Yesterday I left the Bears game at the end of the first half to meet up with friends. As I was getting ready to head out, a very 2014 Bears stat flashed on the screen: they were dominating the Vikings in time of possession and they had run substantially more plays, but they had gained just as many yards.
Another very 2014 Bears stat: against the Vikings, they averaged 4.7 yards per rush… and 4.3 yards per pass. Last year the Bears averaged 7.4 yards per pass attempt, good for seventh-best in the NFL; this year they averaged 6.2 YPA, fifth-worst. In their last three games, they averaged 4.7 YPA… and 4.6 yards per rush.
It was an extraordinary regression, and it cost three jobs today: general manager Phil Emery, offensive-specialist head coach Marc Trestman, and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. The Bears had one of the worst defenses in football—the offense, despite its travails, averaged out to mediocrity—yet the OC and his offensive-minded boss were the first Bears to take the fall.
And it’s a collapse eerily similar to Trestman’s last high-profile NFL job, as offensive coordinator for the Raiders in 2002 and 2003. In the first year of his tenure, Trestman and head coach Bill Callahan steered an offense led by Jerry Rice, three-time Pro Bowler Rich Gannon, and marginal Hall-of-Fame candidate Tim Brown to the Super Bowl with an overwhelming passing attack. That year the Raiders averaged 6.8 net yards per passing attempt, good for third in the NFL.
After being throttled in the Super Bowl—Gannon threw five interceptions—the team collapsed. In 2003 the Raiders averaged 4.9 yards per passing attempt, third-worst in the league. Some of this can be attributed to their already-old offensive stars adding another year, and Rich Gannon going down after seven games. One year off the Super Bowl, the Raiders played five quarterbacks, including Rick Mirer, the Jimmy Clausen of his day.
But by the time Gannon went down, the Raiders were a mere 2-5. This was written after just three games:
Callahan will make big adjustments to his offensive scheme in the wake of the Raiders’ 31-10 loss to Denver on Monday night. The defending AFC champions are off to a 1-2 start after three disappointing games, and even Callahan admits the Raiders have become too predictable.
“The offensive system that we’ve been deploying has really come under intense scrutiny from opponents,'’ Callahan said Tuesday. “People across the league have researched us, and they’re going to find holes in your game somewhere.'’
Callahan and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman changed the focus of the Raiders’ offense when they took charge before last season. He employed more three-receiver sets and more of the short, precise passes that define the West Coast offense.
Then there are the ongoing struggles for Gannon, whose quarterback rating after three regular season games is a dismal 76.5. He has spent more time yelling at his teammates than leading scoring drives, and his latest outburst was captured on television during Oakland’s loss to Denver.
As an example, here’s Len Pasquarelli’s autopsy of the Raiders’ Super Bowl humiliation:
Because he knew Raiders wideouts Jerry Rice and Tim Brown can’t run or get off tight coverage, Kiffin called more “press” combinations than usual, just as he had at Philadelphia last week. Brown caught one pass for nine yards, and had one huge drop, in the first half. Rice ended up with five grabs for 77 yards but didn’t even sniff a ball until late in the third quarter. Nor could Oakland run the ball, finishing with just 11 carries for 19 yards.
Two veteran defenders told ESPN.com that they had Oakland so “typed” that they knew exactly what calls were coming. And the Raiders played into the Bucs’ hands as well. In the six quarters preceding Super Bowl XXXVII, the Raiders ran either three- or four-wide receiver formations on 85 of their 91 snaps. For all the improvement coordinator Marc Trestman made in the Oakland offense, there is an air of predictability, since the Raiders do not use much motion or variable motion.
Trestman’s 2002 Raiders season was his second at the helm of one of the NFL’s great offenses. He’d previously been the coordinator for two years in San Francisco, working with Rice and Steve Young. That had gone better. Trestman took over a No. 1 offense from Mike Shanahan, kept it No. 1 in his first year, and slipped just to third while having to start Elvis Grbac for four games. But some of the criticisms of Trestman sound familiar:
Even when the 49ers had Roger Craig, their offense was predicated on the pass setting up the run, so defenses were off balance when they ran. With lesser backs now, that is even more important, but Trestman’s run calls usually come when everybody in the stadium is expecting them.
With all the options available in the 49ers’ offense, it should be able to keep other teams off balance by going against tendencies, so it isn’t predictable.
Rice later had two effective seasons under Trestman for the Raiders, but at the time, Rice was glad to see his offensive coordinator go after the 1996 season:
The main problem was how Trestman used Rice, as a possession receiver, an inexplicable tactic for one of the NFL’s top deep threats. Trestman’s explanation was the 49ers’ running game was suspect, and he needed Rice for first downs in what had become a possession offense.
The strategy worked enough to get the 49ers to the playoffs, but the result was an unhappy Rice, who was so weary by season’s end that in one critical goal-line situation against Carolina, he had to leave the field. Quarterback Steve Young threw into triple coverage to rookie Terrell Owens, and the pass was intercepted, killing any chance of a comeback.
In six of the last nine games, Rice averaged under 10 yards a catch. His three 100-yard games and eight touchdowns both were the lowest totals since his rookie year, and, for the first time in his career, he didn’t have a catch as long as 40 yards.
The year before, Trestman’s first, Rice had a career-high 1,848 receiving yards, the only year he averaged more than 100 yards per game, at 15.1 yards per reception. In 1996, Rice averaged a mere 11.6 yards per reception and 78.4 yards per game, with 600 fewer yards on just 14 fewer receptions.
Despite having the second-worst scoring defense in the NFL this year—they were tied for second-worst last year—Mel Tucker didn’t get the boot today. Instead, it was the architects of their superior, if vastly more frustrating, offense. Trestman may get another chance in the NFL; he’s coached three great offenses, last year’s Bears included. He might even be a good choice as an offensive coordinator for a good defensive team looking to shore up a bad quarterback with a functional system. It doesn’t seem unlikely. The real challenge for Trestman will be getting to year three.