Mitchell Trubisky

Mitch Trubisky made Bears’ decision for them, but will Ryan Pace pull the trigger?

Mitch Trubisky made Bears’ decision for them, but will Ryan Pace pull the trigger?

One time-honored NFL bromide is that coaches don’t make personnel decisions; players ultimately make them with their performances. Bears GM Ryan Pace now has a franchise-grade decision to make at quarterback, although Mitch Trubisky in fact has made it for him.

To many observers, Trubisky has played his way out of the Bears picking up his fifth-year option and its $24-million’ish price tag ahead of the May 2020 deadline. Trubisky has played his way into an offseason position competition with the likes of Marcus Mariota (who’s exponentially less risky financially than Teddy Bridgewater and a better fit in the Matt Nagy offense. Also, Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was Mariota’s head coach at Oregon).

No matter how you see it, this much is true: As the disappointing 2019 season ends, there are more questions about Trubisky and the Bears’ QB situation than there were at the beginning.

How willing Pace is to admit that degree of failure in his 2017 draft, in addition to TE Adam Shaheen, remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Pace will face his first media session open to questioning since before the season.

The Bears’ difficulties on offense, which extend back into mid-2018, pose a franchise dilemma. They have a quarterback problem and they have a schematic/coaching problem. Indeed, teams have figured out Nagy, not just Trubisky. So now the Bears have a choice: fix the quarterback position, or fix the scheme. They’re not working together. The Bears’ quarterback cannot operate the coach’s system.

On Sunday, despite facing a Vikings defense with three starters inactive and others playing sparingly, Trubisky was unable to get the Bears’ offense into the end zone on three first-half possessions that reached the Minnesota 8-, 15- and 16-yard lines.

The Bears finally scored a touchdown on their fourth red-zone trip, but the fact that the drive was comprised of eight runs and one pass is an illustration that the offense runs better when it’s not dependent on Trubisky’s arm.

“I think with any position, the third year’s an important year as [players] continue to grow and develop,” Pace said last spring. “We use the word incremental growth, that’s exactly what’s happening with Mitch along with a lot of other players.”

Trubisky has simply not met that incremental-growth standard. So Pace needs to decide if he wants to pick up an option that makes Trubisky a $24-million quarterback in 2021. His 2020 salary of $9.2 million is guaranteed, so cutting him doesn’t save money. And if he somehow wins the starting job over an incoming veteran like Mariota, the quarterback Pace coveted in the 2015 draft but couldn’t get, he can still be paid like an NFL starter.

But in his first two seasons at North Carolina, Trubisky was unable to beat out Marquise Williams, whose pro career has consisted of stints as a backup in the CFL, AAF and XFL. Envisioning Trubisky outplaying a Mariota, Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill or whomever is a stretch.

Trubisky’s NFL breadcrumb trail says he won’t.

In the 2018 playoff loss to Philadelphia, the Cody Parkey double-doink was the defining image, but what Parkey’s miss obscured were the three drives that stalled at the Philadelphia 18-, 11- and 16-yard lines.

Flash forward to 2019. For all of the hype and assurances that Trubisky’s training-camp interceptions were either meaningless or part of his development, depending on who was talking about them, Trubisky’s season began with a 10-3 embarrassment against the Green Bay Packers. The game effectively ended with an end zone interception on which Trubisky was baited by ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos.

Trubisky’s passer rating that day was 62.1, his season low. Against the Packers the second time around, with the playoffs in the balance, he threw two interceptions and managed just a 64.5 rating, while the Bears settled for field goals on two of three red-zone possessions. A week later, still with playoff aspirations, Trubisky produced a low point vs. Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes, netting 3 points and producing another failing passer rating (65.4).

When it’s mattered most, over virtually three full seasons, Trubisky has been making Ryan Pace’s decision for him.

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Answer to Bears' offensive struggles hidden in plain sight on Vikings' sideline

Answer to Bears' offensive struggles hidden in plain sight on Vikings' sideline

The Bears thought they were a kicker away from going to the Super Bowl entering the 2019 season. But even before the ball drops on 2020, the season that started with so much promise is over.

The biggest question of the post mortem is how Matt Nagy's 202 offense could average just 17.3 points per game. Former Bears offensive lineman Olin Kreutz has a simple answer to that question.

"Mitch Trubisky doesn’t fit in the scheme,” he said on NBC Sports Chicago's Football Aftershow following the Bears' season finale.

The tougher question may be how to fix that. But the blueprint may have been staring at the Bears on Sunday, right across the field in purple and gold.

In 2018, the Vikings finished the season 7-8-1 and missed the playoffs. 

"What does Mike Zimmer, the head coach, do?" Kreutz rhetorically asked the postgame show panel. "He brings in Gary Kubiak. He brings in Rick Dennison, the offensive line coach. He brings in [Brian] Pariani, the tight end coach. And they install this zone boot system which basically hides a quarterback who can’t process the information."

In 2019, the Vikings bounced back with a 10-6 season and a playoff berth.

"Head coach Matt Nagy, will he fire his system?” Kreutz asked.

That's the biggest question heading into the Bears' offseason.

"Quarterbacks just don’t grow on trees. Good quarterbacks don’t," former Bears running back Matt Forte said on Football Aftershow. "Kirk [Cousins] isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of Mitch. They changed the philosophy. The best thing to add to a quarterback is a good running game, and that’s what Dalvin Cook did this year for them. 

"And look, they’re going to the playoffs.”

In his third NFL season, Cook ran for more than 1,000 yards for the first time. He also caught 53 passes and scored 13 touchdowns. Could David Montgomery do that in his second season with the Bears?

