That the Bears have a problem at the quarterback position has been on display much of the 2019 season, as performance has fallen appallingly short of expectations and perceived promises arising out of the offseason and even a less-than-stellar training camp for Mitch Trubisky.
But for a team standing at 3-3 and the favorite this Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, two questions warrant consideration:
Is Mitchell Trubisky really THAT bad?
And what can the Bears do about it, not next offseason, but now? Right now.
The short answers are, no, and a few things, and those involve more than the simplest, that of running the football more.
The inescapable fact is that Trubisky’s 31 NFL games provide a strong indicator of what he is or can be, and also what he won’t be. As noted here after the New Orleans game, after his first three rookie/2017 games getting settled in, Trubisky in fact threw slightly more passes (31.3 per game) over his final nine starts under Fox/Loggains than he did through his 14 starts under coach Matt Nagy in 2018 (31.0). In his three games before the shoulder injury and the 54-pass debacle vs. New Orleans, Nagy was having Trubisky throw 34 passes per game.
What Nagy has done, however, is turn his offense and quarterback one-dimensional, something opposing defenses doubtless greatly appreciate. That has to change and more than simply in press-conference lip service.
So coming off arguably one of his worst performances as a professional, does anything suggest that Trubisky is not the presumptive next in a long line of Chicago Bears quarterback incompetents?
Fact: He HAS had his moments
The trouble with draft calls like Kevin White, Shea McClellin and Michael Haynes is that there was never any real reason to expect positive things as their careers went through their first three Bears years. They simply never did anything to indicate that they had the ability to become good, and they didn’t.
Not so Trubisky. The beleaguered quarterback, who is playing unofficially at about the level he did in a very C-minus training camp, in fact has flashed, albeit not too brightly in 2019.
Set aside last year’s rout of Tampa Bay (6 touchdowns, 154.6 rating) or even this year’s over Washington (3 touchdowns, 116.5 rating); those were bad teams.
Look instead at lighting up Green Bay in Soldier Field last year 20-of-28 passing, 235 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions) and the wrap-up in Minnesota, with the Vikings playing for the postseason and Trubisky calmly completing 18 of 26 passes for a workmanlike 163 yards against a top-10 defense. Or against Detroit last year, putting up 34 points in three quarters with three touchdown passes, zero interceptions and 355 yards for the game.
As noted in this space around the outset of training camp, the NFL appeared to be getting onto Trubisky and Nagy as last season wore on, something has worsened this year (six games, zero with 300 yards of offense).
But a major share of that falls on Nagy, is uppermost of four quarterback coaches (including backup Chase Daniel among those). A point in that regard:
In the three Trubisky games just cited as among his best, the Bears rushed 22 times against Detroit, 29 vs. Green Bay and 37 against Minnesota.
And lost amid the year-to-date Trubisky declines in completion percentage, yards per attempt, QBR and passer rating is the fact that his interception rate (1.3 percent) is at an all-time low – not at the jaw-dropping sub-1-percent of Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, but better than Matthew Stafford (1.4), Tom Brady (1.5), Deshaun Watson (2.1), Jared Goff (2.5) and Dak Prescott (2.9).
Time is on his side (maybe not for Bears, tho)
Once upon a time, in an NFL far, far away, quarterbacks were like colts. Some could run as yearlings, others showed fast as two-year-olds, and then there were the three-year-olds, which are what keep the Kentucky Derby in business. But rare was the thoroughbred who was truly fully developed even as it was making a run at a Triple Crown.
Quarterbacks were once allowed a similar career-gestation curve. That changed dramatically about 20 years ago with the Peyton Mannings, Russell Wilsons, Ben Roethlisbergers and myriad others who were thrust into starting jobs with bad teams and altered NFL thinking by reversing team fortunes in as little as a season or two.
The fact may be that Trubisky, whose college resume at North Carolina was very suspect, with only 13 starts and not winning the No. 1 job before his senior season, may ultimately be among those quarterbacks who bloom late (assuming, of course, that he ever does).
Others in that group:
Steve Young: Bumbled to a 3-16 record with Tampa Bay before being dealt to San Francisco for a couple draft picks. Rode the bench behind Joe Montana until age 30.
Rich Gannon: A mediocre pro through 11 nothing-special years with three different teams who became NFL MVP and got the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl at age 37.
Vinny Testaverde: Once a No. 1 overall pick who went 24-48 as a starter early in his career, made his first Pro Bowl at age 33, played for seven teams but stands 14th in all-time passing yards (46,233).
Alex Smith: Another No. 1 overall who had seven pretty much “just a guy” seasons in San Francisco, then earned three Pro Bowl trips in five years in Kansas City with Andy Reid – and Nagy.
The obvious problem with those three is that their peak successes didn’t come with their original teams. And depending on fifth-year options, contract situations and his play over the next season and a half, the same may loom for Trubisky.
But combinations of coaching, surrounding teammate talent (or lack of same) and other factors can turn quarterbacks into something time-released; their best is not what happens first.
The decision for the Bears, coming up most likely at the end of 2020, is whether to go all-in on Trubisky. They’ll have his fifth-year option available, which they can choose to exercise next offseason, although that huge bump ($22.8 million last offseason for Jared Goff and Carson Wentz) is guaranteed only for injury.
Given general manager Ryan Pace’s personal stake in Trubisky, picking up the quarterback’s option for north of $23 million is presumed at this point. Consider it a semi-franchise tag, just nowhere near as pricey.
Solutions? A couple.
The Bears are not without levers to pull to effect change in Trubisky’s performance. Some have been tried before with another quarterback in particular – and worked.
Reduce the decision-making demands
“Simplify the offense” is one oft-stated bromide but not exactly what this situation calls for. Simplifying within certain plays is more to the point. Consider:
When Mike Martz arrived as offensive coordinator in 2010, he effectively took away Jay Cutler’s options for audibling. Cutler initially chafed at the constraints but gradually flourished with the reduced decision-making burden.
Of his six 100-plus passer ratings, four came in the season’s final five games, not including a throwaway game 16 after the playoffs were clinched. Cutler had just three seasons with winning records as a starting quarterback; two of them were 2010 and 2011, in Martz’s strait-jacket.
When Adam Gase arrived as offensive coordinator in 2015, he spent the early weeks of his tenure calling Martz and numerous coordinators and coaches who’d worked with Cutler. The point was to find out what the talented passer’s shortcomings were. The dominant common thread was Cutler’s decision-making. It was imprecise, slow and just not good. Gase then implemented a scheme that dramatically cut back Cutler’s options at the line of scrimmage.
The result was the single highest one-year passer rating (92.3) of Cutler’s career and the second-lowest interception percentage (2.3) of his career, exceeded only by his 2.2 percent in 2011 – under Martz.
The task of a top coach is to adjust a scheme to fit the strengths of his players, not jam the player in to fit the concept of the scheme. Trubisky’s confidence is nowhere near what he, Nagy and the Bears need it to be. While RPO’s looked sexy last season and this offseason, whether Trubisky is equipped to operate with that decision load now is highly problematic.
“The biggest challenge for all of us is what we want as offensive play-callers, as offensive coaches, is for that to be -- it's never going to be perfect -- but to be as effective as possible,” Nagy said. “So what does that mean? Well, that's timing. And timing is related to footwork. And I think in general, then it's repetitions at specific plays that he feels comfortable in.
“So is it where we want it to be? No, it's not. But we want to make sure that we're helping him as much as we can to get to that point to where he feels extremely comfortable.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.