Brett Favre

Given golden opportunity, Bears defense couldn't stop Aaron Rodgers' substitute in gut-wrenching loss to Packers

1112-brett-hundley.jpg
AP

Given golden opportunity, Bears defense couldn't stop Aaron Rodgers' substitute in gut-wrenching loss to Packers

Aaron Rodgers was standing on the sideline in a big winter coat, his hands buried in his pockets rather than unleashing a discount double check.

Brett Favre? He was probably wearing a good pair of Wranglers and throwing passes to his dog somewhere in Mississippi.

This was the Bears’ best opportunity to beat the Green Bay Packers in years. And they couldn’t do it.

There was much made of the fact that the Bears were favored against their longtime rivals for the first time in nearly a decade. The chatter all week was that the Bears finally had a quarterback edge, with Mitch Trubisky figuring to be better than Rodgers’ fill-in, Brett Hundley, who led a dismal offensive output during a three-game losing streak that mustered only 44 points.

But the oddsmakers out in the desert didn’t factor in the Bears playing like this.

Sunday’s 23-16 loss was a story told by one self-inflected wound after another, the Bears repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot with penalties or defensive breakdowns or challenged touchdowns that resulted in turnovers (don’t ask about that last one, we’ll be here all day).

But the Bears have a struggling offense themselves. Fluky football stuff happens all the time — especially to a team that’s failed to win as often as John Fox’s has. What couldn’t be explained was the performance of this defense, one going up against not Rodgers, not Favre, but Hundley. This should’ve been the Bears defense — which has played at times this season like one of the league’s best — dominating an overwhelmed opponent.

Suffice it to say, things didn’t play out that way.

“This is a game we for sure thought we had,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said, “and we came up short.”

That’s one way of putting it, the Bears’ allowance of 23 points to a team that averaged 14.7 a game in the three contests prior with Hundley at the helm. A defense that took the ball away from offenses led by Cam Newton and Drew Brees couldn’t wrest it from one led by Hundley.

It was a defensive breakdown that allowed the Packers’ first touchdown of the game, a 37-yard scoring dash by Ty Montgomery. But the Packers’ fourth-quarter score stung worse.

Trubisky had just launched a deep-ball touchdown pass to get the Bears within three points. A menacing defense that’s stood tall so many times this season could’ve done it again and given the ball back to the offense with a chance to take the lead — the defense did sack Hundley five times Sunday.

Instead, Hundley did what Rodgers and Favre did to the Bears so many times before.

Hundley immediately responded with a five-minute, 75-yard scoring drive. After marching down inside the Bears’ 40, Hundley faced a key third down and scampered away from the Bears’ defense, toward a wide-open area of the field that picked up 17 yards and the first down and got his team in the red zone. Two plays later, he had his team in the end zone with a 19-yard touchdown toss to Devante Adams.

It was something Bears fans have seen an awful lot of before. They just didn’t expect to see it from Hundley. And maybe the Bears defense didn’t either. But they let it happen, and with it, the game was all but finished.

And so it was another loss to the Packers — the Bears falling to 3-16 against their rivals dating back to the start of the 2009 season, including that 2011 playoff game — this one a little more gut-wrenching than many of the ones that came before it.

“We’re definitely disappointed as a team, but we’re not discouraged by any means,” Amukamara said. “Not taking away from Green Bay did. Brett played a great game, and he’s been getting better ever since he started. But a lot of the stuff was self-inflicted on ourselves, and that’s just been the theme this year. And when we’ve had enough, it’ll stop, but we’ve got to make a decision.”

“We kept giving up too many yards on the run, we gave up some big passes, some big plays. We always want to limit the other team, the amount of big plays and rush yards,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “It’s on us, it’s a team thing. And especially on the defensive side of the ball, everyone will tell you the same thing. We didn’t play our best game.”

In the end, it was one gigantic missed opportunity. Maybe the Bears were asleep at the switch. Maybe they were just outplayed by an upstart group of Packers reserves — in addition to Hundley subbing in for Rodgers, the Packers lost two running backs to injuries in this game and had a less-than-healthy offensive line. Didn’t seem to matter.

But with their team favored, with their longtime tormenter relegated to street clothes, the legions of fans streaming out of rain-soaked Soldier Field probably will all go home with the same memory: “Remember when Aaron Rodgers was hurt and the Bears still couldn’t beat the Packers?”

The Bears need to establish a template for Mitch Trubisky

10-14mitchelltrubisky.jpg
AP

The Bears need to establish a template for Mitch Trubisky

The bye week of every NFL season is a time of intense self-scouting, more in depth than the weekly self-critiquing that is a constant in the NFL. Four games into the NFL career of quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the Bears have something of a philosophical decision to make with their rookie quarterback.

One quarterback ideal in the current NFL is the one who can operate at max production from the pocket, with the ability to turn a broken play into a broken defense when he gets outside the pocket, whether by design, or induced by pressure. Brett Favre, Joe Montana, John Elway, Aaron Rodgers, a few that come to mind.

