For Mitch Trubisky, Bears need to manage hope versus expectations

For Mitch Trubisky, Bears need to manage hope versus expectations

Back in 2017, before Mitch Trubisky had even started a game in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said something that still resonates today. 

“I’m always slow to send too much praise or anoint the next great quarterback after Year 1,” Roethlisberger said on a conference call with Chicago media. “I think people in the media and the ‘professionals’ in some of these big sports networks are so quick to anoint the next great one or say that they’re going to be great, this, that and the other. 

“Let’s wait and see what happens after two to three years, after defenses understand what you’re bringing, you’re not a surprise anymore. I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks. In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

What if that quote works the other way? What if it takes two or three years for a quarterback to establish himself as someone who won’t live up to expectations? 

Trubisky started his 32nd game in the NFL Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, bringing his career stats to:

Completion percentage: 63.7 percent
Average yards/game: 203.4
Average yards/attempt: 6.8
Touchdowns/game: 1.1
Interceptions/game: 0.7
Passer rating: 86.4

Those include a dozen starts running Dowell Loggains’ offense with a dearth of weapons around him in 2017. Trubisky’s QBR his rookie year was 31.6; it’s 31.8 through six games in 2019. So you can’t entirely throw that season out, even if it was with a different offense and personnel. 

But this begs the question: Is the Trubisky we saw through his first 32 starts going to be the Trubisky we’ll see for the rest of his career?

Statistically, the answer is yes.  

Over the last 20 years, 72 quarterbacks have made at least 32 starts to begin their respective careers. Removing backups (like Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown) who needed more than four seasons — the current length of a rookie contract — brings the number down, as does taking out guys who started 32 games and then either didn’t, or barely did, after (like Quincy Carter and Trent Edwards). Ultimately, we get down to 57 quarterbacks who’ve been in a similar spot as Trubisky over the last two decades. 

From starts 1-32 and starts 33-plus, those quarterbacks saw:

— An increase in completion percentage by 1.9 percent

— A decrease in yards per game by 2.3 yards

— An increase in average yards per attempt by 0.05 yards

— No change in touchdown to interception ratio

— An increase in passer rating by 9.4 points

These numbers are admittedly not perfect, since Aaron Rodgers had many more attempts to improve off his first 32 starts than afforded to guys like Blaine Gabbert (22 games) and Christian Ponder (five games). But opportunities are earned in the NFL, and draft busts (like Tim Couch and Joey Harrington) didn’t earn the right to get many more chances after their first few seasons. 

Also: The passer rating jump looks like an outlier, though it’s worth noting the leagues’ average passer rating has increased from 77.1 in 1999 to 92.0 in 2019. 

The conclusion here is we should expect Trubisky to be the same quarterback he’s been through starts 1-32 as he will be when he makes start No. 33 on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles and beyond. That’s not particularly encouraging, given how it wouldn’t even meet the bar of “steady, incremental progress” set by general manager Ryan Pace before the 2019 season. 

Hopes vs. Expectations

The optimistic view will point to two quarterbacks, in particular, who blossomed after rough starts to their respective careers: Drew Brees and Alex Smith. 

Those are notable names, too, given Pace had an up-close view of Brees while working in the New Orleans Saints’ front office and Matt Nagy was Alex Smith’s quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Following his first 32 games, Brees has thrown for nearly 100 more yards per game while averaging 1.5 more yards per pass attempt on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Smith threw 13 more interceptions than touchdowns in his first 32 starts, then averaged 1.3 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game after. 

The hope, then, is Trubisky can turn into the next Brees or Smith. But that should not be the expectation. 

Those two players are outliers in a sea of duds (Ponder, for example, had a higher yards per attempt average through 32 starts than Brees did). And, critically: Both Brees and Smith changed teams. 

It’s okay to hang on to hope that Trubisky will be a late bloomer, or even just get back to the level at which he played in 2018. But hopes and expectations are different things. And at some point — perhaps soon — those inside Halas Hall can no longer hold on to that hope.  

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

Roquan Smith's 2019 had ups-and-downs, but it ends with more optimism than ever

Roquan Smith's 2019 had ups-and-downs, but it ends with more optimism than ever

Roquan Smith’s season is over. 

