For a time last weekend, Khalil Mack was the face of the Chicago Bears. Being new, being really, really good, being the highest-paid defensive player in history, all those things earned Mack’s countenance a leading place on just about every front page, website and TV broadcast in a city hungry for reasons to have hope in the football team that is part of its civic DNA.
The soft-spoken, humble linebacker in all likelihood will imprint his football persona on the Bears defense, already with an emerging personality and identity, both of which received a monumental booster shot with the Mack arrival on top of the Roquan Smith draft.
But the mantle of “face of the franchise” is about more than leading a news cycle, and that distinction isn’t one that Mack, or most defensive players for that matter, is likely to hold or even want, anyway. The occasional Dick Butkus or Brian Urlacher notwithstanding, defense rarely lends itself to that sort of thing. “I mean, when it comes to playing team defense, you don't see yourself as ‘one’ of 11,” Mack said. “You see all 11 men out there as one force, everybody making plays.”
Mack gets it. Defensive guys think of themselves more like offensive linemen than wide receivers, a coordinated whole rather than individualists, as parts of a sort of sports flash mob, convening at high speed and with ill intent at the football, “you hold him up and I’ll get the ball out” stuff.
Defensive guys can become franchise faces, but an occasional Butkus, Urlacher, Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis (No. 52, like Mack) or J.J. Watt are exceptions, and typically among the greatests of all time in order to earn “face” honors. Even a Clay Matthews (another No. 52) wasn’t accorded that distinction while he was averaging 10.6 sacks (more than Mack) over his first four Green Bay seasons and his team was even a Super Bowl winner. Good as he is, and even with his dominating some news cycles with his new Mack-level contract, Aaron Donald isn’t the face of the Los Angeles Rams; Jared Goff is.
No, sacks, contracts and all that aside, when Ryan Pace controversially traded up one slot in the 2017 draft to select Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears GM effectively put a young, relatively inexperienced North Carolina quarterback on a course to become the face of one of the NFL’s charter franchises. Certain elements of “face” status come along simply with being the starting quarterback, plus being ID’d as the future of a franchise by virtue of your GM trading dramatically up in a first round to land you.
Meaning: the job of “face of the franchise” was Trubisky’s job to lose.
The franchise-QB statement made on that Bears draft day wasn’t automatically validated. Trubisky did eventually succeed Mike Glennon as the starting quarterback, but as much due to what Glennon wasn’t as to what Trubisky was, which still turned out to be 4-8 as a starter.
No amount of marketing can create a true face of a franchise or a franchise quarterback, which typically are one and the same if the individual is either. Just because Phil Emery declared Jay Cutler “elite” and a “franchise quarterback” didn’t make Cutler either of those. That status can only be conferred, first, from within the locker room, and second, by playing to that seed on the field.
“Pretty boy assassin” as leader
Trubisky began growing into that role before he’d moved into the starter’s role.
“I feel like ever since he came in, he’s been a leader since Day 1,” said running back Tarik Cohen, a draft classmate of Trubisky. “As far as growth, I feel like it’s not necessarily growth; that’s always been him. It’s in his nature to be a leader.
“Your starting quarterback — you have to have that in you to be successful in this league.”
Yet Trubisky’s personality is the antithesis of look-at-me. He was generally a quiet rookie, a quality always appreciated by veterans, and his emergence took an obvious next step along the way, albeit gradually.
“You could definitely tell from when he first got here until now, he definitely stepped up a lot more,” said running back Jordan Howard. “Not scared to speak up because he knows it's his team now and last year he had to play second-fiddle for a little bit, but you could definitely tell it's his team now.”
Indeed, Trubisky’s connectedness with teammates is critical. He is generally liked, it’s apparent and it transcends side of the football: A little by-play here between Trubisky and cornerback Kyle Fuller as they settle in for their joint press conference at the outset of camp. Trubisky there yelling over at Kevin White as the latter was in mid-interview.
Members of the defense nicknaming him “Pretty Boy Assassin” last year when he was lighting them up as quarterback of the scout team. “He’s going back to the huddle,” linebacker Leonard Floyd said, laughing, “and lookin’ over at us, inside his helmet, not sayin’ anything, just smilin’, like, ‘I gotcha.’ You like that.”
While Trubisky has had that swag that teammates like, what has evolved over the past year been more than that.
“There’s a huge difference from training camp a year ago to now,” said quarterbacks coach and former NFL quarterback Dave Ragone. “He was the third-string quarterback the year before, and it wasn’t his team yet.
“Here it’s unequivocal. It’s obviously his football team. The way he approaches his job is that of a leader. Last year it was trying to feel it, with Mike Glennon being the starter initially. It’s a whole different animal for him now. He’s taken leadership in terms of understanding the guys around him go by his example, and it means something to him. He’s way different. It’s a ‘180,’ and I think he’ll continue to grow from there with his maturity and come out here and do what he’s supposed to do, which is lead this football team… .
