Bears

Why timing of Bears quarterback change from Mike Glennon to Mitch Trubisky was interesting

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USA TODAY

Why timing of Bears quarterback change from Mike Glennon to Mitch Trubisky was interesting

Wringing out the notebook after the Bears’ 20-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings… .

The criticism the Bears are taking in some quarters for taking four regular-season weeks to switch from Mike Glennon to Mitch Trubisky is a little difficult to understand. A coaching staff desperately in need of wins NOW had a decision to make at the end of preseason, and the nod went to Glennon because he was judged to give the Bears the best chance to win right then. The rookie kept on developing as scout-team QB, and he was eventually going to get the job unless Glennon played to his anticipated level, which he didn’t.

This wasn’t exactly the Trubisky “plan” but sometimes things end up as they were supposed to, just their own pace instead of the anticipated one.

And coaches seldom make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of winning, even if public outcry is for something and someone else. It once took three weeks for the Bears and Mike Ditka to quit starting Bob Avellini and get to Jim McMahon. Last year the Bears staff never took leave of its senses, any more than it did last year when it took three games for coaches to decide that Jordan Howard was their bell-cow running back. Howard admitted this year that he just hadn’t been near NFL shape when the 2016 season started and it took until Game 4 before he was physically ready.

Quarterback change

The timing of the QB switch is interesting – not for how long it took, but more so how quickly it occurred. Consider it part of a bigger picture organizationally than just the quarterback position.

Glennon’s four games as starter may have seemed like a football eternity. But general manager Ryan Pace, who’d lavished a three-year, $45 million contract on Glennon, did not stand in the way of a change that effectively ended any chance that Glennon could reach some sort of equilibrium recover from his debacles. More than a few GM egos have compounded one mistake with another, forcing staffs to stay the course with a player. Ownership has undoubtedly had its questions about the signing, but Pace’s priority was for cutting his team’s losses, literally and figuratively, not proving he was “right” on Glennon.

And the Bears are far from the first team to mis-evaluate a backup quarterback and overpay to bring him in as a starter-wannabe: Packers backup Matt Flynn to Seattle in 2012, a few years after the Kansas City Chiefs gave Matt Cassel $28 million guaranteed as part of a six-year, $62 million contract after trading to get him from the New England Patriots.

Some sentiment had existed upstairs at Halas Hall for opening this season with Trubisky, an indication of just how accelerated his growth had been through training camp and the preseason. But Glennon didn’t lose the job in preseason, and in that case it made sense to start the more experienced quarterback, fully expecting Trubisky to continue developing, which he clearly did.

The benching does all but project to an end for Glennon’s time in Chicago after this season. His current 2018 base of $12.5 million is way too much for a No. 2 even if there were football reasons to keep him. An offset is in place for the $2.5 million roster bonus due on the third day of the league year, meaning whatever he signs for elsewhere reduces by that amount the Bears owe him.

The Glennon benching stamped the signing as an “official” mistake, even though NFL sources remarked that, while Glennon perhaps wasn’t expected to be much more than he’d always been, absolutely no one foresaw the abyssmal decision-making that was the biggest factor in his demotion.

But that’s all rearview-mirror stuff. Pace paid for two spins of the quarterback wheel and wasn’t stubborn about moving on from the first.

Why historical context for Mitchell Trubisky's 2017 is encouraging for 2018

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USA Today

Why historical context for Mitchell Trubisky's 2017 is encouraging for 2018

In the last decade, 22 quarterbacks have started at least 12 games in their respective rookie years. If Mitchell Trubisky finishes out the 2017 season, he’ll hit that dozen-start mark as well. 

So with that in mind, where do his numbers stack up against that group with three games remaining? His stats could still fluctuate in these final weekends against the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, of course. But if what he’s done in his first nine starts remains largely unchanged, he’ll have put up numbers that represent a decent foundation on which to build in 2018. 

