How does a head coach instill confidence in a young quarterback?
With the Chicago Bears on a bye last week, I was tasked with writing a piece not on Mitchell Trubisky but rather on Matt Nagy, as a schematic mind and play-caller. So I set myself in front of the computer and watched, and rewatched, and rewatched yet again everything we have seen from Trubisky and Nagy together this season. Preseason games with vanilla designs through regular-season games with everything on the table.
About two hours in a pattern started to emerge.
Despite a somewhat shaky start to the season for Trubisky, his head coach remained outwardly confident in his young QB. He implored members of the media that the “breakout” was coming. Perhaps that game did occur over a week ago, when Trubisky threw six touchdown passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their porous pass defense. Now, one good game is not the hallmark of a quarterback gaining confidence. The fact that a head coach is extolling the virtues of his quarterback to the media is not a sign that the quarterback is actually getting better, and that his coach still has confidence in him.
However, a body of play-calling that tells the QB “I still believe in you?” That has more impact than anything a head coach can say to the media.
In Chicago’s season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Bears roared out to an early lead thanks to some efficient drives at the start of the game and a ferocious pass rush. But late in the contest, the Bears faced a pivotal third-down play, and rather than keep the ball on the ground, Nagy put the football in the hands of his young quarterback. Trubisky (#10) forces a throw to WR Anthony Miller (#17) in coverage and the pass is knocked down. But watch RB Tarik Cohen (#29) on the play:
Cohen begins the play flanked to the outside but then shifts into the backfield. He runs a wheel route to the right side, breaking toward the boundary and then vertically. He gets matched up in one-on-one coverage with Reggie Gilbert (#93), an outside linebacker, and let’s face it: Cohen matched up on a defender wearing a number in the 90s should be a mismatch the Bears look to exploit. But Trubisky — even though Cohen gets separation and is open — passes on throwing to Cohen and brings the football down to Miller on the shallow route.
Fast-forward to Week 4 and Chicago’s game against Tampa Bay:
The Bears return to this concept, albeit with a slight tweak. Cohen begins the play as a single back and Trubisky aligns under center, and they execute a play-action fake before Cohen runs his wheel route. As with the previous play, Cohen gets matched up with an outside linebacker, only this time, Trubisky takes advantage of the matchup and throws to his running back for a big gain.
Confidence. It’s more than a head coach telling the media that he believes in his quarterback. It’s the same head coach showing his quarterback he believes in him by going back to designs that were missed earlier but trusting that the QB will learn from his previous mistake — or mistakes.
In Chicago’s Week 2 victory against the Seattle Seahawks on “Monday Night Football,” Trubisky had another up-and-down night. He completed 25-of-34 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw a pair of interceptions and nearly threw a third on a play near the goal line as the first half was coming to a close. One of the passes that fell incomplete was this deep over route to Taylor Gabriel (#18):
Gabriel gets behind the linebackers and finds space in front of the free safety, but Trubisky air-mails the throw.
Trubisky’s Week 3 performance also drew some sharp criticism, leading some to wonder if it was time to bench him in favor of backup QB Chase Daniel. One of the plays that detractors point to was an incomplete pass Trubisky lofted in the direction of Gabriel on, you guessed it, a deep over route:
Again, Gabriel has a step on the coverage but Trubisky cannot make the connection, and a potential touchdown is taken off the scoreboard.
At this point you might expect that deep route from Gabriel, working from the right side to the left, would be taken out of the playbook. But again, if you want to instill confidence in your young quarterback you need to show him you still believe he can make these throws, and come back to the design later in the season.
In his Week 4 “breakout” performance against the Buccaneers, Trubisky got another chance to hit that deep route to Gabriel working from the right to the left. It came on a play early in the second quarter:
This is basically the same exact design as the miss against the Seahawks, but this time a, dare we say, more confident Trubisky puts the throw right on the money and the Bears have a huge gain on first down.
Confidence. When your coach believes in you to return to plays that you’ve missed before.
Missing on deep throws, such as these to Gabriel, was a theme of the Chicago offense early in the season. It was a theme that both the quarterback and coach were forced to address when dealing with the media. After the game against Seattle, Trubisky talked about missed opportunities downfield. "We’re doing a great job moving the ball well, but we definitely want more explosive plays," he said. "And that’s just me playing within the timing of this offense and getting it to the guys that are open.”
Nagy himself addressed the issue, speaking directly to the confidence component and how hitting on just one big play can boost morale. “It’s a confidence-builder — anytime you get that, it’s like shooting free throws. You make a couple of free throws, you’re going to make a couple more. You miss a couple of free throws, you’re going to miss a couple more. So that’s a confidence thing. Anytime you get a chance to hit somebody downfield for a shot, it definitely helps you.”
Those throws to Gabriel were not the only ones he missed in the vertical passing game. Against the Seahawks, the Bears failed to capitalize on great field position when Trubisky looked to hit Allen Robinson (#12) on a vertical route:
As we highlighted in the Week 2 piece on Trubisky, this play was another example of Trubisky missing throws when his feet are not properly settled. Something you can see clearly on this replay angle:
Again, another deep shot missed, this time to Robinson. But to boost your quarterback’s confidence, you keep those plays in the playbook and you keep calling them. As Nagy himself said, they’re confidence-builders. You hit a couple, you’re going to hit a couple more:
This throw to Robinson from the Arizona game is not the exact same design, as the receiver runs a quick out-and-up route, but it is a vertical shot to your best receiver a week after missing on a similar opportunity. Nagy himself was fired up about this throw, and with good reason.
In the end, this might be the biggest schematic impact of Nagy, and it goes beyond pure Xs and Os. His job as the head coach of the Chicago Bears is to get the most out of his players, starting with his young quarterback. To be sure, Nagy can come up with plays and designs to get players open for Trubisky, but beyond that Nagy needs to develop him, and it starts with boosting his confidence. Regardless of the plays that he designs and calls, returning to plays that Trubisky has missed on is a message to his quarterback: I still believe in you. Once you start hitting these, you’re gonna keep hitting them, and you’re gonna be better and better each week. That’s the best way to truly boost his confidence.
Or maybe you just tell him to wear an arm sleeve and, like Tin Cup putting his change in his left hand pocket, that little shift is all he needs to get his confidence where it needs to be.