Trubisky already has established himself as able to move, able to throw on the move, and able to operate in an offense designed around more of his skill set than simply his right arm. Critics of the Bears’ game-planning and play-calling derided the Bears for not doing more with Trubisky’s mobile talents even as the Bears were winning two of his first three starts.

But much of life is about balance (thank you, Mr. Miyagi), and ultimately that is the foundation of a successful offense. Within that context, the Bears need to establish, and likely already have, a template for the kind of quarterback they want Trubisky to become.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning always thrived in the pocket. Favre, Rodgers and Montana by their own assessments have flourished in chaos. All will wind up in the Hall of Fame. All have had significant injuries, whether pocket-dweller or man-on-the-move.

Mobile Trubisky, but be careful

Will defenses seek to flush Trubisky out of the pocket and keep him in it? And where will the Bears most often want him to be? How mobile do the Bears really want Trubisky to be “on purpose?”

A couple of thoughts, though:

Trubisky can move. No negative there. But his mobility hasn’t been offense-altering and coaches may have good reason for not designing a lot around that mobility, because the NFL may be onto him.

Trubisky averaged 9.6 yards per carry in preseason; his average is down at 7.3 yards per carry in his regular-season starts, and that includes a 46-yard scamper against the New Orleans Saints. Without that, Trubisky is picking up 4.6 yards per run.

Consistent with that, Trubisky was sacked once every 19 drop-backs in preseason, obviously going against lesser defensive talent. He now is being dropped once every 8.5 times he sets up to pass.

Trubisky, at this early point in his NFL career, has been critiqued as being more accurate on the move and/or outside the pocket. This is not necessarily a good thing whatsoever; the last Bears quarterback with that sort of seeming contradiction was Rick Mirer, who was demonstrably better on the fly (insert caustic comment here).

Nor is it necessarily true, at least in Trubisky’s mind.

“We had a higher [completion] percentage in play-action passes and [quarterback] keepers,” Trubisky said. “A lot of the incompletions were throwaways but we can just be higher percentage in those areas and continue to be better on third down. But we’ve been pretty good on drop backs and we just need to keep getting better in the red area to finish with points.”

He is a rookie with all of 13 college starts, about one-third the number that Deshaun Watson had at Clemson, and 572 total college passes, fewer than half the number thrown by Pat Mahomes at Texas Tech — the two quarterbacks his own selection preceded theirs in the 2017 NFL Draft. So the understanding was that Trubisky’s learning curve could well be a little longer or steeper than the typical rookie.

But he is clearly learning, what works and what doesn’t.

Ball-security concept sinking in

Coaches have drilled into Trubisky the importance of keeping the football in Bears hands and no one else’s. He has appeared to get it since before he replaced Mike Glennon, back in preseason when he nearly unseated Glennon outright as the Week 1 starter.

“Just look from game to game that he’s started,” head coach John Fox said. “We’re 2-2 in the quarter [of the ’17 season] that he’s been our starting quarterback, and I think we’ve done a better job of ball security and…we’ll just see where that takes us."

Trubisky threw zero interceptions in 53 preseason attempts even while seeing some pressure (sacked three times). He has thrown two picks in 80 regular season attempts while taking 11 sacks and throwing more than a half-dozen far out of harm’s way. Colleague JJ Stankevitz puts Trubisky in context with other rookie passers, citing QB coach Dave Ragone’s observation that some of ball-security behavior is innate and some is learning progressions and decision-making.

Jay Cutler never appeared to make ball security the priority it needed to be; his interception rates too often were north of 3, normally a tipping point for quarterback play. Favre can disprove some of the rule, but complementary football begins with an offense not putting its defense in difficult situations with turnovers. Only two teams reached the 2016 postseason with quarterbacks throwing INT’s at a rate higher than 2.7 percent.

Priority: Accuracy

Accuracy is prized nearly as much as ball security (they are not unconnected, obviously), and this so far is a work in progress.

Trubisky has completed a very, very modest 47.5 percent of his passes through his four starts. In fairness, however, he threw six passes away in the win over the Baltimore Ravens, a clear indication of movement along the learning curve from the previous week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings when a forced throw in the closing minutes resulted in an interception that turned a potential winning Bears drive into a Vikings victory.

Just for sake of a meaningless what-if, had Trubisky completed four of those six intentional throwaways, his theoretical completion percentage improves to 52.5 — not the august 67.9 percent he completed in preseason or his 67.5 percent at North Carolina. Neither mean anything at the NFL level, except that his accuracy was a major reason for his evaluation as the top quarterback in the 2017 draft by more than only the Bears. His coaches may have installed a level-one priority for ball security but that does not compromise a natural passing accuracy that Trubisky has demonstrated his entire football life.

