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Northwestern football: Truly Chicago’s Big Ten Team

Two flatlining offenses, two strong defenses, one shared storyline of disappointment.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Mick McCall and Pat Fitzgerald are up to something.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for the seemingly incoherent play-calling. Maybe there’s a full explanation as to why Northwestern has struggled to get any sort of passing offense going all season long. Maybe there’s a reason as to why, while the defense has been stingy throughout, the Wildcats still sit at 1-6, dead last in the Big Ten, averaging just one touchdown per game vs. Power 5 teams.

Could it be an attempt to mimic our professional neighbors to the south?

Okay, well, obviously not.

However, after Sunday’s atrocious loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Matt Nagy’s talented squad sits at 3-4, last in the NFC North. The 2019 iteration of the Bears consists of both a star-studded defense and one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Sound familiar?

What is it about the two most notable Chicago-area football teams that makes them seem so similar? Let’s break it down.

The Eye Test

Before jumping into the specific issues that plague both squads, here’s a quick, overarching examination of the rosters.

At quarterback, Northwestern has stuck with Aidan Smith after benching five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. Prior to that, fifth-year senior TJ Green was struck by a season-ending foot injury in the season opening loss vs. Stanford.

While the Bears haven’t faced a QB carousel the way the ‘Cats have, many fans have called for a change at the position after third-year QB Mitchell Trubisky appears to have taken a huge step backward. Overall, both offenses have appeared sickly, especially in the passing game.

On the other side of the ball, both defenses are firm. Northwestern is led by future NFL draft picks Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano, while the Bears are led by household names like superstar linebacker Khalil Mack and ballhawking safety Eddie Jackson, among many other Pro Bowl candidates.

When it comes to coaching, both fanbases have refused to shy way from calling out their team’s play-calling. Matt Nagy and the Bears have seemingly refused to run the ball at critical moments this season (aside from the loss to the Chargers, more on that later) while Mick McCall has decided that throwing the ball down the field is just generally a bad idea, sticking to his special recipe of inside zones, read options, meshes, and the occasional deep out on third and long.

It’s evident that while the defenses are doing the job for both teams, the offenses and play-calling aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. Now it’s time to dive deeper into those similarities.

Offensive struggles (specifically, quarterbacking difficulties)

Let it be known now that the Chicago Bears not only selected Mitchell Trubisky ahead of Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 NFL draft, but traded up to get him. Okay, now that we have allowed for that obligatory mention of what may be looked back on as one of the worst draft-day decisions in NFL history, let’s get to the numbers.

Through his first two and a half years in the league, Trubisky has thrown 36 touchdowns and 22 interceptions (a 1.63 TD/INT ratio, not great by any means, but acceptable). This season, however, the former Tar Heel has lowered that number to 1.4. Going back to the eye test, Trubisky appears to have taken a step backward, as he’s seemingly unable to make the reads and throws that many NFL quarterbacks should be making in a variety of situations (the thread below is one example).

Moving up Lake Michigan about 15 miles, Northwestern has been unable to find a real fit at QB1 this year. Fifth-year senior TJ Green fell victim to a gruesome injury, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson has been dealing with minor injuries and now family health issues (sending prayers to Hunter and his mother), and Aidan Smith is just trying to get by after being thrown into the mix out of nowhere.

In addition to failing the eye test by simply consistently missing open throws (Smith in particular), the ‘Cats’ quarterbacks boast a ghastly 0.18 TD/INT ratio this season. The group is throwing for an average of just 126 yards per game and currently hold a passer rating of well below 80, which would be good for the worst team number across at least the past 15 years of FBS football.

You can’t place all blame on the quarterbacks though, and for good reason. Play-calling is a major factor, and seems to be dragging one team down even more thoroughly than the other.

Play-calling woes

Excluding the 2012 season, where the Wildcats finished top 50 in PPG with 31.7, Northwestern has consistently been below average in pure points, yards, SP+ rating, and every other conceivable offensive measurement since McCall’s tenure began in 2008. In Northwestern’s 10-win 2015 season, the ‘Cats averaged just 19.5 PPG, good enough for 114th in the nation.

