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How good are the Bears? Exploring some statistics to understand their success

Bears coach Matt Nagy said something recently that surely made former coach Lovie Smith smile down in Champaign.

With the Bears leading the NFL with a plus-13 turnover differential, Nagy discussed the importance of defensive takeaways.

“That’s one of the stats that matter as you go through this,” Nagy said. “[It’s] making sure that you get the football on defense, and you don’t give it up on offense, and when you pair those together you’re always going to be in every game, usually, unless something crazy happens.”

But it’s only one stat that illustrates why the Bears are 6-3 and playing the Vikings for first place in the NFC North at Soldier Field on Sunday night. Here’s a look at the numbers behind the Bears’ season:

Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) celebrates after a touchdown against the Lions on Sunday. | AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Strength of schedule

The Bears have played the easiest schedule of any team so far this season.

Of the Bears’ six victories, five have come against some of the NFL’s worst teams: the Cardinals (2-7), Buccaneers (3-6), Jets (3-7), Bills (3-7) and Lions (3-6). They still have the lowly Giants (2-7) and 49ers (2-8) on their schedule.

The Bears’ path to 6-3 is partly why some pundits aren’t buying their success. It’s also why the matchup Sunday against the Vikings is viewed as a statement game.

But strength of schedule can be misleading to an extent. According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles had the easiest schedule in the NFC season en route to a 13-3 record — and that didn’t prevent them from winning the Super Bowl.

The Rams’ rise last season also was aided by their schedule. They were tied with the Seahawks for the second-easiest slate in the NFC, trailing only the Eagles.

The Patriots played the weakest schedule of any team during the 2016 season, then won the Super Bowl, according to Pro Football Reference.

A season before that, the Panthers had the easiest schedule of any team, went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl, too.

The point here is that you can only beat whom you play.

Part of the reason why good teams tend to have a low strength of schedule is because those good teams are defeating teams, consequently making the records of their opponents worse.

Point differential

One argument against the use of strength of schedule is point differential. The Bears didn’t merely just defeat bad teams this season; they obliterated them.

The Bears are fourth in point differential with a plus-94, trailing the Chiefs (113), Rams (104) and Saints (98).

In general, point differential can be a considered a strong indicator of the best teams in the NFL. The Eagles and Patriots were tied with a league-best plus-162 last season, and of course, they played in the Super Bowl.

That’s a trend, too.

Nine of the last 10 teams that played in the last five Super Bowls were first or second in point differential.

The 2015 Broncos are the only outlier. They won Super Bowl 50 against the Panthers but were the 10th-best team in terms of point differential during the regular season.

Trubisky’s ratings

The Bears are winning because quarterback Mitch Trubisky is developing.

There are currently 14 quarterbacks who have traditional passer ratings over 100 this season. Trubisky is 11th at 101.6. He’s ahead of many notable quarterbacks, including Cam Newton (101.2), Ben Roethlisberger (100.9), Deshaun Watson (100.8), Andrew Luck (98.4) and even Tom Brady (94.7).

Traditional passer rating, though, has long been considered a flawed statistic. It’s why ESPN created total QBR and Pro Football Focus established its own grading system.

This is where the Great Trubisky Debate comes in.

According to ESPN’s total QBR — which “incorporates all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including how he impacts the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties” — Trubisky is currently the NFL’s fourth-best quarterback with a 75.1 mark. Trubisky only trails Drew Brees (86.2), Patrick Mahomes (83.6) and Philip Rivers (75.4) in that system.

PFF, which grades every play and throw, doesn’t see the same things, though.

In PFF’s most recent rankings, Trubisky is rated as its 28th-best passer. He has the highest percentage of negatively graded throws (23.8 percent) of any starting quarterback. According to PFF, each throw has varying positive and negative degrees that it can be graded on. Trubisky’s rushing grade, though, does lead all quarterbacks.

Trubisky’s ratings certainly stand out when compared to Jay Cutler’s Bears run. It’s early, but they’re not even in the same conversation. Cutler’s best passer rating was 92.3 in 2015. His best total QBR was 70.9 in 2013.

More measurements

The Bears are the only team in the NFL to rank in the top five in scoring offense (No. 5, 29.9 points scored) and scoring defense (tied at No. 4, 19.4 points allowed).

But advanced statistics also can be used to highlight the Bears’ success.

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The Bears have the 10th-best offense and the top-rated defense, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average measurement.

