Deshaun Watson

Off-week musings: Intriguing shifting tides on Bears first-place schedule

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USA TODAY

Off-week musings: Intriguing shifting tides on Bears first-place schedule

As seasons play out, most good teams improve. Some pretenders fall off. Some surprises emerge. So while the Bears were idle in their off-week (not “bye” week – a bye is when you advance in a tournament without playing, as in “first-round bye in the playoffs”) – their first-place schedule underwent some genuinely intriguing twists.

And this is all before the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football.

At roughly the one-third point of the season, elements of the Bears’ schedule, the preseason fifth-hardest based on combined 2018 winning percentages of their opponents, have come into some interesting focus – some parts more difficult, some not so much.

Toughening up

The New Orleans Saints (Oct. 20), who some prematurely wrote off after quarterback Drew Brees tore a ligament in his right hand, gathered even more downhill momentum with Teddy Bridgewater, in place of Brees. Simply put, Bridgewater has consistently played like the No. 1 pick he once was in Minnesota with his career on the Pro Bowl trajectory it was before his catastrophic knee injury in the Vikings’ 2016 training camp.

The 5-1 Saints’ 13-6 win over Jacksonville was their fourth in four Bridgewater starts, with him completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdown passes vs. two interceptions over those starts.

Meanwhile, the Vikings (Dec. 29), the same Minnesota Vikings whom the Bears seemingly extinguished a couple weeks back, put 38 points on the Philadelphia Eagles to reach 4-2 with quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing for four touchdowns, three to Stefon Diggs.

Why this particularly matters is that Cousins has completed 44 of 56 passes over his past two games and suddenly looks like anything but the supposed weak link in a team with Super Bowl aspirations and talent. If Cousins is in fact emerging as the quarterback the Vikings thought they were getting, this is a serious concern the Bears.

The Vikings already run the football better than the Bears. They are the equal of the Bears on defense. If they’ve now gained an edge on the Bears at quarterback… .

Out (AFC) West

On the hopeful side, the once-thought-invincible Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 22) lost for the second straight week to a team that committed to running the football. On its 41 rushing attempts, Houston netted 192 yards and three touchdowns, which are nearly as many yards as the Bears have rushed for in their last three games combined, and one more touchdown than the Bears have rushed for all season.

The Texans-Chiefs game was the first meeting between the quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) that coach Matt Nagy was involved in drafting at Kansas City, and the quarterback (Deshaun Watson) that the John Fox staff thought it was getting until informed otherwise by general manager Ryan Pace a couple hours before the 2017 draft.

After a playoff finish in 2018, the L.A. Chargers (Oct. 27) fell behind the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers and a third-string quarterback 24-0 in the third quarter and through six games have lost as many games (four) as they did all last season.

The Super Bowl Curse, which causes Super Bowl losers to miss the playoffs the following season, may be claiming the L.A. Rams (Nov. 17), who sagged to 3-3 with a 20-7 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The NFC L’East

The NFC East suddenly looks eminently beatable, playing its way into being the only NFL division with exactly zero teams above .500.

Besides the doormat Washington Redskins, who were out-tanked by the Miami Dolphins, and defense-lite (five of six games allowing 28 or more points) New York Giants (Nov. 24), the Philadelphia Eagles (Nov. 3) were on the receiving end of Cousins’ efforts in the 38-20 thumping in Minnesota. That was followed by the Dallas Cowboys (Dec. 5) struggling against and losing to the New York Jets – yes, the JETS.

The Bears need to establish a template for Mitch Trubisky

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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.”

Think the Bears should've taken Deshaun Watson over Mitch Trubisky? Tap the brakes — hard

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USA TODAY

Think the Bears should've taken Deshaun Watson over Mitch Trubisky? Tap the brakes — hard

After his Seattle Seahawks slipped past the Houston Texans on Sunday night, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman declared via Peter King’s MMQB that Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson played “the best game any quarterback has ever played against us, and we’ve played all the legends.”

Just in case Bears fans needed a booster shot for wishes that their team had snagged Watson instead of Mitch Trubisky.

No side is being taken here for that useless what-if — useless because that kind of what-if leaves out differences in just about every imaginable point of comparison that matters: coaching staffs, which one is throwing to two first-round wideouts, college experience, just to cite a few. And the ultimate question is not which quarterback is better, but rather which one is better for his team. No timetable on answering that, and certainly not after four games by Trubisky and six and a half by Watson.