Because general manager Ryan Pace has aggressively traded future draft picks (for Khalil Mack and to move up for Trubisky), the opportunities to improve the roster are limited. For the second year in a row, the Bears won't have a first-round draft pick. And cap space is projected to be tight, ruling out big splashes in free agency.

"Because you’ve traded picks away, you have to figure out how you can win now," Kreutz said. "And the way you win now is with that defense. Eventually you have to change the [offensive] scheme you’re running."

If the Bears get healthy on defense this offseason, they won't need much out of their offense to contend in 2020. They'll simply need a competent offense to win.

"It seems like the Bears are repeating history: You have a good defense, your offense isn’t so good and the one thing you need from your offense is manage games," former Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "Don’t give the ball up and eat up time to keep your defense off the field. We’re seeing a Bears team who has the opportunity to do that. 

"Every time you don’t hand that ball off when you’ve shown you can run the ball, to me you’re taking a ring opportunity away from your team."

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Bear PAWS: Lessons for Bears to learn from Vikings' 2018-19 turnaround

Bear PAWS: Lessons for Bears to learn from Vikings' 2018-19 turnaround

“Hindsight being 20-20” is an age-old adage implying something is more easily understood after the situation has already occurred. D’oh! Yes, I’ve resorted to quoting Homer Simpson, because the Bears’ 2019 season resulted in a massive 'd’oh' — an exclamatory remark epitomizing something foolishly done and not realizing it until later — moment. This comical saying fittingly applies to the Bears’ 2019 campaign and tangentially to this past offseason.

Using P.A.W.S. (Predictive Analysis With Statistics), let's see if we can improve upon the Bears vision for the 2020 season. 
What a difference a year makes. The Bears were an elite team defensively in 2018, ranking in the top 10 statistically in six major categories. Although not elite in 2019, the defense still ranked top 10 in four out of six categories and acquitted themselves well amidst some key injuries. The onus for this underachieving 2019 campaign rests solely on an ineffectual offense, which ranks 23rd or lower in six major offensive categories.  
During the 2018 season, Chicago finished in the top half of five key offensive categories. So what happened? How did an up-and-coming offense with an imaginative head coach/offensive coordinator and his protégé quarterback regress and fall out of favor so quickly? Well, the Bears never carved out an identity for themselves and in the process failed to impose their collective offensive skill set on opponents.  

The Bears were much more aggressive running the ball last season, creating positive gains and accumulating a 12-4 record in the process. They ran for over 100 yards 11 times in 2018, whereas this season it’s the exact opposite, posting 11 sub-100 yard games and a 7-8 record. It matters because commiting to the run helps control time of possession, lessens chances for turnovers and improves the likelihood of facing shorter third down scenarios, allowing for a higher conversion percentage. The Vikings' last two seasons demonstrate how maintaining an aggressive running scheme works favorably for teams.  

Last season, Minnesota won six games when they possessed the ball for 30+ minutes a game. They did not exceed 100 yards rushing in half of those victories. The Vikings lost each game where their time of possession was under 30 minutes and rushed for under 100 yards. Overall, Minnesota finished 6-2-1 when they held the ball for 30 or more minutes, and they were 2-5 when possession was less than 30 minutes. 
This season, Minnesota has compiled 11 100-yard games and are 8-0 when they’ve controlled time of possession and gone over the century mark in rushing. They're 1-3 in games when they didn’t reach 100 yards rushing and under 30 minutes in time possession. The Vikings figured that out by utilizing a healthy running threat in Dalvin Cook, minimizing quarterback Kirk Cousins’ passing attempts and leaning on a top 10 defense that could better control a game’s narrative. The Vikings learned from last season’s struggles, adjusted and are headed to the playoffs.  

On the surface, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s stats don’t look horrible, but compared to last year’s numbers and the amount of defensive help he received, one can see a pattern of inefficiency. Trubisky threw for 24 touchdowns and ran for another three scores in 2018, surrendering 15 turnovers. Last season, the Bears' defense forced 36 turnovers, providing cover for Trubisky’s mistakes on the field. This year, he has 11 turnovers and the Bears' defense has generated only 16. 
Fifteen games into last season, Chicago rushed for 1,769 yards and 16 touchdowns. This year going into the last game of the season, they only have 1,300 yards rushing and a meager seven touchdowns on the ground. Minnesota, on the other hand, reversed their negative rushing output from last season. After 15 games in 2018, the Vikings rushed for 1,430 yards and eight touchdowns, while this year, they've amassed 1,959 yards and 18 touchdowns. 
The Bears' third down conversion rate and red zone scoring percentage differ dramatically from 2018 to 2019, too. They converted third downs at a 41 percent rate last year, scoring 36 touchdowns in the red zone (66.7 percent). The Bears' rushing struggles this season decreased their efficiency on third down (35 percent) and in the red zone, where Chicago only scored 23 times (56.1 percent). 

Last season, the Vikings finished with a 35.8 percent third down conversion rate, but with a renewed running attack this year, improved to converting 42.7 percent of third downs. In the red zone, the Vikings scored 27 times (54 percent) last year, but this season they’ve totaled 33 scores (64.7 percent) in the same high-pressure area. 
Sunday's game means little overall to both teams. The Vikings are playoff bound, locked into the No. 6 seed, and the Bears are eliminated from the postseason. However, with some reflection and a bit of hindsight, the Bears can apply some foresight into personnel changes and develop an offensive identity.

If you don’t know who you are, then you’re only fooling yourself. Over and over again teams are victimized by their own ineptitude, forgetting that at times the genius of one’s success is in the simplicity of its execution. Looking ahead with clarity for the 2020 season begins for Chicago on Sunday, just like it did a year ago for the Vikings. 

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