Success is often a product of opportunity.
For the Bears and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, the opportunity to succeed together arrives at a pivotal moment in the franchise's history. It's a pairing -- sources told NBC Sports Chicago that the Bears will hire Waldron as their next offensive coordinator -- that came together in an offseason in which the stars aligned perfectly.
Waldron was only available because Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Pete Carroll surprisingly stepped down as head coach. Waldron had other options but chose to come to Chicago and embrace the challenge of elevated quarterback Justin Fields or developing presumptive No. 1 overall pick Caleb Williams.
In Waldron, the Bears get a brilliant offensive mind from the Shanahan tree (Sean McVay branch). Waldron has worked for Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, McVay, and Carroll. He is adaptable and innovative, has play-called experience, and has worked with a number of different quarterbacks, including Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, Russell Wilson, and Geno Smith.
After firing Luke Getsy, general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus wanted to bring in an offensive coordinator who was a good teacher, could create explosives, and knew how to tailor his attack to his personnel's strengths.
A Shanahan disciple, Waldron uses the run game to stretch defenses horizontally and open up windows in the passing game with heavy play-action off it. The Seahawks offense was a top-15 unit in DVOA in 2021 and 2022 before tailoring off a touch this past season due to some rampant offensive line issues.
Some surface-level stats for Waldron's offenses might appear to raise some red flags.
Over the past three seasons, the Seahawks have ranked 23rd in third-down conversion rate at 38.5 percent. That's suboptimal. However, the Seahawks were second in the NFL in converting first downs into a new series of downs. Waldron's units were elite on early downs, which is a sign of a top-notch play-caller who can keep a defense off balance.
Seahawks offense on early downs 2021-23:
EPA/play: 0.056 (5th in NFL)
Success rate: 45.1 percent (8th)
Dropback EPA: 0.138 (6th)
Dropback Success rate: 51.2 percent (5th)
Rush EPA: -0.059 (5th)
Rush success rate: 36.6 percent (24th)
For comparison, here's where the Bears ranked on early downs under Getsy:
EPA/play: -0.063 (28th)
Success rate: 40.2 percent (30th)
Dropback EPA: -0.064 (30th)
Dropback success rate: 431 percent (30th)
Rush EPA: -0.062 (7th)
Rush success rate: 37.6 percent (15th)
When Waldron has his entire menu at his disposal, he's one of the best play-callers in the NFL.
From 2021-23, the Seahawks' offense trailed only the San Francisco 49ers (Kyle Shanahan), Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers/Matt LaFleur), Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen), and Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid) in EPA per play on early downs.
Waldron had incredible success on early downs this past season, showing an ability to hide a horrific offensive line by keeping defenses on their heels.
EPA per play on early downs in 2023: 0.071 (4th)
Success rate: 46 percent (5th)
Dropback EPA: 0.191 (2nd)
Dropback success rate: 51.6 percent (5th)
Waldron also has a proven history of dialing up explosive plays. From 2021 to 23, the Seahawks had an explosive pass rate of 14 percent, which ranks ninth in the NFL, and an explosive run rate of 14.5 percent, which ranks fifth. During that time, the Seahawks are also fifth in yards per play (5.5).
"I think he's an elite play-caller," an NFC scout whose team has faced Waldron's offenses several times told NBC Sports Chicago. "Really creative schematically. He's good at covering up weaknesses. Their offensive line really struggled this year, and I thought he was able to mask it as well as anyone. He's incredibly smart and versatile. That offense will succeed no matter who the quarterback is. He'll figure it out."
Waldron's experience working with a variety of quarterbacks undoubtedly was a checkmark in his column during the interview process.
Whether the Bears stick with Fields or draft Williams, Waldron's work with two quarterbacks known for holding onto the ball too long -- Wilson and Smith -- and his ability to cut down their time to throw is another plus.
During his two years as a starter with the New York Jets, Smith's time to throw was 3.09 and 3.06, respectively. In two seasons as a starter under Waldron's watch, his time to throw was 2.79 and 2.73. Wilson's time to throw in 2021 was 2.78, the second lowest of his career. Wilson has six career seasons with a time to throw over three seconds. Both Fields (3.40 TTT in 2023) and Williams have been known to hold onto the ball too long, and Waldron clearly has experience in cutting down the time to throw.
Waldron was the first name to surface in the Bears' offensive coordinator search, and they were wise to lock him down before the New Orleans Saints (Waldron interviewed) or another team came calling.
The quarterback decision lords over everything this offseason, but the OC choice was just as important regardless of who is under center in 2024. In Waldron, the Bears got the right guy from the right tree with a track record of play-calling success and a list of references that includes some of the most respected coaches in the NFL.
"Look at the final four teams," a league source told NBC Sports Chicago. "Elite play-caller, elite-play-caller, elite play-caller, and it's only been one year, but [Baltimore Ravens OC Todd Monken] is right there. Quarterback is obviously the most important thing. Playmakers probably second. But an elite play-caller and scheme are instant elevators. I think after you list off the top [play-callers], most of whom are head coaches, he's right there in the next group."
Poles and Eberflus promised to search high and low for the best offensive coordinator they could find. They wanted a lot of boxes checked. Waldron didn't even seem like a remote possibility until Carroll stepped down.
Waldron isn't perfect and took his fair share of criticism in Seattle. Shanahan and McVay are criticized a ton, and they are the two best in the NFL. It comes with being a play-caller.
Waldron helped take an NFL cast-off in Geno Smith and turned him into a quarterback who threw for 4,282 yards in 2022 and 3,624 yards this season. Those numbers would rank first and fifth in Bears history.
Bears history is littered with offensive minds who arrived in Chicago with plans to build and explosive offense only to fizzle.
But Waldron already has the pieces in place to build a dynamic offense. He has an elite wide receiver in DJ Moore. DK Metcalf put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons under Waldron. Moore racked up 1,364 yards this past season, and there's season to believe that can improve in Waldron's more vertical attack.
The Bears also have a young offensive line built to run the wide-zone scheme and an ascending tight end in Cole Kmet. Throw in another top-10 pick that can be used on a blue-chip receiver and $46.8 million in salary cap space, and Waldron should have all the tools needed to orchestrate a dynamic attack.
An exhaustive search led the Bears to Waldron, a guy who checks all the necessary boxes and now will play an instrumental role in the Fields-Williams decision to come.
It's an A-plus hire on paper. Time will tell if it becomes everything the Bears, Waldron, and Fields or Williams hope it can.