The Mitch Trubisky that stood on the sideline late Sunday during the loss to the Los Angeles Rams and the one that stood downcast before microphones afterwards was not the Mitch Trubisky that teammates on the Bears defense once affectionately nicknamed, “Pretty Boy Assassin” for his swagger. It was not the same Mitch Trubisky who sat in front of his locker as a rookie and talked with this writer, before Trubisky’s first Bears-Packers meeting, about great Ohio football rivalries, like that of his Mentor High School with St. Ignatius or the classic of mighty Massillon with Canton McKinley.
So exactly what has happened to Mitch Trubisky? To go in less than three years from a confident young quarterback as a rookie, to the shaky and shaken still-young quarterback whose play has regressed despite a deep support staff and ostensibly an offensive system to his deep liking…..
What has brought about the unmaking of Mitch Trubisky?
He hasn't collapsed entirely. Performance-wise, he did throw touchdowns on three straight possessions in the Detroit game, and as shaky as the Lions have been, only one of their six losses has been by more than one score, and the Bears are the only sub-.500 team they’ve lost to.
And persona-wise, he has support internally: “He started, what, 14 games in his career in college, No. 2 overall pick, so nobody thought he was going to be our quarterback,” said tackle Bobby Massie. “He's faced adversity from Day one when he first got to Chicago. We didn't have a good season when he first got here, then [coach Matt] Nagy gets here and he's having a great year, everybody loves Mitch, to this year, everybody hates Mitch.
“So he's been through a lot of emotional up-and-down roller coasters and he's faced it head on the whole time. He's a stand-up guy and I love blocking for Mitch.”
But the overarching problem in all of this is that Trubisky as the quarterback is by virtual definition and position the leader of a team. But being a leader involves both personality and performance, and Sunday night, besides the slumping persona, was the sixth time in eight full games that Trubisky’s passer rating (65.1) failed to reach his average passer rating of last season (95.4), and fifth time he’s come up short of even his rookie rating (77.5), which was in an offense that supposedly slowed his growth.
And in the “Be You” culture fostered by Nagy, Trubisky has slipped further and further from whatever the “You” seemed to be not all that long ago.
Declining success can be a root cause of loss of confidence and more. And also vice versa. In the case of Trubisky, determining which was the cause and which was the effect is complicated, given the inviolate cone of silence placed over Trubisky with the exception of Wednesday and postgame press sessions at a podium.
Best pop-psychology guess is that no single explanation accounts for the on- and off-field Trubiskys. But behind pretty much any situation lies a trail of breadcrumbs worth following or at least looking back over.
Consider these “breadcrumbs,” all starting more than a month after perhaps the feel-good, high-water mark of the organization’s 100th Anniversary weekend that saw Trubisky sharing a dais session with Jim McMahon:
Through much of training camp, Trubisky rarely exhibited signs of the progress forecast by Nagy, others and himself. He threw too many interceptions and seldom did the offense or Trubisky look next-level. Nagy didn’t exactly excuse the picks, but downplayed the issue in a way that diverted possible public criticism away from his quarterback.
“We don't get frustrated over that,” Nagy said during camp. “We're testing some things out…. We know what's real and what's not real. That's what we do.”
If coaches were, in fact, encouraging Trubisky to be aggressive in efforts to get footballs into tight spots, Trubisky was revealing that he wasn’t overly successful at it. The high quality of the Bears defense was offered as something of an explanation.
“Not talking” in Indy
The Bears played Indianapolis in the third preseason game. The game was eclipsed by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announcing his retirement. In the locker room afterward, long-time beat colleague Hub Arkush happened to be by Trubisky’s locker stall. Hub casually asked Trubisky, who’d been held out of that game, what he thought about the Luck announcement.
Trubisky replied that he hadn’t played and “I’m not talking.” Hub, moving among postgame locker room interviews, told Trubisky that this wasn’t an interview, just curious what he thought of the surprise retirement of one of the game’s current top QB’s.
Trubisky repeated that he wasn’t talking, at which point a PR staffer was hurrying over to shut down any contact with the Bears quarterback.
Nagy allowed Trubisky to play three snaps, all handoffs, ironically all to now-ex-Bear Mike Davis, in the preseason opener against Carolina. The reason for Trubisky playing at all was given as simply wanting him to go through the pregame routine, once as it turned out since Trubisky would not play again in the preseason.
The reasoning was odd, particularly coming four weeks to the day before the first game. If the actual purpose was somehow to give Trubisky “practice” getting ready for a game, the timing was more than a little curious.
As was holding Trubisky completely out of any other preseason game. While preseason play is rightly conclusion-lite, the John Fox regime’s use of Trubisky in the 2017 preseason was a confidence builder to the point of a close internal debate that the rookie, not Mike Glennon, should be the starter.
Last year the Nagy staff played Trubisky for 40 snaps over two games, in which he completed a combined 11 of 18 passes. This year: three.
Not that 40 or any number of preseason snaps automatically translate into regular-season terms. But whereas his preseason snaps were confidence-builders the past two years, this year there was no chance to counteract any confidence decline possibly arising out of his struggles vs. his own, elite defense.
The Green Bay game
With no live-action for the previous month, Trubisky foundered to his lowest passer rating of the season in his first 2019 game, an out-of-whack affair all around (15 runs vs. 50 pass plays in a game in which the Bears never trailed by more than one score). The Bears scored first, on their second possession, and never again in the 10-3 dud.
Because the Green Bay game was on Thursday, Trubisky had no media availability until the following Wednesday. But when inevitable questions came regarding the Green Bay game, Trubisky sheepishly looked to the PR staffer standing nearby, then said, “I was told not to talk about the last game.”
Not the marginally more assertive “I’m not talking” of Indianapolis, but rather an “I was told…” (Need a smile? Imagine the reaction PR would’ve gotten from Jim McMahon or Jay Cutler upon telling them what they could or couldn’t say).
Identity crisis post-Saints
Nagy more than once has offered that the Bears had certain identity issues, whether in the run game last year or other. Whether Trubisky’s struggles have been part of the cause or effect in identity problems this year isn’t really the point; the fact is that after the New Orleans loss, in which Trubisky passed for a couple of garbage-time scores after the Bears fell behind by four scores, the quarterback said simply, “Right now we have no identity.”
A solid, straightforward declaration, but coming after the off-week and after a game in which Nagy called seven run plays vs. 56 pass plays, the comment had the ring of both a personal and team-wide problem.
Since the Green Bay game, Trubisky has managed just two “good” games, against Washington and Detroit, two of the 10 teams allowing an average passer rating north of 100. Those have been the only Trubisky games with ratings above 90.
The swagger of Pretty Boy Assassin and his casual comfort level are just footnotes at this point. Whether they can be regained is problematic over the final six games of 2019. Provided Trubisky’s hip is sufficiently recovered, he should remain the starter simply because he is far and away the Bears' best chance of winning.
But the trail of breadcrumbs needs to stop.