Holding onto a 16-10 lead early in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers last season, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy called for a shot play downfield on 2nd and 7 from the Bears’ own 35-yard line.
The result was disastrous. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky lobbed the ball down the right sideline to Trey Burton and Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward easily undercut the throw for an interception and returned it 37 yards into the red zone.
“It wasn't a good play call,” Nagy admitted later in the season. “They covered it. You had a Pro Bowl corner and -- Mitch knows this -- he would just check it down instead of trying to throw the swing route down the sideline for an interception at that point in the game. That's all.”
Playcalling is not easy. That’s why there are usually multiple options on pass plays. It’s up to the quarterback to read the defense and make the correct decision. Sometimes, when a playcaller gets aggressive with an aggressive shot down the field, it’s more boom-or-bust, but the coach is still trusting his quarterback to throw the ball away or check it down if the downfield shot is covered.
The interception against the Chargers was a microcosm of the Bears’ offense in 2019 – the perfect example of how it can be better in 2020. Nagy can learn from the play call, understanding that a shot downfield in that situation was ill-advised, but the quarterback can also learn that he doesn’t need to throw the ball. It was a bad decision.
And that’s why the trust between the playcaller and the quarterback is so crucial.
Nagy has never hidden from his desire to be aggressive and he’s not likely to change now. Two weeks later against the Lions, with the Bears once again holding onto a lead early the fourth quarter, Nagy called for another shot downfield. Again, it was 2nd and 7, this time at the Bears’ own 29-yard line.
“We called a very similar play — a shot play downfield. It wasn't there and what did he do? He learned from it and he checked it down to Allen Robinson for a first down and a 12-yard gain. More of those,” Nagy said.
More of those trust-builders. There weren’t enough of those decisions last season, one of many reasons why the Bears opted to decline Trubisky’s fifth-year option and trade for Nick Foles.
Over the last three weeks at Halas Hall, Trubisky and Foles competed for the starting job in 2020, with a decision likely to be made this weekend.
The case for Foles to start Sept. 13 against the Detroit Lions was made in Part 1 of this two-part feature. In Part 2, we examine the case for Trubisky to keep his starting job:
Early in Saturday’s “scrimmage” at Soldier Field, Mitch Trubisky took a snap and appeared to look deep downfield. Quickly recognizing that the defense had bailed out and the downfield pass was covered, Trubisky adjusted and dumped the ball off to running back Tarik Cohen, who was wide open underneath. The play still resulted in a first down and a sizeable gain because of Cohen’s ability to pick up yards after the catch.
More of those, right?
When the 2019 season ended, Nagy famously challenged Trubisky to become “a master at understanding coverages.”
“How do you see the defense? Is that front, stunts, blitzes? Is that first Y vision with a shift in the ‘Mike,’ a rotation? Let’s now put that all together and understand how defenses are going to try to trick you, and let’s not get tricked,” Nagy said.
This is where Trubisky is still earning the trust of his playcaller, likely the most important factor in potentially winning the starting job over Foles, who came to Chicago with that trust already in place with Nagy.
So has Trubisky become a master in understanding coverages?
“First of all, master is a strong word. That takes a while to get to,” Nagy said this week. “But I think that he’s doing a really good – he’s definitely, 100 percent growing in understanding coverages. And I think that’s all you can ask for.”
In fairness to Trubisky, no matter how hard he has worked to better understand coverages, he hasn’t had a single snap at full speed since Nagy challenged him last December. And without the benefit of preseason games, the Bears really can’t test their fourth-year quarterback until he plays in a real game in 2020.
“Master -- I think there’s only a few of those right now when you really think about it,” Nagy said. “But (Trubisky) is doing everything that we asked in regards to progressions and understanding where defenses are at.”
It’s easy to say Trubisky needs to improve his decision-making, but more specifically, it’s situational decision-making – i.e. third down and in the red zone – that needs to improve. And it’s not only a matter of knowing when to check the ball down. Sometimes it’s the opposite.
