The leadership qualities of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky have taken shape and root through the Bears’ 6-3 start, one that has included two three-game win streaks. Nothing succeeds at making believers like success.
But beyond specific developmental steps the second-year quarterback has made, is making and will make in an evolving offense, and beyond coaches’ and teammates’ believing in him, is a crucial next step that the elites at the position take:
Becoming a closer. In fourth quarters.
The Bears are 5-2 when leading after three quarters, but only 1-1 when trailing after three. In his 21 games, Trubisky has delivered two late game-winning drives – for a winning field goal in overtime last year at Baltimore, and for a winning field goal at Arizona this year.
But in the Bears’ three 2018 losses, irrespective of defensive failures, Trubisky and the offense managed just three points in the fourth quarter at Green Bay, and one fourth-quarter touchdown each in the losses to Miami and New England. The Bears were outscored in the fourth quarters against Detroit and Tampa Bay but were already sufficiently far ahead (35-3 vs. the Buccaneers, 34-10 vs. the Lions) that late scores weren’t really necessary.
Trubisky is clear on the situational needs: “Coming out with a positive drive starter, no negative plays and then have an explosive play,” he said. “And then usually that results in good plays for us. So we can get that and keep getting better and finish in the end zone or finish with points, whatever the situation is, that’s what we need to do.”
Trubisky has been significantly better this year in fourth quarters than he was in 2017, in every quarter, actually: 64.4 percent completion percentage, 8.03 yards per attempt, a 97.7 passer rating, ahead of Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith and Case Keenum, among others.
The problem is that his level of play ranks just 20th among fourth-quarter passers. Minnesota will come to Soldier Field on Sunday behind Kirk Cousins, the No. 5 crunch-time passer, with a 1.1-percent interception rate, compared to Trubisky’s 3.4.
A focus this week has been third-down efficiency, against a Minnesota defense ranked No. 1 in fewest third-down conversions (25.7 percent). Trubisky ranks 13th in third-down passing, with a 99.0 rating.
But a blowout is unlikely, meaning that sometime late Sunday evening, the Bears and Trubisky will have the football in a situation needing a finishing kick. At that time, they will be pressed to answer some of Matt Nagy’s core questions.
“When you’re winning in a game, how do you finish?” Nagy said. “When you’re losing in a game, how do you come back? All those are occurring to us.
“You’re seeing that when you put together a team of good people, that responds to adversity, it helps you. We’re drilling to these guys aggressive, aggressive, aggressive, finish, finish, finish. If we don’t do that as coaches, then what are we teaching?”
Neither coach Matt Nagy or special teams coordinator Chris Tabor seemed particularly amused by multiple Chicago TV stations sending helicopters over Soldier Field for Cody Parkey’s nighttime kicking session there on Wednesday, but both said the returns were positive for the 26-year-old kicker.
While the coverage of Parkey may feel over-the-top at times, it can also be viewed as a signal of the Bears’ return to relevance here in Chicago. Had it been Connor Barth missing four kicks off the uprights in a game during 2017’s dour 5-11 season, news choppers wouldn’t have flown over Soldier Field to shoot film of him practicing that the Bears would ultimately request be taken off the airwaves and internet.
“I get it, from this standpoint,” Tabor said. “We’ve all been at home, ‘Oh, the kicker missed it!’ There’s not a lot of people out there that can kick the ball. There’s been kicking troubles all around the league, multiple teams, guys working out multiple guys. There’s not a plethora of players out there that can do that skill.
“I just think he stays the course. That’s his strength. The good news is we didn’t see anything really technically wrong. Let’s tweak the line. Let’s get a little bit more comfortable in our environment and then let your God-given ability take over.”
Tabor had a good idea of who the Bears were getting in Parkey when they signed him to a four-year, $15 million contract with $9 million guaranteed in March (that guaranteed money figure is the third-highest among NFL kickers). Back in 2016, when Tabor was the special teams coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, his team brought Parkey in one day before a Week 3 road game against the Miami Dolphins. Parkey missed three of six field goal attempts in that game, but came back a week later and drilled a 51-yard field goal against Washington that proved a lot about him to Tabor.
And it’s that prior knowledge of Parkey, coupled with what he’s seen from his kicker mentally since he got to Chicago, that gives Tabor confidence a day like Parkey had against the Detroit Lions won’t happen again.
“I know what’s under the hood with this kid,” Tabor said. “That’s why I’m excited for him. I believe in him. I know what type of day that was. We all get it. At the end of the day, we did win the game. That’s a positive.
“But you also understand that as we move forward in this journey, it’s going to come down to field goal kicks and that’s his job and he’s really good at it and I have confidence in him. I believe in him.”
The Bears invested all that money into Parkey back in March with the belief he would be the long-term solution to the kicking woes that’ve followed this franchise since Robbie Gould missed a game-winning kick and a game-tying kick in consecutive weeks late in the 2015 season, leading to his release (and subsequent career re-birth with the San Francisco 49ers). Part of the consternation, certainly outside Halas Hall, with Parkey’s struggles is in relation to Gould’s success — he’s made 70 of 73 field goals since the Bears let him go, including five and a game-winner in San Francisco’s 15-14 win at Soldier Field last year.
But Parkey did miss what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard try against the Dolphins in Week 6, and has missed five of his last 11 kicks at Soldier Field as fall continues its losing battle to winter along Lake Michigan. The Bears still believe he can make a critical kick in a close game, though, perhaps as soon as this weekend.
“He’s doing well,” Tabor said. “He understands. But I’ll say this about him: The good news is the way he prepares, he sets himself up to be successful. Last week, I have to admit: I’ve seen misses. I’ve never seen four misses hit the uprights before.
“… He actually struck the ball really well and then it just leaked on him. Every upright that it hit was the way the wind was blowing so to be able to go down to the stadium and continue with that thought process and learning the lines and finding those things, I think it’s gonna be very beneficial for him. He’d only missed one kick in Soldier Field. It’s a learning experience.”