Lovie Smith

Mitch Trubisky's next developmental step is adjusting to NFL defenses

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USA TODAY

Mitch Trubisky's next developmental step is adjusting to NFL defenses

Mitch Trubisky is no longer an NFL secret (well, maybe a little one, after only two games). Now the real intrigue shifts in significant measure to what the rest of the NFL is going to do about him.

Because while the Bears have/had a plan to bring his development along at a measured pace, the rest of the league, beginning with the Carolina Panthers this Sunday, has quite a different plan in mind.

What do the Panthers (and others) have waiting for Trubisky?

The Baltimore Ravens presented a Cover-2 look on 40 or so of the Bears' 75 snaps, something “on film we really didn't see any of that at all, so it was really surprising for them to come out in that two-high shell,” Trubisky said. “Our plan was just to run them out of it.”

A simple NFL operating philosophy is to find out and understand what an opponent likes to do and does best, and then take that away from him. Trubisky is very good on the move; colleague JJ Stankevitz uncovered the fact that Trubisky against the Baltimore Ravens had the longest average time in a play of any NFL quarterback, meaning he works well out in space and extends plays.

The math from there isn’t especially complicated: A quarterback who is accurate and comfortable getting outside the pocket, extending and improvising plays, is someone to be kept inside the pocket, ideally one collapsing around him. By using a mush-rush, for instance, a controlled assault on the pocket without edge rushers selling out for max pressure and focusing on lane integrity, a defense potentially takes much of Trubisky’s mobility out of play. This is a common strategy against Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and mobile quarterback who is as or more dangerous when flushed from the pocket as he is in it.

A “Chico Plan” then?

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has done bad things to Bears quarterbacks and comes from an attack-dog mindset as a member of the 1985 Bears. He learned from then-coordinator Buddy Ryan that a prime directive of the defense is to simply get to the quarterback.

Rivera and then-coach Lovie Smith differed on the use of blitzing, with Rivera on the side of crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war. After Rivera was excused from his job as Smith’s defensive coordinator, he went to San Diego as Chargers linebackers coach and opened the 2007 season against the Bears blitzing, sacking and harassing Rex Grossman in a 14-3 San Diego win.

The next time the teams met, in the 2010 preseason opener, Rivera was by then defensive coordinator, and he had the Chargers blitzing Jay Cutler from the outset on the latter’s only series, sacking Cutler with a corner blitz on just the seventh play of the game. Not exactly gentlemanly conduct for preseason openers.

But if the past is prologue, Rivera’s past should be revealing to Trubisky.

Scouting Trubisky

But how do the NFL and the Panthers in particular scout Trubisky with a body of work consisting of just two regular-season games?

Rookies with little pro time on tape are scouted from their college play. The Bears took looks at Carson Wentz’s North Dakota State play before they faced Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles in game two last season. That was out of some necessity, since Wentz played 39 snaps in the Eagles’ first preseason game and not again until opening day after he’d been installed as the starter following Sam Bradford’s trade to Minnesota.

Predictably perhaps, Wentz powered the Eagles to a 3-1 start with 100-plus passer ratings in three of his first four games. Teams progressively adjusted and Wentz had only two games with ratings in the low 90’s the rest of the season, none better. He had seven TD passes and one interception through the first four weeks, then nine TD’s and 13 INT’s the rest of the way.

“You go back and look at his college film if you don’t have much film from the NFL,” said linebacker Sam Acho. “You may see that he moves well in the pocket or likes to move outside or whatever. But Mitch played in the preseason and now has played a couple games. It wasn’t like Wentz which was the first game or two of the season.”

Attention is indeed less likely to be paid to Trubisky’s college body of work for the simple reason that he did play extensively through the preseason, with 126 snaps and 53 pass attempts, the most of either for any of the Bears’ four quarterbacks through preseason. But Trubisky happened to play his college football at the University of North Carolina, down the road from Charlotte, so “we remember Mitch mostly because of what he did when he was here at UNC-Chapel Hill,” Rivera said. “We got to watch all 14 games and we were impressed. We think the young man has got what it takes. We like who’s he’s gonna become. We do. We think the future can be bright for him. We are big fans here.”

Guessing that Chico wasn’t including next Sunday.

'I'm a patient man': Lovie Smith takes the long view entering second season of Illini rebuilding effort

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USA TODAY

'I'm a patient man': Lovie Smith takes the long view entering second season of Illini rebuilding effort

Lovie Smith is selling himself as the future winner of Illinois’ waiting game.

“I’m a patient man,” he told reporters Monday during Big Ten Media Days at McCormick Place.

That patience will certainly be tested as Smith enters his second season as the Fighting Illini’s head coach.

He’s maybe the most buzzed-about Illinois head football coach ever after his lengthy and successful tenure with the Bears, but will that buzz ever pay off? That’s the question everyone’s asking about an Illinois program that has languished in the Big Ten’s basement for the vast majority of recent memory, and that’s the kind of question Smith was bombarded with Monday.

The famously cool-tempered Smith handled them all, certainly expecting what the line of questioning would be after winning just three games in his first season in Champaign. Though trumpets accompanied his arrival, Year 1 of the Lovie Era was scored almost entirely by an orchestra of sad trombones.

Hence Smith’s recurring theme Monday: patience.

“You have to have patience,” he said. “You’d like for it to snap a finger and it happens. Our sport’s a little bit harder than that. And in this conference there are a lot of good programs. Ours hadn’t been there. But in time you have a plan, it works. So when we say patient, we want to see marked improvement this year, and eventually we’ll be a team that people are talking about.”

Hiring Smith remains a great triumph by athletics director Josh Whitman, and Smith’s very presence makes Illinois’ future look far brighter than it would have with a head coach with a far less impressive resume. Getting recruits to listen becomes far easier when a former NFL head coach — one who’s been to a Super Bowl — strolls through the door.

But the obstacles to an Illinois rise remain high. The program was in a bad place when Smith arrived, the stain of Tim Beckman’s mistreatment of players still lingering. The conference it plays in provides Illinois with a tremendously tough schedule each and every season, even when the biggest boys from the Big Ten East aren’t on the docket.

One of the biggest challenges to making the Illini “a team that people are talking about” was the program’s facilities, hardly comparable to the best around the Big Ten and across the country. But the athletics department is taking ambitious and expensive steps to remedy that, recently announcing a facilities overhaul that Smith is optimistic will make his program a bigger hit with prospective recruits.

Smith applauded his incoming recruiting class — ranked in the top 50 nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, higher at least than in-state rival Northwestern — and the offseason work by his returning players to get stronger and faster and tougher than they were a season ago, and that is tangible improvement.

Unfortunately, it might not translate to more wins in 2017, which in the end is the only barometer that’s truly worth a damn in the cutthroat world of college football.

Smith is being realistic in talking about a patient approach to rebuilding a program that has won eight games or more just five times in the last 30 years. But there’s a difficult tightrope to walk in a sport that often sees fans, donors and media demand immediate success.

“When I say it takes time, I’m not talking about a whole lot of time,” Smith said, seeming to make sure his rebuilding plan didn’t sound like one that would span decades. “I’m just saying, the first year, it normally doesn’t happen right away unless you come in to a program — and some guys get an opportunity to go to a program — where they’ve won before. That’s a lot easier. But where we were, there were challenges.

“We say ‘take time,’ but we want to see improvement this year and we know behind the scenes we’ve made improvement. We’re in a whole different frame of mind right now. You’ve got to believe that you can win before you hit the field based on what you’ve been doing. We’re closer to that right now.”

Whitman, who is now overseeing a pair of rebuilding efforts in his two major programs after replacing men’s basketball coach John Groce with Brad Underwood earlier this year, is feeling the same way. He injected the football program with some genuine excitement when he hired Smith last year. Now he’s playing that waiting game, too.

“As they say, patience is a virtue, right?” Whitman said Monday. “Sure, do I want to go out and win 12 games this year? Of course I do. But I also am so committed to the process and in supporting coach Smith and our student-athletes as they go out every day because I know what we’re doing and I see the work that they’re putting in.

“I think the worst thing you can do right now is panic and say, ‘Oh, we won three games in the first year.’ That’s the way this works. And when we get there, when we build this thing, it will be that much sweeter because of where we’ve come from.”

Thing is, with all the excitement and all the confidence about the long-term future of the program shared by Smith and Whitman, Illinois still has 12 football games to play this fall. Once more the team is expected to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, hardly unexpected considering the annual strength of the conference.

As Smith and Whitman ask for patience, fans will have to sit through what is expected to be three months of losing football, which makes that ask a little bit tougher.

That’s where the players come in. They have faith in their team and their teammates and their head coach that builds that perennial sense of world-beating confidence that accompanies every team, no matter the predicted win total.

“Are we going to surprise people? Sure,” wide receiver Malik Turner said, not loving a question about outside expectations but still voicing his belief in his team’s capabilities. “It’s not really going to be a surprise to me because I’ve seen what we’ve been doing and I have a very positive feeling about this team.”

“It’s not going to be a surprise to ourselves, but I think we’re definitely going to surprise some people,” defensive back Jaylen Dunlap said. “If somebody thinks we’re only going to win two games, then we’re definitely going to surprise those guys.”

Voicing the opinion that you’re going to win every game isn’t exactly something new for a college football player, specifically the talkative ones who get invited to media days. But there was a glimmer of something that Smith has provided these players that has been a major achievement in the still-nascent rebuilding effort: stability.

Stability was in short supply as Beckman was accused of mistreatment, investigated for it and fired for it a week before the start of the 2015 season. Bill Cubit took over on an interim basis, was named the new permanent head coach on the morning of the regular-season finale, then fired a few months later. Enter Smith and his staff and a new system and approach on both sides of the ball, a head-spinning amount of change in a short period of time.

Well, the whirlwind has finally died down for these players and for the program in general. And that in itself is a big accomplishment in Champaign.

“It’s knowing what you’re getting now. You know you’ve got a coach like coach Smith that’s going to be here. There’s some stability around the program. That should feel good for everybody,” Dunlap said. “That should feel good for the recruits that are coming to sign here, the players that are here.

“Change is not always good, but it was good for us. I know that we’re not going to have a change soon because coach is a great coach.”

Smith knew a shocking jump wouldn’t come in his first year, and it doesn’t look like that jump will come in his second year, either. But he’s happy with the progress his program is making and was adamant that the quality of football should be evidently better this fall.

Is that going to mean more wins? Maybe. Maybe not. But this program is evolving, which is a positive development.

That’s the thing about evolution, though: It usually takes a long time.

“We weren’t good enough last year. But we’re going to be better this year,” Smith said. “You stay the course, and eventually you start seeing wins.”

Plenty of implications for Bears after signing of Mike Glennon

Plenty of implications for Bears after signing of Mike Glennon

Without realistic chances of getting Kirk Cousins away from the Washington Redskins or Jimmy Garoppolo out of the New England Patriots, the Bears and GM Pace opted for the upside of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer No. 2 quarterback Mike Glennon, 27, over the known quantity of Brian Hoyer, 31, heading into a pivotal third year for GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox running Bears football operations.
 
The move is the first major step taken by Pace to address the starting-quarterback situation by other than staying with Jay Cutler in 2015, a decision strongly pushed by then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase and carried on by successor Dowell Loggains. The organization stayed the Cutler course last year but it was a final prove-it season with the last of the guaranteed money owed under the contract Cutler signed under former GM Phil Emery going into 2014.
 
For now, the Bears have two quarterbacks under contract: Glennon and Connor Shaw.
 
Previous quarterback moves by Pace and the Fox coaching staff involved backups. Those included re-signing Jimmy Clausen in 2015 and upgrading to Hoyer last offseason to back up Cutler, waiver-claiming Shaw as a developmental project last July and signing Matt Barkley to the practice squad last September. Pace did not draft a quarterback in either of his first two Bears drafts; he is expected to this year irrespective of the Glennon signing.

[MORE: End of an era: Bears set to release Jay Cutler]
 
Glennon in 21 games, 18 starts, has compiled a career passer rating of 84.6, a tick below that of Cutler (85.7) and Hoyer (84.8).  He has completed 59 percent of his 630 passes for 4,100 yards with 30 touchdowns and 15 interceptions during his 21 games with the Buccaneers.
 
Glennon also has some history of ball security, with a respectable interception rate of 2.4 percent, in line with Hoyer's 2.2 percent and NFC North now-rivals Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota (2.5 percent) and Detroit's Matthew Stafford (2.5). Cutler, by comparison, was interception-prone at 3.3 percent, and no team reached the NFL postseason in 2016 with a quarterback interception rate higher than 3.1 percent (Houston/Brock Osweiler, Miami/Ryan Tannehill).

Glennon tipping points
 
Lavishing money on a quarterback with just 18 career starts comes with considerable risk, and more than a few questions. The Houston Texans took a similar flier on an inexperienced Osweiler last offseason and now face major challenges recovering from what appears to have been misplaced hope.
 
Glennon is not without high points in his NFL background, however, clearly what the Bears are banking on, literally and figuratively.
 
In what was likely a tipping point in the Bears' evaluation and conclusions about him, Glennon, who hadn't seen the field since 2014, replaced the injured Jameis Winston late in a blowout loss against the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 3. Playing just 12 snaps in the fourth quarter, Glennon completed 10 of 11 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, plus one more throw for a two-point conversion, against a very good Atlanta defense, albeit in garbage time with the Falcons up 43-20. Glennon played three snaps the following week in Tampa Bay's win over the Bears in Tampa.
 
Glennon had a respectable rookie season (2013) with an 83.9 passer rating, 59.4-percent completion percentage, 19 TD's vs. 9 INT's. He went to the bench behind Josh McCown in 2014 but in his first start when McCown was injured, Glennon directed the Buccaneers to a road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who eventually would win the AFC Central and reach the AFC Championship game that season.
 
Sources familiar with Glennon said he was comfortable taking charge of his huddle in spite of his relatively short resume, and he was not intimidated by big moments, or opponents.

Bumpy ride in Tampa
 
Tampa Bay selected Glennon, a two-year starter at North Carolina State, with the 11th pick (73rd overall) of the third round in 2013, one of the poorest quarterback classes in years. E.J. Manuel (Buffalo, No. 16) was the only quarterback taken in round one, Geno Smith (N.Y. Jets, No. 39) alone in the second, and Glennon in the third. None has developed into a sustainable starting quarterback, and both the Bills and Jets were among the teams looking hardest at Glennon in recent weeks. Four quarterbacks were selected in the 2013 fourth round, beginning with Matt Barkley; same lack of results.
 
Glennon came into a potentially good situation (for him), with the Bucs near the end of their hope for former No. 1 pick (2009) Josh Freeman. When the season started 0-3 under Freeman, the switch was made to Glennon, who went 4-9 as Tampa Bay's starter with a passer rating of 83.9.
 
But coach Greg Schiano was fired and Lovie Smith hired in 2014. When the Bears did not make a strong move to keep Josh McCown, Smith and the Bucs signed McCown to a two-year deal and installed him as the starter instead of Glennon, although Smith regarded Glennon as potentially Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future.
 
Glennon had chances in 2014 when McCown missed time with injuries, but the Bucs finished 2-14 and used the No. 1-overall pick on Jameis Winston, who became the day-one starter and Glennon never started again. He did not see the field at all in 2015 and filled in for Winston twice last season with a total of 15 snaps taken.
 
The Buccaneers had trade offers for Glennon in the 2015 and 2016 offseasons but opted to hold onto him as a backup to Winston. And they did make an offer, but one based on his remaining a backup.
 
"We'd love to have Mike back in a perfect scenario," Bucs general manager Jason Licht had said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, adding prophetically, “It's going to depend on him. He's going to have some other opportunities. Where it is, what's the landscape there, how good of a chance he has to start there? I don't know but we'd love to have him back."