Given Sunday’s parallels to the Bears’ 2018 clunker against the Rams, the spotlight on QB Mitch Trubisky may have been even brighter against the Saints than it usually is – which is saying something.
Four quarters, 250 yards and one blowout loss later, the only thing that’s changed is that the Bears no longer have the luxury of hiding another subpar performance from their franchise quarterback behind a monstrous, game-changing defense. Trubisky’s numbers against New Orleans look better on paper, but the eye test told a much different – or similar, technically – story.
“It's hard to pinpoint it,” he said after the 36-25 loss. “Just frustrating, ugly. Couldn't swing momentum in our way – couldn't really get going. Just sputtered out. We've just got to find ways to stay on the field, especially after 3rd down and move the chains and get going."
“I want to go back, watch and see like progression-wise [how he did],” Matt Nagy added. “I know there's one there early in the game where we missed a corner route on 3rd down, and Mitch knows -- he knows that he can connect on that. We've connected on it a lot in practice.”
That specific miss sums up much of what’s plagued Trubisky through his time in Chicago. On 3rd-and-6, with Taylor Gabriel finding separation on a 20-yard corner route, the QB rushes through his throwing motion and misses an easy first down.
Trubisky missed a wide open Taylor Gabriel on 3rd down...pic.twitter.com/HrTITBGh96— #BusinessIsSuspended (@FTBeard11) October 20, 2019
“I'm going to go back and watch it because that's one of my favorite throws,” Trubisky said. “And I hit that every single time this week in practice, so why it didn't translate to the game is really frustrating for me. I felt like that's an easy throw that I make easily, and I just wasn't on the same page and didn't put it in the spot to give my guy a chance.”
Another miss – this time overthrowing Anthony Miller on a seam route – provided a great example of the communication issues that have plagued the passing game. Miller had a step on two defenders, but according to Nagy and Trubisky, cut in on the route when the play directed that he cut out.
“That's one of Anthony's really good routes that he runs,” Trubisky said. “And he separates and gets open, and I just felt like I had to get the ball out within that time because they created pressure up front. Someone slipped through, and from what I can remember, he just went inside, so I tried to throw a tight seam and give him a chance. But I was on the ground after that, so I'm going to have to go back on the film and watch it and correct it.”
“Those are plays that you look at and you just -- you'd like to convert on those and connect.,” added Nagy.
The coach also conceded that Trubisky looked rusty on some throws, but was quick to credit the quarterback for making others (he didn’t specify which). Still, silver linings were little consolation to the Bears on Sunday night, and will continue to mean less and less as the season goes on. For being a team that supposedly has great weeks of practice, plenty of questions remain about where all that goes on Sundays.
“Why it's not translating, I don't have a theory,” Trubisky added. “All I know is, go back to work and make sure that you put in all that work during the week to make sure it translates.”
The smattering of Bears players who spoke in a quiet locker room following their humbling 36-25 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday all were able to admit their current predicament: This is a team lacking an identity on offense and missing it on defense.
But none of the players who talked believed the problems facing the 3-3 Bears are beyond repair.
“We essentially have the same guys as last year, we have the same pieces,” wide receiver Anthony Miller said. “We just gotta put it together. And I know eventually we will do that.”
Why does he believe that?
“Because we’re good,” Miller said. “We’re stacked. We got dogs everywhere. We got the pieces. We just gotta put them together.”
Running back Tarik Cohen echoed Miller’s words, saying things are “definitely fixable.” There may be a ton of things to fix on offense — from quarterback play, to route running, to run-play design, to playcalling, to run blocking, and so on — but the Bears aren’t saying they’re ready to give up.
This is a team that went 12-4 last year, after all, with largely the same group of players.
“I think it’s more encouraging that we have done it in the past,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “And we have a positive coaching staff. When we came in here after there wasn’t a lot of mother f’s and a whole bunch of volumes at 10. No one was yelling. And I feel like we have a pretty confident and mature group to where we know what we have to get done.”
Two thoughts on this, though:
The first: This is a team that did not shy away from sky-high expectations when players and coaches reported to Bourbonnais for training camp in late July. Cohen used the word “dynasty,” and with a young core and renowned coaching staff, you could see how he believed it was possible.
But through six games, reaching a Super Bowl in the franchise’s 100th season looks like a fever dream. For the Bears, improving off 2018 would have meant earning a first-round bye, which feels out of the question right now. Just making the playoffs again would now be an accomplishment — yet it would also be a disappointment to only make the playoffs after expecting so much out of this team two months ago.
The larger thought here: What have the Bears done in the calendar year of 2019 that makes reaching the playoffs a legitimate possibility?
Only a handful of players are having better seasons in 2019 than they had in 2018. Wide receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Danny Trevathan head that list. Defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams are on it to varying degrees. The Bears have a superior kicker in Eddy Pineiro than they had in Cody Parkey. Cordarrelle Patterson is a better kick returner — as he showed with his 102-yard touchdown Sunday — than the Bears had at any point last year.
But other than that group, players on this team have not improved. And in a lot of cases, they’ve regressed.
Members of that regression list through Week 7: Mitch Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Anthony Miller, Trey Burton, the entire offensive line, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. That is not an exhaustive list, either.
Players brought in to be upgrades or replacements have either been just as good as their predecessors (Buster Skrine, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) or less productive (David Montgomery, Mike Davis). Losing Akiem Hicks to injured reserve sidelined one of the two best players on the Bears' defense for a minimum of eight weeks.
And the Bears’ offensive coaching staff is providing fewer answers, starting with Matt Nagy, than it did a year ago. There’s less concern about Chuck Pagano’s defense, but allowing star Saints wideout Michael Thomas to have nine catches for 131 yards with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook out probably hurt the exchange rate for Chuck Bucks.
The Bears staked their 2019 hopes on continuity and targeted improvement at certain positions. So far, continuity has led to regression. And those targeted improvements — specifically in the backfield — haven't delivered actual upgrades.
The Bears were a great team in 2018. In games played in 2019, they’re 3-4. Players and coaches can keep telling themselves they’ve done it before, but the more they keep playing like the 2019 Bears and less like the 2018 Bears, the more a reality of mediocrity will set in.
“I’m never worried,” Cohen said. “I trust the guys in this locker room and I trust the coaching staff. We’re going to get the job done.” Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.