Spooky, isn't it? We always thought Mike Martz was a little odd. It turns out that he is just like Kathy Bates in Misery. "Seventy targets. No more, no less. Or else I shatter your freakin' ankles."
The closer you look, the creepier it gets. Only Knox was targeted 10 or more times in a game. Only Olsen was targeted nine times in a game -- once. The goal of the Bears offense appears to be to get the ball to each receiver precisely six times. Forte was targeted for five-to-seven passes seven times, Hester nine times, Bennett nine times, and Olsen six times. It's a quota system.
The perfect Bears game plan would feature about six passes to Knox and 4.5 passes each to the other four primary targets. Do not worry about the half pass; Martz can find a way. No game reached that level of equity, but a few came close. In the Week 6 meeting with the Seahawks, Forte received seven targets, Bennett six, Olsen four (he was held without a catch), and Devin Aromashodu joined the party with five, filling in for Hester, who had just three. For maximum balance, Forte rushed just eight times, and Cutler was sacked six times. Knox got greedy with 11 catches, but the graph above shows that Knox is first among equals at this round table. With Martz's ledgers properly balanced, the Bears could lose to the Seahawks safe in the knowledge that they scored their points the way they were meant to: Hester punt returns and Robbie Gould field goals.
But seriously, the Bears offense has been much more effective since that Week 6 loss, and the Riddle of the 70 Targets may be part of the reason. According to Martz's pretzel logic, Knox can be both the designated deep threat and the go-to receiver. His Catch Rate is terrible, but the air length of his average pass is 14.6 yards, so it's not like he is dropping screen passes. Hester has become a middling possession receiver, a Formula One racer refitted with wood paneling for trips to the mall. Bennett is all hitches and smash routes. Forte ran more 15-plus yard routes (eight) than Bennett (seven) this season, which gave him something to do during those eight-carry afternoons and further subverted traditional roles. Olsen did tight end-y things, bucking the trend of using every player in an unusual way (he does split wide a lot, but that is common for tight ends nowadays).
All of this strangeness was carefully, deliberately spread among five players, making it hard for defenses to scheme for tendencies. Who do you double cover? Which way does the coverage roll? Do you risk a linebacker on Forte? Chance a safety on Bennett? There's no Roddy White to take away. Double cover Knox on every snap, and Cutler still knows where about 24 of his passes are going to go. For a team that gives up too many sacks and turnovers, a little diversity has to help.
By now, you probably have noticed that those target totals are a little low. The Bears finished dead last in the NFL in pass attempts. Mind boggling. They finished 21st in the league in rushes. Cutler had 51 carries (many of them scrambles), and the Bears gave up 56 sacks. If you jiggle the numbers, the Bears were more like 28th in rushes and certainly higher than teams like the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Titans in pass attempts. (I don't feel like sorting out scrambles and adding sacks and scrambles to pass attempts for all the relevant teams.) The Bears finished 29th in the NFL in total plays, a remarkably low figure for an 11-win team. The Falcons and Jets, successful teams with methodical offenses, ran 1,097 and 1,087 plays in 2010. The Patriots ran just 986 plays, so the correlation between plays and offensive success isn't that great. But we think of Martz's offense as a non-stop onslaught. In reality, the combination of sacks, interceptions, and an unreliable running game turned it into a trickle.
A trickle that dripped precisely 70 milliliters of productivity into each bucket, and was just good enough to help the defense and special teams reach the playoffs. The Bears offense never quite equals the sum of its parts, but at least with all of the 70s, Martz kept the addition easy this time.
Nice post kegger. It kind of confirms what I sensed all season long. Martz didn't have any all-pro WR's to feature so he spread it around to keep teams from focusing on any one guy. I hope now that it's playoff time we turn more of those attempts into catches.