“We watched all the passes [last] week – all the red zone and two-minute and play action, every single pass we’ve had this year to see how we can get better and how we can get a higher completion percentage and too see how we can be more efficient all the way around,” Trubisky said. “We’ve been analyzing and self-scouting our own offense to see where we need to get better and at and what we need to improve.”

Drafting first round QB's despite starters in place something of a Bears tradition

Drafting first round QB's despite starters in place something of a Bears tradition

The good thing about a draft scenario like the Bears’ selecting Mitch Trubisky on top of having signed Mike Glennon for starter-grade money is that it provides an almost inexhaustible quiver of talking and writing points. To wit...

... the 2017 draft is far from the first time that the Bears have invested a lofty pick in a player at a position that had been staffed not all that long before with a pricey free agent or still had a distinguished veteran. Don’tcha kind of wonder how Sid Luckman, 32, All-Pro as recently as 1947, felt seeing George Halas use the No. 3 pick of the 1948 draft on Bobby Layne?

The Bears had Jim McMahon in harness (literally and figuratively) in 1987 when they used their first-round pick on Jim Harbaugh. They went QB at No. 12 overall (Cade McNown) in 1999 despite the coaching staff believing they could make something out of Shane Matthews. The San Francisco 49ers had Joe Montana in place when they dealt for Steve Young. Montana didn’t like it but 49ers history was obviously the better for it. Not that Montana ever wanted for motivation, but he earned the first of his three All-Pro designations in — take a guess — 1987.

GM Jerry Angelo dramatically out-bid the market for running back Thomas Jones in 2004. Jones was OK that season, but the Bears came back in 2005 to use the No. 4 pick of that draft on Cedric Benson because, as former Bear and longtime NFL analyst Dan Jiggetts said at the time, Jones still had questions after the first season in which he’d started more than nine games.

Jones didn’t like it, and didn’t like Benson, who exacerbated his overall situation with a long holdout that didn’t sit well with veterans. Jones eventually forced a trade after the 2006 season and Benson wound up a three-time 1,000-yard rusher, albeit for the Cincinnati Bengals. Jones appeared to get the situation; after never rushing for 1,000 yards in his career, he piled up five straight of 1,100 yards or more after the Benson pick. Just sayin’ ... 

... any assessment of Ryan Pace’s competence or lack of same is beyond silly at this point. The object of his affections hasn’t even put on a Bears jersey yet, just held one up for cameras. The obvious tack here is that if Trubisky is franchise-grade as the Bears project, then the acquisition was the right one.

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bears tickets right here!]

But the deeper perspective, on whether Pace was bidding against himself in the absence of known real offers, gets increasingly debunked. On top of Pace’s own experience of getting multiple calls from teams looking to trade up to No. 3 for a quarterback, and Pace knowing that when he didn’t want to deal that the next speed-dial by those callers would be to 49ers GM John Lynch, Tennessee Titans GM Jon Robinson suggested that Pace not only had reason for fear poachers, but also that multiple other teams shared Pace’s conclusion that Trubisky was the best quarterback in this draft.

Robinson said via SiriusXM NFL Radio that the Titans had gotten calls inquiring about acquiring their pick at No. 5. Those calls stopped when the Bears dealt up and grabbed Trubisky. Because Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer and every other quarterback was still on the board, the conclusion was that those other teams also had targeted Trubisky, as Pace had ... 

... the brouhaha over whether Glennon felt betrayed/bemused/befuddled/belittled/beheaded over the Trubisky selection borders on the comical. (No comments directly from Glennon about his reaction, but nevermind that.) But If Glennon purports to know some of the history of the NFL’s charter franchise (and others), he should not only have known this was a possibility, but also should have expected it. And he’s a big reason why — specifically, if it were clear that Glennon was a 27-year-old No. 1 quarterback, the Bears can be more casual in filling out the QB depth chart. The Green Bay Packers didn’t use anything higher than a fourth-round pick on a quarterback until Brett Favre was 36 because they knew they didn’t need to. The Bears are far from in that spot. Had they traded for Kirk Cousins, maybe; they didn’t.

To even link the Glennon signing to the Trubisky drafting is failing to grasp how teams try to staff the most important spot in their game.

Cases in point: the Seattle Seahawks signing Matt Flynn away from the Packers in 2012 for $20.5 million over three years, $9 million guaranteed. Flynn had all of two NFL starts at the time. The Seahawks rightly hedged their bet: They drafted Russell Wilson in the third round. Flynn then lost his job to Wilson by Week 1.

Glennon has 18 starts so maybe that’s why he got $18 million over two years. In any case, the Bears weren’t going to hang the future solely on a twice-replaced quarterback (by Josh McCown and Jameis Winston with Tampa Buccaneers) any more than Seattle was going Flynn-only.

Another in point: the Washington Redskins traded massively up in 2012 to draft Robert Griffin III. Then Washington turned around and invested a fourth-rounder in Cousins.