Nagy provided one example from the Bears’ 31-15 win over Washington in Week 3 last year. The Bears were up 28-3 early in the third quarter and Trubisky checked the ball down to Trey Burton for no gain on 3rd & 12. Eddy Pineiro then missed a 44-yard field goal attempt, resulting in zero points on the drive. The problem was that Trubisky never saw Anthony Miller coming wide open on the left side for what would have been a 31-yard touchdown. He didn’t even appear to look in that direction.
Nagy brought this play up at the end of the 2019 season as an area of growth for Trubisky because in Week 17 against the Vikings, the quarterback made the correct decision on a crucial 3rd and 2. Trailing 19-18 with 1:51 left in the game, the quarterback had just hit Riley Ridley on a clutch 4th and 9 completion for 32 yards to get down to the Vikings’ 11-yard-line. But one more first down would essentially seal the game with a chip shot field goal. Trubisky had the option to either go with a pass play or a run play at the line of scrimmage and he correctly identified the defense and delivered a strike to Allen Robinson for a gain of three yards to win the game.
“He’s learning. I think that’s growth,” Nagy said last December.
Trubisky may have ended the season on a high note, but the Bears still went out and acquired Foles, proving that there’s much more work to be done.
Improvement in the pocket
One enormous advantage Trubisky has over Foles is his mobility. He can scramble, elude defenders and pick up yards with his feet.
“If it's not a potentially designed run, he's made some of his big plays with his feet on instinct,” Bears passing game coordinator Dave Ragone said. “There's a number of instances and different examples throughout his career where you can see -- depending on the coverage or what just happened in the pocket -- his ability and instincts to take over and go. I think that's where you see some of his biggest plays.”
But Trubisky still needs to show he can be a pocket passer first, and that’s where he doesn’t have an advantage on Foles. Trubisky is four inches shorter than Foles, which means he can’t see as clearly over his offensive line. That’s where Trubisky needs to improve his mobility within the pocket. Instead of bailing quickly, he can use his feet to move and create throwing windows.
There are plenty of plays in this offense that allow Trubisky to get outside the pocket and throw on the move, but those become less effective if teams don’t need to be concerned about him within the pocket. A less talked about challenge for Trubisky in training camp was to show he can be more effective on straight drop-back pass plays and the Bears believe there has been some improvement.
“There’s not many plays where he’s flushing out of the pocket when he’s not forced to,” Nagy said Wednesday. “He’s been staying in the pocket. I love that about him doing that because he’s listening to what we’re talking about with his middle of the field throws, the vision downfield, being able to have that mentality of going downfield and then checking down.”
The accuracy challenge
In Bruce Arians’ book The Quarterback Whisperer, the Buccaneers head coach writes that there are two quarterback traits that are hard to improve once a player is in the NFL.
Timing and accuracy.
On timing, Arians writes: “Timing is everything in the NFL; if a quarterback doesn’t have this skill – this one that really can’t be taught – he won’t last long in the league. An NFL QB either has this skill – this gift – or he doesn’t.”
On accuracy, Arians writes: “It’s very difficult to teach a quarterback to become accurate once he is in the NFL; this is a trait that leaps off the college film in the scouting process.”
In Trubisky’s case, accuracy was actually one of his strengths coming out of North Carolina. It’s been surprising to see it become an issue in the NFL. And with timing, not everyone believes it’s impossible to improve.
“I go back to when I was a player and we would play the Colts each year when I was with the Texans,” Ragone said. “(Peyton Manning) would go out there with Reggie Wayne on one side and Marvin Harrison on the other and they would run the route tree, specifically the same route tree every single pregame … Just training himself over and over and over and training his receiver to be in a certain spot over and over and over to the point where literally no one had to think about it.”
