Bears

The Bears need to establish a template for Mitch Trubisky

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AP

The Bears need to establish a template for Mitch Trubisky

The bye week of every NFL season is a time of intense self-scouting, more in depth than the weekly self-critiquing that is a constant in the NFL. Four games into the NFL career of quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the Bears have something of a philosophical decision to make with their rookie quarterback.

One quarterback ideal in the current NFL is the one who can operate at max production from the pocket, with the ability to turn a broken play into a broken defense when he gets outside the pocket, whether by design, or induced by pressure. Brett Favre, Joe Montana, John Elway, Aaron Rodgers, a few that come to mind.

Trubisky already has established himself as able to move, able to throw on the move, and able to operate in an offense designed around more of his skill set than simply his right arm. Critics of the Bears’ game-planning and play-calling derided the Bears for not doing more with Trubisky’s mobile talents even as the Bears were winning two of his first three starts.

But much of life is about balance (thank you, Mr. Miyagi), and ultimately that is the foundation of a successful offense. Within that context, the Bears need to establish, and likely already have, a template for the kind of quarterback they want Trubisky to become.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning always thrived in the pocket. Favre, Rodgers and Montana by their own assessments have flourished in chaos. All will wind up in the Hall of Fame. All have had significant injuries, whether pocket-dweller or man-on-the-move.

Mobile Trubisky, but be careful

Will defenses seek to flush Trubisky out of the pocket and keep him in it? And where will the Bears most often want him to be? How mobile do the Bears really want Trubisky to be “on purpose?”

A couple of thoughts, though:

Trubisky can move. No negative there. But his mobility hasn’t been offense-altering and coaches may have good reason for not designing a lot around that mobility, because the NFL may be onto him.

Trubisky averaged 9.6 yards per carry in preseason; his average is down at 7.3 yards per carry in his regular-season starts, and that includes a 46-yard scamper against the New Orleans Saints. Without that, Trubisky is picking up 4.6 yards per run.

Consistent with that, Trubisky was sacked once every 19 drop-backs in preseason, obviously going against lesser defensive talent. He now is being dropped once every 8.5 times he sets up to pass.

Trubisky, at this early point in his NFL career, has been critiqued as being more accurate on the move and/or outside the pocket. This is not necessarily a good thing whatsoever; the last Bears quarterback with that sort of seeming contradiction was Rick Mirer, who was demonstrably better on the fly (insert caustic comment here).

Nor is it necessarily true, at least in Trubisky’s mind.

“We had a higher [completion] percentage in play-action passes and [quarterback] keepers,” Trubisky said. “A lot of the incompletions were throwaways but we can just be higher percentage in those areas and continue to be better on third down. But we’ve been pretty good on drop backs and we just need to keep getting better in the red area to finish with points.”

He is a rookie with all of 13 college starts, about one-third the number that Deshaun Watson had at Clemson, and 572 total college passes, fewer than half the number thrown by Pat Mahomes at Texas Tech — the two quarterbacks his own selection preceded theirs in the 2017 NFL Draft. So the understanding was that Trubisky’s learning curve could well be a little longer or steeper than the typical rookie.

But he is clearly learning, what works and what doesn’t.

Ball-security concept sinking in

Coaches have drilled into Trubisky the importance of keeping the football in Bears hands and no one else’s. He has appeared to get it since before he replaced Mike Glennon, back in preseason when he nearly unseated Glennon outright as the Week 1 starter.

“Just look from game to game that he’s started,” head coach John Fox said. “We’re 2-2 in the quarter [of the ’17 season] that he’s been our starting quarterback, and I think we’ve done a better job of ball security and…we’ll just see where that takes us."

Trubisky threw zero interceptions in 53 preseason attempts even while seeing some pressure (sacked three times). He has thrown two picks in 80 regular season attempts while taking 11 sacks and throwing more than a half-dozen far out of harm’s way. Colleague JJ Stankevitz puts Trubisky in context with other rookie passers, citing QB coach Dave Ragone’s observation that some of ball-security behavior is innate and some is learning progressions and decision-making.

Jay Cutler never appeared to make ball security the priority it needed to be; his interception rates too often were north of 3, normally a tipping point for quarterback play. Favre can disprove some of the rule, but complementary football begins with an offense not putting its defense in difficult situations with turnovers. Only two teams reached the 2016 postseason with quarterbacks throwing INT’s at a rate higher than 2.7 percent.

