The 2018 season ended with a predictable tsunami of feel-good about the play and prospects for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky:
From GM Ryan Pace: “I think it was just good to see the natural growth in the offensive scheme as [Trubisky] gained more comfort and then also more comfort with the players that are around him, that chemistry that developed. And I was just talking to Mitch today about that, just the excitement of going into an offseason with the pieces in place around him and then Year 2 in the same offensive scheme and how much growth can take place. So I just felt like you saw him playing more with his instincts because he was more comfortable in the system.”
Coach Matt Nagy, for whom total buy-in on Trubisky as the franchise quarterback was an understandable condition of employment, was even more lavish with his praise in the immediate aftermath of the playoff loss to Philadelphia: “We're lucky to have him. I'm looking forward to the future. I really am, with him, because the city of Chicago is lucky to have that kid at quarterback.”
But gushy talk is easy, particularly when the immediate objective is positivity. Exactly how “lucky” is Chicago to have a civic treasure like Trubisky? Did the organization get from Trubisky the improvements that it needs to move into the echelon of New England, Kansas City, New Orleans and the rest of the NFL’s Final Four?
Some indicators say “yes.” Others, maybe not so much. Still others, wait ‘til next year.
The Bears reached the 12-4 NFC North level they did in largest part because of the defense, which improved from No. 14 to No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, picking one apples-to-apples measure. The offense with 14 Trubisky starts vs. the 12 of 2017 improved from No. 28 last season to No. 20. Not good enough to get past Philadelphia, Cody Parkey notwithstanding.
The top five offenses (Chiefs, Rams, Chargers, Saints, Patriots) all reached the divisional round, and all but the Chargers are in the conference championships. Notably, all were top-10 and in the playoffs in 2017 as well, saying something about their quarterbacks’ consistency (and the relevance of the DVOA measure).
Better, but how much?
Wins are the only truly meaningful NFL measuring standard. But subheads under the general heading of “quarterback performance” warrant evaluation in the case of a work in progress like Trubisky. To that end:
Back before the start of training camp, before the on-field installation of Matt Nagy’s offense with Mitchell Trubisky and installing the revised Trubisky into the offense, this source identified three critical areas in which Trubisky needed to improve in if he was to take the uber-critical next step that the organization needed from him:
• “Rediscover accuracy” - move from the 59.4 completion percentage of his 12-game rookie season, toward the 68 percent of his passing at North Carolina.
Analysis: Trubisky had obvious accuracy problems early and at various points during the season, badly missing open receivers. But besides his overall completion bump to 66.6 percent, Trubisky had two sub-60 games in the first seven games of his season, only one in the second seven. And that one was vs. the Rams coming off two games missed with a shoulder injury and with an admittedly over-amped mindset.
• “Stay the ball-security course” – improve on an INT rate of 2.1 percent, again toward his UNC ratio of 4:1, TD’s to INT’s.
Analysis: From a very respectable ball-security rookie year, Trubisky slipped to a pick rate of 2.8 percent. He did throw for 24 TD’s vs. 12 INT’s, better than his 7-and-7 rookie totals but far short of the 4:1 rate sought by Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfich. Nagy recalled situations where Trubisky threw into ill-advised places and acknowledged, “I can’t do that” as late as the Philadelphia game.
But Nagy and staff established in training camp that they were comfortable with Trubisky pushing envelopes, even to the point of incurring training-camp interceptions normally unacceptable. That was part of their learning curve, and the assumption is that Trubisky was indeed learning and would not be repeating throws that too often weren’t interceptions only owing to DB’s poor hands.
• “Get the ball off on time” – Trubisky was sacked at a rate approaching 9 percent of the Bears’ pass plays; only one team reached the 2017 playoffs at a rate higher than 6.6 percent. All of the fault did not lie with the offensive line.
Analysis: Trubisky was sacked on 5.24 percent of his pass plays (excluding scrambles and vs. 10.6 percent for Chase Daniel in the latter’s two starts). That would rank No. 6, just behind Kansas City and just ahead of the Rams. Not coincidentally, his release time, per calculations by NextGen stats, improved from 22nd (below Trevor Simian) to 11th (2.65 sec.) and quicker than Mahomes, Rodgers, Watson and others of note.
Qualitative vs. quantitative – and the “It” factor
But there are only lies, damn lies and statistics, in ascending degrees of misinformation. Myriad other elements beyond simple numbers comprise a championship quarterback in the fashion the Bears say they have in Trubisky.
The future of the Bears and their offense runs through Trubisky the leader. His performance levels can improve simply by eliminating errors rather than pressing for more dramatic plays. Trubisky faced eight teams in 2018 that he hadn’t seen in 2017, and the teams he had seen before (Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Philadelphia, San Francisco) he was confronting with an offense different than the ’17 one.
Very significantly, in the tradition of greats, he got his team into winning range on a final drive in a playoff game, a range (43 yards) from which kickers were 76.7 percent successful in 2018. Cody Parkey had been significantly less successful (69.2 percent) in his career, but that personnel issue is on management, not Trubisky.
Trubisky earned the trust of the team, offense and defense and special teams, and took major qualitative and quantitative steps both as an NFL quarterback and, more important, as Matt Nagy’s quarterback:
“For him, he conquered the next-play mentality,” Nagy said by way of summary. “He conquered that. He conquered the steps of ‘101’ progressions. By the end of the year, he was reading it, ‘1-2-3 [progressions] -run.’ That, he conquered.
“Now, I think level two next year is going to be him really recognizing pre-snap what he's about to see from these defenses. So, last year he was so focused in on, 'What we do we do on offense? Hell, I've never run this offense before. What does that mean?'
“Now, he knows it all and can take that next step of figuring out, 'OK, here they come. They got a blitz, cover-0. Now, I know what to do, what to check to, I know the protections, all of that.' That's going to be the big one for him.”