Watson is off to the best start ever by a rookie quarterback through this point of a season. Of course, the one-time record-holder for rookie attempts, completions and yards gained, before Peyton Manning broke those records, was Rick Mirer. A No. 2 overall pick. Just sayin’.

Actually, there are lots of second-guessing options at the moment. The top three in ESPN’s quarterback rating (QBR) are Watson, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz — all entering the NFL this year or last. Only Prescott was taken by a team that didn’t move up on draft day.

And if the Bears somehow got the wrong guy, then they’re not alone. Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to draft a quarterback at No. 10 in this year's draft. Not Watson. Patrick Mahomes.

Years of Trubisky vs. Watson ahead

Comparing Trubisky and Watson will probably go on for years, much like the Wentz-Jared Goff comparison will in Los Angeles and the Tim Couch-Donovan McNabb one has in Cleveland. (The latter one doesn’t really count, though, since Cleveland quarterback what-ifs go way, way beyond one draft or player.)

The real point of all this being: Rushes to judgment are beyond silly less than half a season into any player's NFL career, but quarterbacks more than any others. Second-guessing is even more pointless. Joe Montana was a third-round pick, Brett Favre a second-rounder, Tom Brady a sixth and Prescott a fourth. That should top off the second-guess material tank in case Trubisky-Watson doesn’t do it.

If there is any second-guess finger to be pointed, it arguably could be at a Bears coaching staff that didn’t make the switch to Trubisky from Mike Glennon in the fashion that Bill O’Brien and the Texans staff pulled an inept Tom Savage and went with Watson. Best guess, however: If Trubisky were a better alternative at the time before the change, Trubisky would’ve been playing. As it was, he nearly was named the Day 1 starter, suggesting that he was pretty close to the ever-vague “ready” even then. But that’s old news, and a coaching staff goes with the best-chance-to-win option, so if nothing else, self-interest would’ve driven the John Fox staff to start the better option.

Past is prologue, QB debates are nothing if not endless

But while redebating pre-draft hand-wringing is a waste of time, some antecedents involving quarterback career starts warrant a little analysis, if only to quell some of the nonsense swirling around what Watson is or what Trubisky will be.

Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? Bears general manager Ryan Pace coveted Mariota before the 2015 draft, but the cost of jumping from No. 7 to No. 2 was too high. Mariota has a sizeable QBR edge and is 15-18 in his NFL starts compared to Winston’s 17-22 record. Think Tampa Bay regrets passing on Mariota? Probably not.

Robert Griffin III, coincidentally also a No. 2 overall pick his team traded frantically up to draft, was the 2012 version of Watson after he exploded onto the NFL scene in his rookie season with a 102.4 passer rating and a 20-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. RGIII then had the misfortune of injuries and perhaps some coaching issues diminishing his skills, though he still started 13 games in 2013 and netted a pedestrian 82.3 rating with 16 touchdown passes versus 12 interceptions.

RGIII’s situation was a decline-and-fall scenario, however. In the other direction, perhaps more in line with the Trubisky case, Goff mucked through his rookie season for the Los Angeles Rams with a 63.6 rating and more interceptions thrown (seven) than touchdown passes (five).

Trubisky right now is a little ahead of Goff’s pace, at 66.3 with two each of touchdowns and interceptions, not including the lost score to Zach Miller in Sunday's game in New Orleans. Goff has launched in Year 2 — albeit with a coaching change from a defense-based head guy (Jeff Fisher) to one from an offensive base (Sean McVay) — to a top-10 90-plus rating, 9-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a Rams team at 5-2 behind him.

Wentz, taken at Trubisky’s No. 2 overall slot a pick after Goff, is prominent in MVP conversations with the Philadelphia Eagles at an NFL-best 7-1. Just for perspective purposes: Wentz flashed early last season with 100-plus ratings in three of his first four games (the one sub-100 game came against the Bears), but then went from a 3-0 start to losses in nine of the next 11, a stretch in which Wentz threw for eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

At various points of their rookie seasons, Goff was deemed a bust and Griffin was declared the future of NFL quarterbacking, and neither was either. Best guess here: Trubisky and Watson will prove out pretty much the same way.