Priority: Accuracy

Accuracy is prized nearly as much as ball security (they are not unconnected, obviously), and this so far is a work in progress.

Trubisky has completed a very, very modest 47.5 percent of his passes through his four starts. In fairness, however, he threw six passes away in the win over the Baltimore Ravens, a clear indication of movement along the learning curve from the previous week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings when a forced throw in the closing minutes resulted in an interception that turned a potential winning Bears drive into a Vikings victory.

Just for sake of a meaningless what-if, had Trubisky completed four of those six intentional throwaways, his theoretical completion percentage improves to 52.5 — not the august 67.9 percent he completed in preseason or his 67.5 percent at North Carolina. Neither mean anything at the NFL level, except that his accuracy was a major reason for his evaluation as the top quarterback in the 2017 draft by more than only the Bears. His coaches may have installed a level-one priority for ball security but that does not compromise a natural passing accuracy that Trubisky has demonstrated his entire football life.

“We watched all the passes [last] week – all the red zone and two-minute and play action, every single pass we’ve had this year to see how we can get better and how we can get a higher completion percentage and too see how we can be more efficient all the way around,” Trubisky said. “We’ve been analyzing and self-scouting our own offense to see where we need to get better and at and what we need to improve.”

As NFL Draft scouting begins, six players for the Bears to watch in this week's Senior Bowl

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USA Today

As NFL Draft scouting begins, six players for the Bears to watch in this week's Senior Bowl

A decade ago, die-hard football fans — at least those who weren’t also big into Conference USA football — were introduced to a running back from Tulane named Matt Forte at the 2008 Senior Bowl. Forte, who rushed for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior year at Tulane, was the 2008 Senior Bowl MVP; the Bears went on to draft him with the 44th overall pick a few months later. 

(The Bears also drafted the 1999 Senior Bowl MVP — Cade McNown — and that pick didn’t work out as well as Forte, to say the least.)

John Fox and the Bears’ coaching staff coached the North team in last year’s Senior Bowl, and from that roster wound up selecting D-II offensive lineman Jordan Morgan in the fifth round. The coaching staffs this year are from the Denver Broncos (Vance Joseph) and Houston Texans (Bill O’Brien), but the Bears will still have a significant presence in Mobile, Ala. to scout prospects this week. 

So as practices begin leading up to Saturday’s game, here are six players for the Bears to watch down in Alabama:

WR Tre’Quan Smith (Central Florida/South Team)

Smith seems to fit the profile of what the Bears lack at wide receiver as the offseason begins: He’s a 6-foot-1, 210 pound explosive playmaker who caught only 59 passes last year…but for 1,171 yards with 13 touchdowns. He may not be a Day 1 or Day 2 guy right now, but if the Bears’ plan winds up being to address their dearth of wide receivers via free agency and the middle rounds of the draft — where value and playmakers can certainly be found — Smith could be someone to circle. 

OLB Garret Dooley (Wisconsin/North Team) 

The Rochester, Ill native doesn’t explode off the stat sheet like fellow ex-Badger T.J. Watt did a year ago (11 1/2 sacks), but Dooley did notch 7 1/2 sacks in 2017. Worth noting here: Wisconsin runs a 3-4, as do the Bears. Getting an up-close look at the 6-foot-3, 246 pound Dooley could begin to show the Bears if he’s worth a late-round flier to help address some of the team’s issues at outside linebacker. 

WR J’Mon Moore (Missouri/South Team)

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Moore has similar size to Meredith (6-foot-3, 207 pounds) and turned in a productive 2017 for the Tigers: 65 receptions, 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns. If the Bears like what they see in him, he could give them a later-round spin of the wheel at receiver — which could be valuable if they were to pick a receiver in the first or second round. 

CB JaMarcus King (South Carolina/North Team)

The 6-foot-2 King is listed as the tallest corner (along with San Diego State’s Kameron Kelly) at the Senior Bowl, and while he only had five interceptions at South Carolina, he did total 21 pass break-ups in 26 games. As the Bears begin scouting cornerbacks — one of their biggest positions of need — they can begin to find out this week if King’s length could translate into him being a mid-round sleeper in this year’s draft. 