Trubisky has an interception rate of 1.87; only two quarterbacks have gone through their rookie years in the last decade with an interception rate lower than 2 percent: Dallas’ Dak Prescott (0.87, 2016) and Washington’s Robert Griffin III (2012, 1.27 percent). Injuries derailed Griffin’s career, while Prescott has been outstanding while playing next to Ezekiel Elliott (xxx) and struggled without his running back (xxxx). 

But the point here: Quarterbacks have to learn ball security at some point, and Trubisky may be ahead of the curve in that regard. That the Bears opened up their offense on Sunday, having Trubisky throw 32 passes in a blowout win, was a signal this coaching staff trusted him to operate a more expansive scheme and not turn the ball over (which he did). 

Trubisky, though, is only averaging 6.7 yards per attempt — 25th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in 2017. Of the 22 rookie quarterbacks in the last decade, though, 13 averaged fewer than seven yards per attempt as rookies:

Quarterback Rookie Year Y/A 2nd year Y/A +/-
Blaine Gabbert 2011 5.4 6.0 +0.6
Derek Carr 2014 5.5 7.0 +1.5
Sam Bradford 2010 6.0 6.1 +0.1
DeShone Kizer 2017 6.0 N/A N/A
Blake Bortles 2014 6.1 7.3 +1.2
Carson Wentz 2016 6.2 7.5 +1.3
Mike Glennon 2013 6.3 7.0 +0.7
Brandon Weeden 2012 6.6 6.5 -0.1
Andy Dalton 2011 6.6 6.0 +0.3
Mark Sanchez 2009 6.7 6.5 -0.2
Ryan Tannehill 2012 6.8 6.7 -0.1
Geno Smith 2013 6.9 6.9 0.0
Joe Flacco 2008 6.9 7.2 +0.3

That's an average gain of 0.5 yards per attempt from Year 1 to Year 2 isn’t exactly significant, and the names on this list (save for Wentz) aren't exactly inspiring. But here’s a more encouraging comparison: How the 17 quarterbacks in the last decade who’ve started at least 12 games in both their first and second seasons in the league improved in terms of passer rating:

Quarterback Rookie Year Rookie PR 2nd year PR +/-
Dak Prescott 2016 104.9 91.6 -13.3
Robert Griffin III 2012 102.4 82.2 -20.2
Russell Wilson 2012 100.0 101.9 +1.9
Marcus Mariota 2015 91.5 95.6 +4.1
Matt Ryan 2008 87.7 80.9 -6.8
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 85.2 88.7 +2.5
Cam Newton 2011 84.5 86.2 +1.7
Jameis Winston 2015 84.2 86.1 +1.9
Andy Dalton 2011 80.4 87.4 +7.0
Joe Flacco 2008 80.3 88.9 +8.6
Carson Wentz 2016 79.3 101.9 +22.6
Derek Carr 2014 76.6 91.1 +14.5
Andrew Luck 2012 76.5 87.0 +10.5
Ryan Tannehill 2012 76.1 81.78 +5.6
Blake Bortles 2014 69.5 88.2 +18.7
Geno Smith 2013 66.5 77.5 +11
Mark Sanchez 2009 63.0 75.3 +12.3

Trubisky, entering Saturday’s game against the Detroit Lions, has a passer rating of 80.0. 

Most quarterbacks made at at least incremental gains from Year 1 to Year 2, with Ryan probably the biggest outlier here given he was fine as a rookie, then took a step back in Year 2. Prescott and Griffin both had passer ratings over 100 as rookies and regressed as sophomores. 

Nine of the quarterbacks above had a rookie passer rating between 75-85: Winston, Wentz, Tannehill, Newton, Luck, Flacco, Dalton, Carr and Bridgewater (we’re including Bridgewater in here, because 85.2 is close enough). Those nine quarterbacks averaged a passer rating gain of 8.3 points from Year 1 to Year 2. Overall, these 17 quarterbacks saw, on average, their passer ratings increase by 4.8 points from Year 1 to Year 2. 