During his Monday morning press conference, Matt Nagy announced that Smith did in fact tear a pectoral muscle and will be placed on injured reserve. 

“[It’s] unfortunate for him,” Nagy added. “He’s really putting together a good year. But he’ll bounce back and that’s that.” 

Not only did Smith’s injury come at the worst possible time for the Bears – two of their last three games are against NFC North rivals on the road – but the injury ends what was the best extended run of play in the second-year linebacker’s career. He'll undergo surgery to fix the muscle, and the timeline for his return is still unclear. 

“I really thought you felt him – especially here in the last several games – really turning it on, really playing fast,” Nagy said. “He’s always had that – every play that he gets, every game that he plays, for the rest of his career, he’s only gonna get better and better in my opinion.”

Comparing his two seasons on paper would suggest that Smith regressed after a Pro Bowl-caliber rookie season, but that doesn't tell the whole story. It's remarkable that he may still finish the season as the team leader in tackles, not to mention the fact that he was on pace to eclipse last season's stats. He would have needed a few more big games, but going into Thursday night, Smith had logged double-digit tackles in four of his last five starts, including a career-high (16) in their Thanksgiving win just a week before. He finishes 2019 with 100 tackles, two sacks and one interception in 12 games played.

“One thing you can say about Roquan is he will run sideline to sideline,” Akiem Hicks added. “I mean, he just has a pair of wheels on him that just won't stop. That's one of the things that separates him is he can get anywhere you need him to be, whether it's coverage or chasing a running back in the flats. It's pretty impressive.”

Nagy and the Bears talked at length on Monday about the ‘ebb and flow’ of an NFL season, especially as it pertains to younger players. He was quick to dismiss the idea that the mysterious-now-bordering-on-infamous personal absence, which caused Smith to miss Week 4’s win over Minnesota, in any way negatively affected how the organization views Smith’s year-to-year progress. His toughness has never been questioned – Prince Amukamara admitted that he was pretty confident Smith tore the muscle several plays before he came out – and coaches have been pleased with how he stepped up as a leader, especially in Danny Trevathan’s absence. 

“Well last year, coming in missing training camp and then being a rookie with an experienced defense – that can be challenging and he did a good job,” Nagy said. “Then coming into this year, you could sense his personality – you could see it extend a little bit more. You could see the relationships he had with those guys. You could see Danny Trevathan really take him under his wing and that was very important. So he's a guy that's really been growing …” 

And now the Bears head into the three straight weeks of playoff games that aren’t playoff games with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis as their starting inside linebacker duo. It’s a far cry from what the envisioned in Bourbonnais, but Kwiatkoski has earned himself more money every week, and as his top-grade performance against the Cowboys showed, KPL is no slouch either. Pierre-Louis is in line to make only the second start of his six-year career when the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday. 

“Once again, it’s just going back to knowing your ‘Why,’” Pierre-Louis said. “Why you grind each week, why you do the drills, why you go through the reps in practice. It’s times like this when you lean on your brothers. Ro’s down right now, and he’s going to need us for moral support…

“We have the right pieces. I just have to make sure that I do my job, and the rest of the team is going to have my back.” 

WATCH: Matt Nagy mic'd up during Bears' win over Cowboys

WATCH: Matt Nagy mic'd up during Bears' win over Cowboys

Bears coach Matt Nagy has maintained a steady and calm demeanor throughout the 2019 season, one which has fallen short of expectations in Chicago and around the NFL. But his team's current three-game winning streak has kept postseason hopes alive, even if just barely. 

And while Nagy may fill postgame press conferences with a bunch of cliches and coach-speak, his on-field personality is a better reflection of the former quarterback he actually is. 

Nagy was mic'd up for the Bears' Week 14 win over the Cowboys and it's easy to see why he's been able to keep this team together despite such a trying season. Other locker rooms might have fractured under the pressure that comes along with failure. Not Chicago's. And it's in large part due to the culture Nagy's created.

Here's a sneak peek into what's led to Nagy's 19-10 record through nearly two seasons on the job:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.