PK Michael Badgley (Miami, North Team) & PK Daniel Carlson (Auburn, South Team)

Both kickers from last year’s Senior Bowl — Zane Gonzalez and Jake Elliott — found regular roles as rookies, with Elliott going to the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bears whiffed in their evaluation of Connor Barth, only bringing in Roberto Aguayo for a short-lived competition during training camp, while Elliott was available in September after being waived by the Cincinnati Bengals on cut-down day. The more immediate issue here: Badgley and Carlson each made fewer than 75 percent of their field goals as seniors; Elliott and Gonzalez hit 80 and 92 percent of their field goals in their final collegiate seasons. This may not be as good a pair of kickers in this year’s Senior Bowl, but they’re still worth an early scouting evaluation for a team that needs to get its placekicking situation sorted out. 

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

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USA TODAY

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

The next-to-last weekend of NFL football for the 2017 season (Pro Bowl doesn’t count) and a handful of notelets present themselves with varying degrees of relevance for the Bears...

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As noted here on more than one occasion, winning football isn’t contingent solely on pristine football from an elite quarterback, but it does turn so often on quarterbacks making or not making a play at a tipping point (which, come to think of it, establishes a quarterback as “elite” or not). The Bears believe they have something special in Mitch Trubisky, but they did not see enough “special” in Trubisky’s late-starting rookie year. To wit:

The New England Patriots are going to another Super Bowl because their quarterback was just a little better than the Jacksonville Jaguars’ when it mattered most. Blake Bortles, who played an otherwise thoroughly stellar game on the biggest stage of his career to date, unable to execute second-, third- and fourth-down throws on the final three Jacksonville Jaguars possessions in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ 24-20 loss to the Patriots. Tom Brady threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

GM Ryan Pace traded up for in the last draft because he sees those kinds of fourth quarters in Mitch Trubisky. It’s about an intangible on top of a baseline of ability, and it’s unclear whether Trubisky has that “It” factor. In 12 starts, with a 4-8 Bears record over those games, Trubisky directed one game-winning drive (for the winning OT field goal at Baltimore) but has zero fourth-quarter comebacks on his young and brief resume’.

For (very) loose comparison’s sake, and perhaps a distant foreshadowing: Brady had four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives in the 15 games of his de facto rookie season of 2001 (he’d appeared in mop-up duty in one blowout Patriots loss in 2000). Bortles did have one game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback in his otherwise dismal rookie season.

Brett Favre delivered seven of each in his first two Green Bay seasons. Peyton Manning had one of each his 3-13 rookie season but six fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives his 13-3 second season.

Not comparing Trubisky to Brady, Favre or Manning, but fourth quarters are where careers are made and the demarcation line lies between “good” and “great.” Fourth quarters will be perhaps the defining measure of Trubisky’s first year under his new coaching staff.

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It isn’t a right-away priority for this Bears offseason but an obvious need is for a backup quarterback, assuming that Mark Sanchez’s services as QB caddy are no longer desired. Mike Glennon’s big money is done but his 2017 revealed that he is a not-ready-for-prime-time player. GM Ryan Pace took a flyer on Glennon in a gamble for some hoped-for upside in Glennon, and with that not happening, so presumably is Glennon.

Regardless, stocking the quarterback shelf behind Mitch Trubisky is a requirement. Josh McCown is available (again) but that option got away a while ago. So are Case Keenum (maybe after Sunday), Kirk Cousins and hey, why not Jimmy Garoppolo. Seriously, though, someone will want a job and the money, but it won’t be an attractive sell, backing up a young franchise quarterback for a team coming off four straight double-digit-loss seasons.

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Get used to the “run-pass option” (RPO) phrase. Coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich speak in those terms, referring loosely to the quarterback having the option of handing off on a called run play, or reading the defensive reaction and taking the ball out and going to a pass play on the fly. Nick Foles executed it effectively, so did Blake Bortles.

Incoming Bears coaches inherit a Mitch Trubisky who has met the NFL and achieved ball security, which impressed his new coaches because of what’s needed – good decisions under pressure – to do that. “I think watching Mitchell, his decision-making, there’s a lot of good stuff there,” Helfrich said.

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Expect the Bears to go best-available at No. 8 (before Ryan Pace makes his third straight first-round trade, that is), and for Pace to address some combination of offensive line, receiver, cornerback and linebacker in free agency ahead of draft weekend. Whatever the personnel end result, an upgrade to the pass rush is an offseason must-have absolute.

The 50-yard pick-six by Philadelphia cornerback Patrick Robinson traced to pressure from Eagles defensive end Chris Long that forced Case Keenum to jury-rig his throwing motion. A potential scoring drive was aborted by a strip-sack by Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, with Long recovering the fumble.