Last Thursday night at Soldier Field we saw the peak of the recent Mitchell Trubisky mini-revival. In front of a primetime audience, the much-maligned quarterback of the Chicago Bears put in his best performance of a disappointing season. After making it to the postseason last year, in the first year of Matt Nagy’s tenureship, fans in the Windy City expected the entire team, but especially number 10, to take a significant step forward this year. To say that hasn’t happened is an understatement. Trubisky has looked like a replacement level quarterback for much of this year; certainly not a second overall draft pick.
However, in recent weeks, starting with the week 10 victory over division rivals Detroit, the dark cloud surrounding the Bears signal caller, has begun to dissipate. Following his week 13 performance, against the Lions again, Trubisky was named FedEx Air Player of the Week. Not quite the league MVP title, but most fans would take that given the woeful offensive performances Chicago have put in this year.
What does Trubisky’s performance on Thursday Night Football mean for his development and future with the Bears?
Synchronicity with Matt Nagy
Firstly, lets just analyse what went well against the Cowboys and some of the potential explanations for the performance Trubisky put in.
Nagy, who as well as being the head coach also calls the offensive plays, has a favoured slogan: Be You. It’s plastered all over the Bears facility, including on Nagy’s play calling sheet. The problem is, for many fans, the offense this year has been a bit too much Nagy. We’ve seen lots of the ‘gimmick’ style plays he became known for last year, and not enough of the bread and butter play calls needed to win an NFL game. Thursday night, there was much less of that. Well except for that one Wildcat call to Cordarrelle Patterson, which was blown up by Dallas…
Instead, Nagy seemed to actually cater to Trubisky’s strengths, rather than trying to make him into something he isn’t. This year Trubisky’s rushing attempts are way down: 36 in 12 games, compared to 68 in 14 games last year. Now that might not all be on Mitch. But at the start of the year he seemed reluctant to run when the opportunity arose. Perhaps his coach was emphasising the need to let the play develop and play within the offense? Or maybe Trubisky’s confidence was so shot that he didn’t trust himself to tuck and run? Either way, he was dynamic as a runner against the Cowboys and it should be a point of emphasis for the Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich when game planning in the week’s ahead. If teams should learn anything from Lamar Jackson’s play this year for Baltimore, it is to build your scheme around your quarterback, not the other way around.
On top of that, we saw more focus on play action and quick passes. Trubisky is best when he gets the ball out of his hands quickly, and when the threat of the run buys him time to allow plays to develop. Now that almost feels like a contradiction given that play action pass plays almost give him the time to overthink the play, but you can see the confidence exuding from him on those plays and it allows the intermediate passing game to flourish. That was certainly helped by the performance of the offensive line against Dallas. The line has been borderline pathetic in creating space for rookie running back David Montgomery, but actually got some push against a talented Cowboys front four.
Finally, the Bears also got production out of the tight end position. Albeit from two unexpected sources. J.P. Holtz led the Bears in receiving yards on the night with 56 yards on 3 targets, whilst former practice squad player Jesper Horsted added 4 catches for 36 yards. That helped open up the offense, particularly for Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller. The team simply hasn’t had sustained performance from that position this season with injuries to Trey Burton and the eventual benching of Adam Shaheen.
A key point of debate during this season is how much blame falls on Trubisky and to what extent it lies with Nagy’s play calling. But the game against Dallas illustrated that it’s wrong to apportion blame on one individual and not the other. When Trubisky’s play declines, it seriously limits Nagy’s ability to call certain plays, as well as their effectiveness. That is obvious. But then that becomes a cycle which feeds into the declining confidence and performance of Trubisky as the offense becomes a shell of what it showed it could be at times last year. Both of these pivotal individuals need to be performing at a high level, in conjunction with one another, in order for the offense to succeed.
What does this mean for Trubisky’s future?
Now no one is saying that this means Trubisky has arrived as a franchise quarterback. That is clearly not the case. A handful of good performances do not erase the dreadful play we’ve seen out of the former North Carolina Tarheel this season. In fact, Trubisky was helpful enough to remind us of some of those moments by throwing a misguided interception on the Bears first visit to the Dallas red zone.
The worry for many, including myself, has been that Mitch plays well enough over the last quarter of the season to convince general manager Ryan Pace to hand him an extension and fail to address the position in the offseason. It would certainly be short-sighted of Pace and Nagy to do so, given that the goodwill they’ve built up due to recent, albeit temporary success, may buy them both one more swing at the quarterback position.
The Bears absolutely need to add competition to the quarterback room this offseason. There’s too much talent on the roster for Chicago to have to start the 2020 season the way it started this one. But Trubisky is still under his rookie contract and it would be interesting to see if bringing in genuine competition for him would help accelerate any development the Bears may see out of him. Since he was drafted, Trubisky’s role as the future quarterback of the team hasn’t ever really been in question. We know that when the chips are down, that’s when Mitch often plays his best football, and an offseason quarterback competition might therefore be good for him.
The next three games against the Packers, Chiefs and Vikings, will provide more clarity on which Mitch Trubisky the Bears have: the quarterback who against Dallas showed decisiveness and touch; or the seemingly overwhelmed dump-off passer we saw for the first 9 weeks of the season.