This season, however, they’ve hit a new low. Northwestern currently averages 10.7 PPG, worst in college football. Even though this team has seen some significant personnel losses on offense, both individual play-calls (speed option on fourth and goal, constantly rolling QBs away from their throwing arm) along with long-term trends (run-run-pass-punt, the absence of downfield shots), speak to the offensive difficulties transcending a mere lack of talent.

While play-calling can’t take as much blame for the Bears’ woes as it can for those of Northwestern, it’s still an issue, especially this season. Last year, Nagy’s unique trick plays were enough to boost the Bears to first in the NFC North at 12-4, though they received a huge assist from the best defense in the league.

Eight weeks into 2019, the Bears are last in the NFC North with one of the worst offenses in the NFL, averaging 18.3 PPG, 27th in the league. Nagy has received heavy criticism for not using promising rookie running back David Montgomery enough early in the season. The rookie’s heaviest usage came this past Sunday against the Chargers, where he rushed for 135 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries. Even then, though, Mitchell Trubisky turned the ball over twice and the Bears fell to the Chargers 17-16.

Let’s visit the end of that Chargers game. The Bears were down 17-16 and had the ball on the Chargers’ 25-yard line with 41 seconds left and one timeout. Instead of electing to try to get closer for a potential game winning field goal, despite the success he had with the run game all day long and the fact that he passed in a similar situation in last year’s infamous “double-drink” playoff loss, Nagy called for a QB kneel, simply running the clock down.

Kicker Eddy Piñeiro, who later told the media that he had actually wanted the ball in the middle of the field, then pushed the 41-yard potential game-winner wide left, and the Bears lost 17-16.

Should some blame be on Piñeiro? Yes, he went 2/4 kicking on Sunday. But it’s play calls and decisions like these that Bears fans have been extremely frustrated with, this season in particular. Meanwhile, Northwestern fans have been seeing these kinds of struggles for years. Inconsistent offensive scheming appears to plague the city of Chicago, on both the college and professional level.

Neither team appears to have a similar problem on the other side of the ball, though.

Defense wins championships (when you have a decent offense to back it up)

In September 2018, the Bears shocked the NFL when they landed superstar Khalil Mack in a trade with the Raiders. The team immediately inked him to a six-year, $141 million extension, indicating he was a key piece of their future. In his first game of the 2018 season, Mack made his presence felt, recording one sack, one forced fumble and one interception returned for a touchdown.

He was the missing piece of the puzzle, immediately taking the Bears’ defense from good to elite. Mack, along with Jackson and All-Pro defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, led the Bears to the aforementioned 12-4 record and playoff berth despite an inconsistent offense.

This was a markedly similar storyline to Northwestern’s magical 2018 run. While Clayton Thorson was, at times, very good, the defense typically had to carry the weight.

Back to 2019, the Bears defense didn’t lose much talent aside from safety Adrian Amos. Former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took up the head coaching position in Denver, but the Bears front office brought in a seemingly solid replacement in Chuck Pagano. All in all, the defense is still, by all measures, impressive, though they haven’t quite reached the heights of last year yet, thanks in part to bad turnover luck.

The same goes for Northwestern. Mike Hankwitz & co. have done a very good job with their “bend but don’t break” mentality, allowing opponents to drive consistently but not to score many points. The ‘Cats have struggled to create turnovers, too, but have otherwise done well in keeping pretty much any game within striking distance (aside from Ohio State, but let’s not talk about that).

The bottom line is that defensively, both teams have more than enough to win now. But the fact remains that each squad is underperforming, and the main reason for their respective struggles is relative levels of ineptitude on the other side of the ball.

Final thoughts

What can you, the discerning Windy City sports fan, take away from this? Has a football curse been placed on the Chicagoland area?

No, don’t be ridiculous.

These problems are certainly fixable. Both defenses just need some help. I won’t try to offer up a one-size-fits-all solution for either squad, because nothing is that simple, but changes clearly have to be made all across the southeastern piece of Lake Michigan. Seven games into the 2019 season, the hearts of both fanbases depend on it.