In stressing repetition, Ragone mentioned the “equity” built with teammates, something Trubisky can point to as an edge over Foles right now. But Ragone also mentioned “lower body fundamentals” and was responding to a question specifically about Trubisky’s footwork, which has impacted the quarterback’s timing and accuracy.
This week on ESPN’s NFL Live, former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky – who has become an excellent analyst – pointed out multiple issues with Trubisky’s fundamentals last season.
“If he does not fix his one fatal flaw, he will be out of his job by October,” Orlovsky said.
That fatal flaw equates to “bad habits,” including kicking his back foot behind his hips on his dropback, which closes off his body and makes it harder to throw to the left. Orlovsky also pointed out two examples of Trubisky standing straight up in the pocket, which creates added movement to get into a throwing position, leading to late passes.
These flaws in fundamentals impact both accuracy and timing.
“When you feel solidly comfortable in the timing of the top of your drop, I think that's when you can become the most accurate,” Ragone said.
The good news? One of my own observations early in training camp was that Trubisky was not standing straight up in his drop. As for the placement of the back foot, that is impossible to see without practice film from the end zone angle. That said, two notable throws in Saturday’s practice at Soldier Field were back-to-back timing throws to the left sideline at intermediate depth. Both passes were on the money – one to Anthony Miller and one to Riley Ridley.
When asked after that practice what he’s done best in training camp, Trubisky said: “Throwing the ball downfield and being more accurate, especially out and to the left and outside the numbers. I think I’ve shown that I can make those throws and I’ve done better with my footwork and just being able to lead and run this offense.”
The case against Trubisky
The issue the Bears have in evaluating Trubisky’s improvements is that none of his reps have come against a live defense. The preseason games were going to be very important in the quarterback competition, especially for the incumbent. It’s one thing to show improvement when you’re constantly repeating the same coaching points in practice. It’s another to execute when the game speeds up and the opposing defense can hit you.
The guess here is that the Bears’ coaching staff truly sees signs of improvement, but Trubisky also failed to separate himself early in the competition when Foles looked underwhelming.
“It is not easy. It’s not clear-cut,” Nagy acknowledged Wednesday.
Trust with the playcaller is extremely important in the evaluation. Nagy needs to know that if he calls for a shot downfield and it’s not there, his quarterback is going to know to check the ball down. Foles entered the competition with that trust built up not only with Nagy, but also offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.
If the coaching staff picks Trubisky, they’re taking a leap that what they’ve seen from the quarterback at Halas Hall will translate to the field.
The Bears will hold one more light practice Thursday before the players get Friday and Saturday off. It will be on those two days that Nagy and the coaching staff will go through a deep evaluation of everything they’ve seen the last three weeks.
“We are going to get in a room and we are going to sit down and we are going to watch all of these clips,” Nagy said. “And we're not just going to see was it complete or was it incomplete? We're going to dig really hard into the ‘why.’ And then we're going to look at situational football. And then we're going to look at what's around (the quarterbacks). Is it (starters vs backups or backups vs starters)? And we're going to just shut the door, we're going to have our own opinions and ultimately in the end we're going to make a decision.”
My opinion doesn’t really matter, but after taking a deep dive into the cases of both quarterbacks, I believe Trubisky has shown enough in training camp to earn the opportunity to either pass or fail against live competition. The Bears still need that on-field evaluation in a game to truly rule out a quarterback they drafted No. 2 overall in 2017. I also think the lack of a true offseason program impacted Foles more than expected, even with his familiarity of Nagy’s offensive system.
In the end, there’s a very high likelihood that both Trubisky and Foles will start games for the Chicago Bears in 2020, but after an extremely close competition, I think Trubisky will start Week 1 and should start Week 1.
“Someone is going to get the job and someone is not going to get the job and they're both going to have to handle that the right way because it's a long season,” Nagy said. “And so in the end, when we all understand that this whole entire organization feels good with both quarterbacks, that's a good problem to have. Now it's our job to make it work.”