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
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.