“He's a completely different person [from Year 1]. Obviously in Year 2 as an NFL player, now especially being the starting quarterback unequivocally of the Chicago Bears, he takes that very serious. His mental approach in terms of the understanding of what a leader is and he needs to be himself as a leader has been leaps and bounds different. And the players around him, you can see it. There's a calm confidence with him and the players around him. Mitchell's authentic, which is important when you're a leader, and his teammates around him understand that. And he's pushing himself. I give him a tremendous amount of credit. This offseason, it was a big project for him to go out there and make sure he understood that this was his team and he's done that, and he's done it from OTAs to minicamp to training camp so far.”
3 requirements to be a “Face”
More than one element goes into the making of a face of a franchise. A popular personality is nice, but if that were all it took, Josh Bellamy would be a made face-guy. Elite ability is also nice, but Julius Peppers brought that, yet did not contend for “face” status despite being All-Pro three of his four Bears seasons and All-Pro two of those.
There is a recipe for “face of franchise” status. Whether Trubisky has those ingredients is what the next five months will start to determine:
With very, very few exceptions, best players have far and away the best chances of becoming franchise-faces. The plucky little backup can be popular but they’re usually more mascot than masthead. Leadership in locker rooms starts with doing one’s job very well – walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Same with faces of franchises – just win, baby. Mostly.
Take on 10: Not yet. Everyone saying the right things in offseason and preseason is not the same as him doing them in-season. His 4-8 record as a starter and pedestrian numbers need to spike way up.
Be a “try-hard” guy
Myriad loser Cubs – Bill Buckner, Ernie Banks and so on – can vouch for this. Chicago fans will love you if they see you as a try-guy, somebody who goes all-in irrespective of how good his team is or isn’t. Dick Butkus. Gale Sayers. The Bears fan base loves a face that’s sweaty and dirt-streaked.
Take on 10: He’s got that. Work ethic is evident, he puts his body on the line with RPO’s and scrambles, and coaches have to remind him to “Get down!” at the end of runs.
Players and coaches over the years haven’t always grasped this, but Chicago WANTS to love its Bears. The Bears are a blue-and-orange thread that runs prominently through the Chicago civic tapestry. But to be a face of the franchise, get some personality, or at least a persona (See: Butkus, Dick). It’s hard to root for a jerk, perceived or actual.
Media presence factors in here. The media gravitates toward players comfortable in front of cameras and microphones (Mark Grace, Dan Hampton) and a sense of humor helps. Camera-time helps make a “Face.”
Take on 10: Zero prima donna. Regular stay-late guy doing autographs after hot camp practices, not afraid to have fun at the podium.
Result: Trubisky has the intangibles. Now does he have the tangibles?
As Trubisky presumably plays his way into and through the 2018 season and beyond, a scroll through selected Franchise Faces can be illustrative:
When Rocky Balboa names his bull mastiff for you, you’re a “face.”
He may never have wanted the “Face” distinction. But just as Trubisky was elevated to stratospheric face status by virtue of the organization investing more than one draft choice in him, Cutler arrived on the wings of a trade in which the Bears gave away two No. 1’s for him. That made him the face of the franchise, like it or not.
The problems were, one, that the face of the franchise was too often pouting, and two, the franchise already had faces in place, topped by Urlacher for a decade, with shadings of Lance Briggs, Olin Kreutz and a couple of others who’d been part of a Super Bowl team. Cutler alienated existing locker room leadership, and coaches, and split the fan base into apologists and detractors.
Not good “face” material. The organization and arguably the fan base suffered from Cutler Fatigue, leading to his dismissal after 2016 despite his obvious superiority to and lower price than Mike Glennon.
Jim Miller was a personable playoff quarterback but Urlacher beginning in 2000 and accelerating in 2001 was a layup in the City of Big Shoulder Pads. Defensive rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, a middle linebacker with a personality different from Butkus’ scowl or Mike Singletary’s eyes, and really, really good.
Which is what a true face-of-the-franchise needs to be. Somebody who can share a laugh with Brett Favre and is Hall of Fame material as well as a team leader – obvious Face in a city that loves defense and the middle linebackers that are part of it.
Jim McMahon/Fridge/et al
As if sheer excellence wasn’t enough, the “Super Bowl Shuffle” established a multi-headed face of the franchise, and it went far beyond just the city limits, to places like onto the cover of Time magazine (Perry and Payton), Rolling Stone (McMahon) and, even five years after Super Bowl XX, in skit form on “Saturday Night Live.”
Difficult to pick one face of the ‘80s franchise because, as Mike Singletary said, “Eagles don’t flock,” and that was an amalgamation of eagles.
When Chicago and the football universe know you by just your first name…