DVOA places a percentage on teams and can sound complicated. But Football Outsiders’ explanation of it can be boiled down to: “DVOA breaks down every single play of the NFL season, assigning each play a value based on both total yards and yards towards a first down.” It’s then compared to a league-average baseline based on situations.

DVOA also can be applied to individual players. Trubisky is rated ninth among quarterbacks in DVOA, which is currently ahead of Newton, Brady, Carson Wentz and even Aaron Rodgers.

What does DVOA say about success overall?

It’s an indicator of playoff teams.

As a team, the Bears rank fifth in total DVOA behind the Chiefs, Rams, Chargers and Steelers. The Super Bowl-winning Eagles were fifth in total DVOA last season.

The Super Bowl-winning Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks finished first, eighth and first in 2016, 2015 and 2014, respectively. It’s a trend that continues.

EXTRA POINTS

Floyd back in flow

In the eyes of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is just getting started after picking up his first sack this season against the Lions last week.

To Fangio, everyone has underrated the impact that Floyd’s broken right hand had on his production. It was very detrimental.

“Hopefully, he’ll continue and start getting some more [sacks] and playing good,” Fangio said. “A lot of what happened with Leonard, too, is those first four weeks with his hand, especially the first three with the cast, we probably played him too much.

“You guys are seeing him not being productive and start asking about a bunch of questions. And then the first game where he had the small cast on, he wasn’t confident enough to throw it in there consistently. He was a little tentative. So I don’t think we’ve seen what he can or can’t do until these last couple of games.”

Floyd was noticeably better against the Lions. He hit quarterback Matthew Stafford three times, including twice on stunts to the inside.

“He’s very athletic, he’s very relentless and he’s slippery,” Fangio said of using Floyd on stunts. “So he can sometimes get through the cracks better than other guys.”

Searching for answers

When it came to game-planning for the Vikings’ defense, one film probably stood out to the Bears: the Eagles’ 38-7 rout of the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 21.

The Bears’ offense, of course, is similar to the Eagles’ because of their head coaches: Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy.

Backup quarterback Nick Foles completed 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles scored 38 unanswered points to advance to the Super Bowl.

“We look at everything; we do,” Nagy said when asked about last season’s NFC Championship Game.

But he didn’t want to make too much out of it.

“These coaches are good coaches,” Nagy said. “They understand that everyone looks at everything, so they adjust and they’ve done that.

“So we look at lots of games, and then we’ve just got to decide what we want to end up doing from the games we look at. Then that’s the chess match.”

TWITTER Q&A (for more questions/answers click here)

Would a pursuit of Le’Veon Bell be worth it in the offseason? — @amorley618

A: I knew this question was coming. Never say never, but the Bears won’t have as much salary-cap space in 2019 as they’ve had in the past under general manager Ryan Pace. Of course, that can change. All it takes is a few cuts. Bell is a special player, but he’s looking for a major payday. Right now, I don’t think the Bears will be the team to give it to him. Other positions — pass rusher, safety and offensive line — should be priorities in the offseason. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Bell. Fair or not, his character will be questioned by teams after he decided not to play this season. If you read the reports from Pittsburgh, his choice to not sign his franchise tag certainly seemed to infuriate his Steelers teammates. It sounds as if promises in the locker room were broken. The Steelers also are quite happy with James Conner, a third-round pick in 2017 who is further proof that good running backs can be found later in the draft. There also is another dynamic to consider with the Bears. Bell has the same agent, Adisa Bakari, as Jordan Howard. Bakari also represented Matt Forte, who left the Bears after the 2015 season.

Seems like the team has been much healthier this season than in past years. Have they done something differently? — @pelonedgar1

A: It starts with the Bears’ staff changes. Andre Tucker replaced Nate Breske as the Bears’ head trainer, and Jason Loscalzo took over for Jason George as their strength and conditioning coach. Coach Matt Nagy’s cautious approach has helped, too. It includes his “infamous” decision to sit his starters in the preseason. But the Bears have battled injuries since training camp. They’re just better built to handle them on the field. When inside linebacker Danny Trevathan was out in camp, Nick Kwiatkoski filled in. Tight end Adam Shaheen was put on injured reserve, but the Bears still had Trey Burton. Losing right guard Kyle Long also isn’t the same problem it was a few years ago. The Bears are a deeper team. For example, they could afford to sit and rest Khalil Mack, their best overall player, and Allen Robinson, their best receiver, against the Jets and Bills.

EPISODE 192