When Matt Nagy was asked in March of 2019 what gave him optimism about quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s future, the Chicago Bears head coach quickly answered:
“The Eagles game.”
The Eagles game in Jan. 2019 was the only playoff game the Bears have played in a decade and it was a microcosm of Trubisky’s NFL career, showing off both the tantalizing talent that got him drafted No. 2 overall in 2017 and the frustrating decision-making that has held him back.
Sunday in New Orleans, Nagy and Trubisky will embark on their second playoff game together, but this time the expectations will be much lower, as the Bears head to the Superdome as 10.5-point underdogs, according to PointsBet.
Their second playoff game should’ve occurred two years ago, but you know what happened. Kicker Cody Parkey double-doinked himself onto the Today Show while the rest of the organization wondered if Trubisky’s strong fourth quarter would’ve carried the Bears into a deep playoff run.
Know this: Nagy had legitimate hope that Trubisky’s playoff performance would springboard him into being the Bears’ starting quarterback for a long time. But he was also honest about the growth that needed to happen. The overthrows, the red zone decisions, the deep-ball accuracy – they were all issues then, and, unfortunately, they are still issues today.
But despite all that, Trubisky still put the Bears in position to win a Wild Card playoff game – twice, actually. And that’s why lessons learned from that game could be relevant against the Saints this week.
"I feel like I am more prepared than I was back then," Trubisky said this week. "I feel like my game has gotten better. I just feel like I am a better leader and what my team needs at this point and just how to push them and have a great week of practice and go into the game and lead my team and give us a chance to win."
In my film review of Trubisky’s 2018 season, this what I wrote about his performance against the Eagles:
Staying hot on third down, Trubisky showed good timing and threw a strike to Allen Robinson on 3rd & 5. Got away with a near pick-6 as he lobbed a ball to Jordan Howard while falling backward under pressure. Came up limping after a third down scramble in the second quarter, but it didn’t appear to be a big issue the rest of the game. Appeared to be intercepted as the corner undercut Robinson’s out route on a long pass to the field side, but the ball was juggled out of bounds. Deep back-shoulder to Robinson drifted out of bounds at the last moment. Delivered a great ball to Miller on the slot-fade on a weird play where the ball ended up coming back to the line of scrimmage because it was ruled a catch and fumble, but neither team recovered. Inexplicable throw across his body into the end zone that was dropped by the safety. Great double-move by Robinson and pump fake opened up a 45-yard gainer that Trubisky put on the money. Later, he had Robinson open but led him too far out of bounds and the Bears settled for a field goal. On 3rd & 11, Trubisky threw a strike to Gabriel on the dig as he took a shot from Fletcher Cox. Next throw was a 34-yard dime to Bellamy down the right sideline. Hit Robinson on the corner-and-go double-move for a clutch go-ahead touchdown in the fourth before going back to Robinson on the corner route to set up what should have been the game-winning field goal. On the last shot to the end zone before the field goal, he had to put the ball in the end zone and the pressure forced him to throw early, which meant Miller couldn’t run under the ball. Trubisky played a great fourth quarter in an enormous moment when the defense couldn’t hold the lead.
Sound familiar? There’s a good chance Trubisky will play a similar game Sunday in New Orleans and, honestly, the more pressing question is whether or not the Bears’ slumping defense can keep the game close enough for the fourth quarter to matter.
But that’s where Nagy’s more recent comments about the Jan. 2019 playoff game come in.
“Without getting into a whole lot of stuff -- X's and O's, schematically -- we learned some things as a staff, too, that we've talked about, that 'hey, if we get back in this situation again, let's do this. Let's remember this.’” Nagy said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, last year we didn't make the playoffs so we weren't able to put that into fruition. But here we are right now in this position. And we're using our experiences, things that we thought we did well and things that we thought we didn't do well as a staff to help us be better for this next opportunity that we have.”
The fourth quarter connection between Trubisky and Robinson must be a part of that. In this recent successful offensive stretch, the Bears have rarely aired it out. Trubisky’s air yards since returning in Week 12 are just 6.8 per attempt, which (surprisingly) is tied with Aaron Rodgers for 25th among quarterbacks with at least 100 plays in that stretch. But in that 2019 playoff game, after settling for three field goals earlier in the game, Trubisky suddenly completed passes of 19, 34 and 22 yards on a fourth quarter drive to score a touchdown. Then, to set up the double-doink, Trubisky hit Robinson for 25 yards down the right sideline on what was probably the most clutch throw of his NFL career.
"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations and he definitely was one of those players in the fourth quarter when we needed him to make big-time catches for our offense," Trubisky said. "He was getting open and making big-time plays and we were giving him opportunities."
Now the task is to recapture that fourth quarter playoff magic, but sustain it throughout a whole game.
“A-Rob is a part of that. Anytime you have 100 catches, teams know that that's a guy that you want to be able to get the football to,” Nagy said. “What we need to do is make sure that we do a good job of mixing it up and making sure that he's still getting opportunities. I know last week was one of those things where there weren't a lot of opportunities or targets for him. Obviously, we want to be able to change that."
That will be a tough task if rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney (ankle) is unable to play. But the Bears didn't have Mooney two years ago either. Trubisky was throwing passes to Josh Bellamy, Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker in a playoff game. In that fourth quarter against the Eagles, the Bears were running what they love to refer to as their “bread and butter” plays -- stuff they’ve been running all season. The 22-yard touchdown to Robinson was a corner-and-go route against man coverage and the 25-yard completion at the end of the game was just a corner route against zone. Trubisky and Robinson were in sync on reading the defense and executing in a big moment.
On the other hand, the Bears only scored one touchdown in the game. That won’t cut it in New Orleans – not with how their defense is playing now. And sandwiched in-between the clutch throws to Robinson was a quick three-and-out that allowed Nick Foles and the Eagles to go down the field and take the lead.
Many of the same issues – especially red zone inefficiency and risky decision-making by the quarterback – existed in that playoff game two years ago.
"In the game of football you are always playing with that line of when to try to make a big play or try not to take a really bad play," Trubisky said.
If the Bears are going to pull off a big upset against the Saints, Nagy, Trubisky and new play-caller Bill Lazor are going to have to walk that fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness against a good New Orleans Saints defense.