A lot went wrong for the Bears over the past season. There were silly penalties, plenty of injuries, defensive miscues and a carousel of quarterbacks throughout the year. It’s not hard to diagnose those issues, or see how they contributed to the team’s failures this year. But one problem that plagued the team from Week 1 to Week 18, was more surprising and confusing than the rest: Allen Robinson’s decline in the offense.
Over his three previous seasons in Chicago, Robinson was easily the best, and most consistent player in the Bears offense. Across the 2019 and 2020 seasons he caught 200 balls on 305 targets for 2,397 yards and 13 touchdowns. He cemented himself as one of the top receivers in the league, and not a one-season wonder as some wondered based on his career in Jacksonville.
What’s more, Robinson put up those numbers catching balls from the likes of Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel and Nick Foles. While Andy Dalton’s signing certainly wasn’t a splashy move, and Justin Fields carried with him all the unknowns and inexperience of a rookie, the thought was that either man would provide a boost at the position, and that boost would also elevate Robinson’s play.
But the opposite happened.
In 12 games, Robinson was limited to 38 catches on 66 targets for 410 yards and only one touchdown. On a per game basis, his catches, targets and yards were nearly halved. So what gives? What happened?
In December, ESPN Sports Analytics writer Seth Walder may have touched on something when putting together data of where wide receiver route charts ranked, when compared to their peers. What he found was that Robinson slotted at the tippy top of the “hitch” route breakdown.
A hitch route, like a curl or comeback, is a route in which the wide receiver feigns like he’s going to run a deeper route, then stops and turns around suddenly to catch the ball.
It’s a valuable tool when trying to get off quick throws, and has its place in any offense. But for a wide receiver who has made a living winning contested catches, you’d imagine a bigger route tree to try to help Robinson make impact plays. Especially when Robinson’s route charts used to look like this:
And not this:
When presented with that data, and asked why it had shaken out like that in his offense, Matt Nagy didn’t know his WR1 was running the route at such a high rate.
“I don’t know,” Nagy said after the Bears’ Week 9 loss to the Steelers. “I know the routes that he has shown us that he can run and does run. You know, I can’t answer that. I do know this. I know that I would agree 100 percent with that 50-50 deal. When you throw the ball to him, he makes a lot of plays. He has shown that in his entire career here with us. We have ultimate trust with him. He has done a lot of great things. And I’m not sure, other than without looking at that.”
When presented with that same data and same question, Robinson himself laughed and said he wasn’t surprised.
“I guess I run more hitches than anybody in the league,” Robinson said after Week 9. “I don’t一 for myself, I can’t just track all the receivers for myself and kind of what they’re doing, but um, I guess that’s the stat.”
However, Robinson wouldn’t use that info as an excuse for his disappointing season.
“For me it’s about maximizing all the things and opportunities that I had. So if that’s a thousand hitches, I want to catch a thousand. That’s just how I am as a player. You know, like I said before, even earlier in the year, being able to try to get some catch and run things off some of those plays if I can, you know, those are the things that I want to do to where if that is where I’m running, I want to take that to the next level.”
Even if Robinson says he wants to make the most of every hitch opportunity, realistically it’s not a route that’s conducive to making big plays. By keeping the defender between you and the endzone, it’s hard to rattle off any yards after the catch. Since the receiver breaks off the route by turning back towards the quarterback, it naturally limits the intended air yards of the play, too. This is reflected in Robinson’s production, as well. His yards/reception average dropped from 12.4 across the 2018-2020 seasons, to 10.8 in 2021. Over the same time frames, the average distance passes traveled to reach Robinson dropped from 9.3 yards to 8.1 yards. He went from breaking five tackles per season to breaking only one tackle in 2021, and his average YAC fell from 3.2 yards to 2.7 yards.
After that Week 9 revelation, Robinson didn’t take the field for several weeks as he worked through a hamstring injury he suffered at the end of the Steelers game. But when he returned in Week 14 against the Packers, it was more of the same. NFL Next Gen stats did not have route trees for Robinson’s final three games of the season, but by my own charting Robinson ran a hitch route on 35% of his pass play snaps in Week 14 against the Packers. That does not include designed screens, or similar plays, where Robinson is not involved in the play whatsoever, or is in to block. NFL.com did not have All-22 footage of Week 17’s Giants game, so we can’t tell what Robinson was doing on every play, but at least in Week 18, that percentage dropped to 17%. That number is still higher than the rate most WRs run hitches per Seth Walder’s chart, but it’s at least closer to the rest of the pack.
By then, it was too little, too late, of course. Nagy was a lame duck, the Bears offense had never found its rhythm, and they were playing out the string with Dalton, not Fields.
Next year, it seems a long shot for Robinson to return to the Bears. But there’s a chance he doesn’t get the contract offer he hopes to receive on the open market. With only Darnell Mooney and practice squad players Nsimba Webster and Isaiah Coulter under contract for 2022, maybe a mutually beneficial one-year deal can be reached between Robinson and the new Bears leadership? Again, it’s a long shot, but not totally out of the realm of possibility.
But if that’s going to happen, the next Bears head coach will likely have to ensure Robinson runs some more interesting routes next season. Because even though Robinson said he’s determined to make the most of every opportunity, no matter what play he’s running, he’s clearly taking notice of some of the more explosive offenses as the playoffs continue.