Rookie minicamp ended Sunday for the Bears but now a measure of franchise intrigue around Mitch Trubisky starts to build behind the curtain of closed practices. Because the ultimate question about the rookie quarterback now shifts from “how’d he look?” to, with apologies to Mark Sanchez, “who’s better, Mike Glennon or The Kid?” And since all but a few OTA sessions are closed, the answer to any of that is weeks off, maybe months, and it may not be known until starting lineups are actually set.
The Bears are adjusting elements of their quarterback coaching plan for Trubisky, apparent if for no other reason than coaches don’t want to discuss details of whatever. The fact is that over much of the next month or so, Trubisky could astound and even surpass the presumed starter. It’s happened before, although “surprise” wouldn’t quite cover it in this case.
“Really it’s going to start tomorrow,” said coach John Fox on Sunday, the “it” really referring to the bigger picture that Fox is focusing, not just on rookie development. “We’ll spend a little more time with the rookies early in meetings and then we’ll kind of inject them into Phase II of what we’re doing. Obviously we’re not practicing against each other; we can’t do that until Phase III of the OTAs, but there is classroom settings as well as some field time not going against each other.”
The Bears have named Glennon the starter. More than once. But Fox has stated repeatedly what somebody has to be “the starter” at this or any point. He’s demonstrated that depth charts are the definition of “fluid.” Glennon may ultimately be the starter. He and the Bears are certainly planning on it, with Trubisky getting a redshirt year.
But Fox is old school with respect to who plays: not the guy who’ll be better down the road, but the guy who’s better. Present tense. Period. And a core reality here is that Glennon, besides having on-field experience, also knows exactly how the NFL ultimately works – if the coaches think the other guy is better, he plays. If Glennon has a problem with that, you don’t want him anyway.
Trubisky uses the word “competition” even if no one else wants to right now. “We know Mike’s the starter, but competition brings out the best in everyone,” Trubisky said on Friday. “I’m going to come out here and compete. But we know Mike is the starter, so it’s my job to support him and make sure everything I do I can help him as well.”
The NFL, however, is too replete with examples of depth charts being scrambled by rookies. The Bears have been involved in some of those.
Case study: Leonard Floyd
Consider how 2016 unfolded for the Bears and No. 1 pick Leonard Floyd. Not the same position as Trubisky, obviously, but the scenario offered insight into how the Fox staff operates.
Floyd didn’t start until the normally throwaway fourth preseason game but played more than half of Cleveland’s snaps in the game, finishing with three tackles and a quarterback hit. The next time the Bears took the field, Floyd was a starting outside linebacker opposite Willie Young against the Houston Texans on opening day.
Floyd had quietly moved past Sam Acho and Lamarr Houston, who had started in the preseason, at outside linebacker. And while an apparent factor could have been that Pernell McPhee was still in knee rehab, the fact was that Floyd would eventually start five games in which McPhee was active.
So no matter what Fox, GM Ryan Pace, O-coordinator Dowell Loggains or anyone else says at this moment, Trubisky is competing with a chance to become the starter.
Case study: Jack Del Rio-Zach Thomas
Jimmy Johnson in 1996 signed veteran linebacker Jack Del Rio to a one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins; that was in early June, more than six weeks after the Dolphins had drafted Zach Thomas in that year’s fifth round. Del Rio had been a Pro-Bowler two years earlier.
One day after the first preseason game, Johnson cut Del Rio, who’d started for Johnson earlier in his career. Asked why the call to go with the rookie, Johnson said simply, “Zach’s better.”
Any more questions? There were none.
Case study: Brian Urlacher
The day after the 2000 draft, then-coach Dick Jauron announced that Brian Urlacher, the team’s No. 1 pick, ninth-overall, was the starting strongside linebacker. It was a decision the staff had to reverse when Urlacher lost the job to a supremely motivated Rosevelt Colvin after just two preseason games. Jauron acknowledged that giving a job to an unproven anybody was a mistake. Opportunity finally came for Urlacher when Barry Minter was injured in a blowout loss at Tampa. Urlacher stepped in at middle linebacker and all went as it should have.
Urlacher hadn’t beaten out Minter when the change came. Players do not lose jobs because of injury. They lose them because the individual who fills in for them turns out to be better than they are. Urlacher made his first start the following week and started a streak with 6 sacks over the next five games.
Case study: Mike Glennon-Jameis Winston
Glennon was the Tampa Bay starter when the Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston No. 1 overall in 2015. At this point of the 2015 offseason, Glennon was still the Tampa Bay starter. Winston was taking No. 2 reps in OTA’s, which for the Bears this year start later this month. Those culminated with the three-day mandatory minicamp in mid-June.
At that point, the Lovie Smith staff had seen what they needed and wanted to: Winston was named the starter going into training camp. A light parallel in Philadelphia last year:
As training camp and preseason were winding along, No. 2-overall pick Carson Wentz was third on the Philadelphia depth chart, behind both Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. The Eagles traded starter Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings and leap-frogged Wentz over Daniel into the No. 1 slot. Who knew?
A qualifier in Winston’s case, besides him being an exceptional student of the game, which there is no reason to suspect that Trubisky is not, was that he also had 27 starts in pro-style offense under coach Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, vs. 13 starts in a spread offense for Trubisky. Wentz’s experience similarly dwarfs Trubisky’s.
No expectation exists that Trubisky will be the Bears’ starting quarterback at any point this season, other than perhaps the starter for the fourth preseason game, which incidentally will be in Soldier Field.
Good seats still available.