So beyond the encouraging signs we’ve seen from Trubisky on and off the field this year, the numbers point to the Bears’ franchise quarterback improving in his second season in the NFL. An that’s a good start to answering the question of how far the Bears can go in 2018, no matter who he’s throwing to or who’s coaching him. 

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

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USA TODAY

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

John Fox has mentioned Mitch Trubisky’s third-down passing on more than one occasion, and not simply as a stroke of what his staff has done in the way of player development as a coaching decision of tectonic-plate degree looms. The fact is that third-down passing is a defining measure of an NFL quarterback; as Loggains stated, it’s where quarterbacks earn their money, and by extension, make it possible for a lot of other folks to earn theirs.

But it’s far bigger than only third downs. Case in point: Trubisky completed 25 of his 32 passes at Cincinnati. All of those passes came during the Bears’ first nine (of 11) possessions. Significantly, the Bears had at least one first down on every one of those possessions, and more than one on seven of the nine.

Meaning: The offense sustained drives and the defense was able to recover on the sideline. That would comprise two-thirds of “complimentary football” the way it’s designed.

(It also did not hurt that every drive on which the Bears didn’t draw a penalty, with the exception of the one ended by halftime, the Bears scored a touchdown. Probably just coincidence…but…maybe not…)

Putting all of this in the broader context of Trubisky’s development, the self-professed gunslinger has thrown zero interceptions in six of his nine games, none in four of the last five. That points to the rookie being schooled hard in ball security, something that has been a hallmark of quarterbacks under coordinator Dowell Loggains’ auspices. Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in 2015 played with a level of ball security at or among the best of their careers.

Trubisky’s 1.8 percent interception rate overall is the larger point. As mentioned in this space and elsewhere previously, coaches aren’t going to “breed” Trubisky’s core aggressiveness out of him by drilling “ball security” into his head.

And while the concept is simple enough, implementing it isn’t. For all of his meteoric success before his season-ending knee injury, Deshaun Watson was being picked on 3.9 percent of his throws. Cutler has reverted to his career base course (3.2 percent) while Trubisky keeping his throws out of harm’s way percentage-wise better than all of Matthew Stafford (1.9), Russell Wilson (2.3), Matt Ryan (2.6) or Ben Roethlisberger (2.6).

Maybe it’s “generational:” Jared Goff (1.4) and Carson Wentz (1.6) seem to have been schooled the same direction. And how’s that working for them?

Marcus Mariota is having his worst (by his reckoning) NFL season, with 14 interceptions making him so testy that his Mom yelled at him for being grumpy to reporters while discussing his play.

Key to Bears defeating Detroit

The obvious is how well the offense and Trubisky control the football without turning the football over and without self-destructing with penalties that put them behind the sticks. It’s not a sure-fire formula; the Bears didn’t turn the ball over vs. San Francisco and had half the number of penalties assessed as the 49ers and still took incompetence to epic levels. But it is a foundation starting point.

Actually, it’s more than that where the Detroit Lions are concerned.

Detroit has lost three of the four games in which its opponents didn’t give them at least one turnover.    

Stopping the run is a standard “key,” but in the Lions case, they don’t run the ball much anyway. They are last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.3). Nine different individuals, including Jordan Howard, average more per game than the Lions. They did win the only two games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards (but those were against the Giants and Browns, so those don’t count).

But Detroit is 7-6 overall without any appreciable rushing offense. So stopping the run, while always a factor, isn’t necessarily a game-changer vs. the Lions.

Ball security is. Keeping Matthew Stafford off the field, as it is with most elite quarterbacks, is everything. Stafford is tied for second for taking sacks (39) and is even taking them at a concerning rate of one every 13 pass plays – statistically significantly higher than nearly every other top passer – and he is still passing to a rating of 97.9, good enough for No. 8 in the NFL.

So getting after Stafford helps. Stopping the run helps. Forcing takeaways helps. But the only element that directly correlates to upending the Lions is not so much creating turnovers as avoiding ones of your own.