stefanski and won 41-17. Two weeks later, they hit the wall against the Bears, losing 24-10 to end their playoff hopes.

And after Lazor replaced Ken Zampese as offensive coordinator of the Bengals in Week 3 in 2017, quarterback Andy Dalton had passer ratings of 124.1 in a 27-24 loss to the Packers and 146.0 in a 31-7 rout of the Browns. The Bengals won three of their first four games with Lazor calling the shots. But they still finished 32nd in yards and 26th in points that season and went 7-9.

So the lesson is the same as it often is when it comes to a Bears offense: Set the bar low. Lazor isn’t likely to turn the Bears’ offense into the juggernaut Nagy envisioned when he was hired.

The good news? With their defense, the Bears don’t need that much of a bump on offense to make a difference.