Dominant Bears defy modern-day NFL logic in season's first half
The Bears are relying on an odd, old formula in racing out to a 7-1 start this year
The pass defense is excelling, while the team's passing offense is merely mediocre
While their record is impressive, the Bears haven't beaten a truly good team yet
The Chicago Bears crossed the halfway pole of the 2012 season as the most dominant team in football, and certainly the most fascinating statistical case study the NFL has provided in decades.
The league has spent 34 years locked in an effort to neuter every defense in football, as if they were overly frisky family pets.
The 2012 Bears are defying the trends, winning with an average quarterback, a bad offensive line, a largely overrated ground game and a frighteningly productive defense.
But are the 2012 Bears and their 7-1 record for real? Are they a legit shot to edge out the undefeated Falcons or outlast the Giants, Packers or 49ers and capture the NFC crown?
Do these old-school Monsters of Midway have what it takes to topple the AFC's galaxy of all-world quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, or even the mighty Houston Texans, who Chicago hosts Sunday night in the premier clash of Week 10?
The Cold, Hard Football Facts tackle Lovie Smith's fascinating team from all three angles: its dominance, its uniqueness and its prospects for winning it all.
The Bears don't just win games. They mercilessly crush many of their opponents.
Five of seven wins this year have come by 16 points or more, including a 38-point win at Jacksonville in Week 5 and Sunday's 51-20 Music City Massacre at Tennessee.
Chicago is +120 in scoring differential, best in the NFL. They are No. 2 in scoring defense (15.0 PPG), behind only the 49ers (12.9), and No. 3 in scoring offense (29.5 PPG), behind the Patriots (32.8) and Texans (29.6).
If the Bears keep up this pace -- albeit an unlikely scenario -- they would be just the 11th team in the Super Bowl Era to outscore opponents by 240 points or more over the course of a season. They would join the 1999 "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams and the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 as the most recent teams on that short list of dominant powers.
In fact, with 236 points scored through eight games, the Bears are on pace for a franchise record 472, which would break the current mark of 456 points held by the legendary Bears of 1985.
The Bears also look dominant when we size them up in the Quality Stats that we use at Cold, Hard Football Facts that separate winners from losers, especially those on defense.
The Bears win not just because they physically dominate, at least on defense, but for a more surprising reason.
Chicago right now is the smartest, most efficient, most opportunistic team in football on both sides of the ball.
The Bears are No. 1 in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency that quantifies the "bend but don't break" phenomenon. They are also No. 1 in Scoreability, our measure of scoring efficiency, with all those defensive points making up for what the offense has lacked in explosiveness.
These indicators measure how well teams play in situational football, and right now no team is better on either side of the ball.
So the Bears are very good, even dominant. But it's the way in which they've beat up opponents that makes this team such a fascinating statistical case study.
The NFL has essentially tried to legislate variety out of the game. There is only one "right" way to win in the eyes of the NFL powers that be: with a great quarterback who passes the ball as often as possible against emasculated defenses.
That trend came to a head just last season: the Patriots and Giants won their respective conference championships with the worst pass defenses ever to play in a championship game, whether measured by Defensive Passer Rating (86.10 for the Giants; 86.11 for the Patriots) or passing yards allowed (4,417 and 4,977).
The 2012 Bears are bucking the trend in spectacularly virile fashion, embarrassing quarterbacks in a way that does not seem possible in the modern NFL, while turning its defense into an offensive weapon the likes of which we have not seen in decades.
The most obvious manifestation is Chicago's spectacular ability to produce defensive points. The Bears defense has scored eight TDs this year. The famed 1985 Bears produced just five defensive scores all year.
For a little perspective here in 2012, 22 NFL teams have rushed for fewer than eight TDs; the Jaguars have scored a total of 11 offensive TDs via run or pass.
Teams USED to win this way quite often. Turnovers were far more common in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. But all those turnovers actually led to more scoring and more exciting football. The highest-scoring seasons in NFL history (based upon average score per game) were 1948, 1965 and 1950 -- seasons in which defenses had a fighting chance to compete.
More turnovers meant more defensive scores and more short fields for offenses -- truly the old-school formula that the Bears have ridden to their 7-1 record.
Cornerback Charles Tillman has led the charge, with seven forced fumbles and two interceptions returned for touchdowns. He forced four fumbles against the Titans alone.
The performance by Tillman and his mates is best represented by Chicago's league best Defensive Passer Rating, one of the most critical stats in football. Teams that win championships routinely dominate in DPR and, right now, nobody is close to the Bears in this indicator.
Chicago's Defensive Passer Rating is 62.9, an awesome 10 points better than the No. 2 49ers. In other words, the average opposing quarterback this year has posted a 62.9 passer rating.
For a little perspective, this DPR means the average quarterback who faces the Bears plays worse than the worst quarterbacks in football this year: Matt Cassel (68.9), Brandon Weeden (67.9) and John Skelton (65.8), the NFL's three lowest-rated passers still boast higher passer ratings than the average Chicago opponent.
So the numbers are impressive. The Bears are winning big, and doing it in a way that NFL rules and recent history say is not possible.
And there, then, is the larger concern.
The NFL has always rewarded teams with the best quarterbacks. But it's specifically built to accentuate the importance of quarterbacks today.
Consider this: teams that enter a game with a more highly rated quarterback have gone 83-49 (.629) this year, making passer rating the stat most likely to predict NFL winners, according to our Predictive Rate of Victory table at CHFF Insider. Teams that enter a game running the ball more effectively are just 62-70 (.470).
And you don't need all that empirical evidence to tell you that Jay Cutler and the Bears possess a merely ordinary passing game.
Cutler gets all the blame. But in reality that early-season image of him yelling at his offensive line in the loss to the Packers is perfectly understandable.
Chicago once again fields a sub-standard offensive line, No. 22 on our Offensive Hog Index, and dead last (again) protecting the passer, surrendering a Negative Pass Play on 13.3 percent of dropbacks.
In other words, the Bears suffer a sack (29) or interception (8) on more than 1 in 8 dropbacks.
The other issue, of course, is that the Bears have built their otherwise impressive statistical resume against a largely second-rate schedule.
Chicago's opponents this year are a combined 27-39 (.409) and the team has faced just two Quality Opponents. The Bears beat up the Colts with rookie Andrew Luck making his first NFL start, 41-21, way back in Week 1, and were manhandled the following week, 23-10, by the division rival Packers.
We'll get a truer test of Chicago's statistical mettle over the second half of the season, with a visit to San Francisco, a rematch with the Packers and a trio of games against the surprisingly feisty 5-4 Vikings and 5-4 Seahawks.
The second half kicks off with what may be the toughest game of the year: Sunday night's visit from the 7-1 Houston Texans, the closest thing to the perfect statistical team we have in football so far (No. 1 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings).
By Sunday night we'll know if the Bears are legit, or just a fascinating yet fleeting statistical case study, winning only briefly in a manner that the NFL has tried to legislate out of the game.
If the Cold, Hard Football Facts had a rooting interest in teams, we'd be rooting for the Bears to continue to defy the NFL rule makers.
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi