John Mullin

Mitch Trubisky made Bears’ decision for them, but will Ryan Pace pull the trigger?

Mitch Trubisky made Bears’ decision for them, but will Ryan Pace pull the trigger?

One time-honored NFL bromide is that coaches don’t make personnel decisions; players ultimately make them with their performances. Bears GM Ryan Pace now has a franchise-grade decision to make at quarterback, although Mitch Trubisky in fact has made it for him.

To many observers, Trubisky has played his way out of the Bears picking up his fifth-year option and its $24-million’ish price tag ahead of the May 2020 deadline. Trubisky has played his way into an offseason position competition with the likes of Marcus Mariota (who’s exponentially less risky financially than Teddy Bridgewater and a better fit in the Matt Nagy offense. Also, Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was Mariota’s head coach at Oregon).

No matter how you see it, this much is true: As the disappointing 2019 season ends, there are more questions about Trubisky and the Bears’ QB situation than there were at the beginning.

How willing Pace is to admit that degree of failure in his 2017 draft, in addition to TE Adam Shaheen, remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Pace will face his first media session open to questioning since before the season.

The Bears’ difficulties on offense, which extend back into mid-2018, pose a franchise dilemma. They have a quarterback problem and they have a schematic/coaching problem. Indeed, teams have figured out Nagy, not just Trubisky. So now the Bears have a choice: fix the quarterback position, or fix the scheme. They’re not working together. The Bears’ quarterback cannot operate the coach’s system.

On Sunday, despite facing a Vikings defense with three starters inactive and others playing sparingly, Trubisky was unable to get the Bears’ offense into the end zone on three first-half possessions that reached the Minnesota 8-, 15- and 16-yard lines.

The Bears finally scored a touchdown on their fourth red-zone trip, but the fact that the drive was comprised of eight runs and one pass is an illustration that the offense runs better when it’s not dependent on Trubisky’s arm.

“I think with any position, the third year’s an important year as [players] continue to grow and develop,” Pace said last spring. “We use the word incremental growth, that’s exactly what’s happening with Mitch along with a lot of other players.”

Trubisky has simply not met that incremental-growth standard. So Pace needs to decide if he wants to pick up an option that makes Trubisky a $24-million quarterback in 2021. His 2020 salary of $9.2 million is guaranteed, so cutting him doesn’t save money. And if he somehow wins the starting job over an incoming veteran like Mariota, the quarterback Pace coveted in the 2015 draft but couldn’t get, he can still be paid like an NFL starter.

But in his first two seasons at North Carolina, Trubisky was unable to beat out Marquise Williams, whose pro career has consisted of stints as a backup in the CFL, AAF and XFL. Envisioning Trubisky outplaying a Mariota, Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill or whomever is a stretch.

Trubisky’s NFL breadcrumb trail says he won’t.

In the 2018 playoff loss to Philadelphia, the Cody Parkey double-doink was the defining image, but what Parkey’s miss obscured were the three drives that stalled at the Philadelphia 18-, 11- and 16-yard lines.

Flash forward to 2019. For all of the hype and assurances that Trubisky’s training-camp interceptions were either meaningless or part of his development, depending on who was talking about them, Trubisky’s season began with a 10-3 embarrassment against the Green Bay Packers. The game effectively ended with an end zone interception on which Trubisky was baited by ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos.

Trubisky’s passer rating that day was 62.1, his season low. Against the Packers the second time around, with the playoffs in the balance, he threw two interceptions and managed just a 64.5 rating, while the Bears settled for field goals on two of three red-zone possessions. A week later, still with playoff aspirations, Trubisky produced a low point vs. Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes, netting 3 points and producing another failing passer rating (65.4).

When it’s mattered most, over virtually three full seasons, Trubisky has been making Ryan Pace’s decision for him.

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Bears' Matt Nagy still has some things to learn from his mentor, Andy Reid

Bears' Matt Nagy still has some things to learn from his mentor, Andy Reid

When Matt Nagy was offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2017, he and his staff would convene to watch college film of Patrick Mahomes, then the quarterback at Texas Tech. They, along with head coach Andy Reid and the personnel department, liked what they saw, to the point of trading up from No. 27 to No. 10 to draft Mahomes. Nagy then worked with Mahomes for one season before heading to Chicago to coach the quarterback who’d gone off the board eight picks before.

So Nagy didn’t have Mahomes on Sunday night, didn’t have a lot of the weapons and options that his mentor on the other sideline did. Still, the Bears’ 26-3 sleepwalk marked the 11th time in the last 20 games in which the Nagy offense has failed to score even 17 points. Eight of those 11 have come this season. (By comparison, the Dowell Loggains offense had eight sub-17-point games in 2016, with Mike Glennon and a rookie Mitch Trubisky at quarterback.) 

In the blowout loss to the Chiefs, the Bears’ offense bumbled through its ninth of 15 first quarters this season without a touchdown. Overall, the Bears’ 234 total yards marked the 10th time in 15 games that the Nagy offense has failed to reach 300.

Not all of that can be laid on inept player performances, although there was no shortage of those in a game that dropped the Bears to 7-8 and underscored the widening gap between this team and the NFL’s best, which the Bears thought they could be entering this season. 

Perhaps this all straightens out. Reid was 40 years old when he was first hired as a head coach. Nagy was 39, so Reid has a 20-year head start on Nagy and has managed over that time to make his version of the West Coast offense timeless, reaching postseasons coaching four different quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Mahomes).

Reid’s first team averaged 17 points per game with a rookie McNabb. Nagy’s team has regressed to 17 points per game with Trubisky in what was advertised as Nagy Offense 202.

At times it has seemed that Nagy brought chapters from the Reid playbook but not the adaptability that has been key to the mentor’s sustained success. Whether Nagy can develop that adaptability is perhaps the biggest cloud overhanging 2020 and beyond.

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Bears' Anthony Miller earning Mitch Trubisky’s trust at the right time

Bears' Anthony Miller earning Mitch Trubisky’s trust at the right time

With Mitch Trubisky playing tentatively at times this season, the automatic assumption was that the problem was entirely with the Bears quarterback.

That’s not entirely true.

“Don’t surprise your quarterback” is a wide-receiver commandment, and the fact is that Trubisky was hampered early this season by his receivers’ poor routes, drops or both all too often. That led to sacks, incompletions and interceptions.

Anthony Miller, for instance, was called out for running an improper route against the Rams in Week 10 that resulted in an interception. That was, however, the moment when a light appeared to go on for the second-year receiver. His subsequent increase in targets indicates that Trubisky is trusting him more. Miller was targeted 30 times over the season’s first nine games, 37 times over the past four. In the Bears’ win over Detroit on Thanksgiving, Miller was targeted a season-high 13 times. He caught nine of those throws for 140 yards.

“I think with every receiver, the timing and the trust comes with experience,” head coach Matt Nagy said going into the Dallas game. “There's a little bit of trust that gets earned over time. So the more plays you have with that guy, the more trust you'll get in particular routes.”

Miller’s emergence over the past month has offset Taylor Gabriel’s diminished presence due to concussion issues. Plus, the early success of newfound tight ends J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted has given Nagy more play-calling options.

And all the Bears’ pass catchers are doing a better job of, well, catching passes. Every one of the team’s nine main pass receivers has a catch percentage 60 percent or higher. Last year Trubisky’s targets included Josh Bellamy (56 percent), and star receiver Allen Robinson was sub-60 (58.5 percent).

“Going back to last year, it was our first year in this offense,” Nagy said. “All these routes and the different coverages you get take time. So, yeah, there's a little bit of trust that gets earned over time. It's starting to develop more and more with more receivers on our team.”

None more than with Anthony Miller.

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