Nobody liked getting a report card in school. Especially when you knew full well that there were going to be some bad grades on there. For Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, a season perhaps cut too short now finds him getting handed report cards from around the football world. Here’s one more to add to the pile. Here we will look at the positive traits he displayed this season, hand out some incomplete grades for other traits that need work, highlight some of his best work to date, assign some homework, and end with a final verdict.
We can start with athleticism, which— as has been discussed in these pieces throughout the year — might end up being his trump card as a quarterback. The theory here is that each successful quarterback has one trait that they can fall back on when things break down, that they excel at to get them through difficult situations. For Trubisky, his athletic ability might be that one trait. There are times when he will turn to his legs and pull the ball down, and that has led to some splash plays for the Bears’ offense, such as this long touchdown scramble against the New England Patriots:
Given his athleticism, Nagy called upon Trubisky as a ball-carrier, either early in games or early in drives, to get his QB into the flow of the contest and keep defenses honest. Just one example is this play from Chicago’s opening drive against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Facing a second-and-10, Nagy calls an inside zone read play but uses an Arc block in front of Trubisky (#10). Should the QB decide to pull the football, he’ll have Trey Burton (#80) in blocking in front of him:
That’s exactly what happens:
Trubisky keeps the football around the right edge, Burton leads the way, and the QB picks up an easy 23 yards on Chicago’s opening drive, which Trubisky caps with a touchdown pass to Burton on the very next play.
Trubisky’s athleticism put him in some situations this season where he could contribute with his legs, either by keeping plays alive, via designed runs, or extending plays to make throws downfield in scramble drill situations. Every good QB has something they can fall back upon when plays either break down, or the defense shows them something unexpected. Trubisky’s ability to create as an athlete is likely his, at least right now.
We will get to processing speed (and by extension, decision-making) in a moment, as that is an issue. But in terms of getting the most out of his quarterback, Nagy excelled at putting Trubisky in some situations where he accelerated his decision-making process, while still stressing a defense at multiple levels of the field. This was done via run/pass option designs, whether the reads were made pre-snap, or post-snap.
The best example of this comes from the Bears’ game against the Los Angeles Rams. Early in the third quarter, following the sack and safety of Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff, the Bears came out and put together a scoring drive that was capped off by a touchdown throw from Trubisky to offensive lineman Bradley Sowell. But on three plays during that drive, Nagy called RPOs that gave Trubisky some defined reads, and easy decisions. The first came on a pre-snap decision between an inside handoff, and a backside out route to Allen Robinson (#12):
All Trubisky needs to do here is count. If the offense has the numbers advantage in the box, he hands it off. If it does not, he pulls the football at the mesh point and throws the backside out pattern. A simple process leads to good execution from the QB.
Later, Nagy calls a similar design, only this time Robinson runs the slant route working to the inside. This requires more of a post-snap decision. Trubisky reads Mark Barron (#26) and makes a post-snap decision based on how Barron reacts to the potential handoff. If the linebacker drops into the throwing lane, Trubisky will hand off. If Barron tracks with the potential run, the QB pulls and throws.
Barron plays the run, so Trubisky pulls and throws:
The end zone angle is a perfect view of how the QB works this play. Trubisky stares down Barron, forcing the linebacker to choose. Once he does, the QB pulls the football and throws a dart to Robinson.
Later in the drive, Nagy returned to the first design, pairing the pre-snap read with the backside out to Robinson:
These designs were very effective for Trubisky this season, and are signs that the potential growth in processing speed are present. Whether Trubisky takes that leap in his third season remains to be seen, but the foundation is built.
You, my dear reader, might call this a cop-out.
I understand why you might. What is “competitive toughness,” exactly? It sounds like one of those undefined platitudes a parent might use with a toddler who, in the midst of eating some paste and drawing on the white walls with permanent marker, is told that he is “doing a good job at following his heart.” Show me tape, you might demand, of Trubisky being competitively tough. Show me numbers, you might ask, like a frustrated Joshua Lyman, to quantify this trait.
That’s the problem with grading this trait. It’s tough. You can’t point to a statistic, and though you can do things like highlight effort plays, or even write a piece demonstrating a quarterback’s leadership skills, it might not convince the audience. In the end this is one of those traits that, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.
In my viewing, Trubisky has it. “It,” being competitive toughness, a prerequisite for playing the quarterback position. You can see it in a quarterback like John Elway, helicoptering himself down near the goal line in a Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. You can see it decades later in another quarterback named Deshaun Watson, executing a similar play against Reuben Foster and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the national championship game, taking his best shot from the talented linebacker and bouncing right back up. Staring that talented defense in the eye and saying “not today.” You can see it in a rookie like Baker Mayfield, electrifying stadiums when he comes onto the field, like he did in his first appearance against the New York Jets on a Thursday night game, or even when he just walked onto the practice field down at the Senior Bowl. Eyes gravitate, teammates want to fight beside him, coaches want to call plays for him.
You can see it in Trubisky. You saw it in that second game against the Packers. You saw it on that touchdown run against the Patriots. Yes, you saw it late against the Eagles.
Competitive toughness is a trait that NFL front offices use when grading and evaluating draft prospects. I learned this from Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and currently the Director of the Scouting Academy, a program that helps teach the NFL evaluation methods to those who want to break into the football world. Say what you want about Trubisky’s other traits, but this is a box he checks.
Some might call these the negatives, but as Trubisky’s second season should be evaluated in terms of his overall development, we prefer handing out incomplete grades for these traits. Should Trubisky remain static, then future versions of this piece will have these down as negatives. But these are areas that need improvement in Year Three of the Trubisky Era.
All quarterbacks, especially younger quarterbacks, need to get faster. Trubisky is certainly no exception. However, his development curve here might be a bit steeper than other recent young quarterbacks. This gets us to the relative level of experience he has compared with other quarterbacks, either in his class or recent classes. Trubisky had one season as a starter under his belt when he left college, played a partial season in one offensive system, and just finished his first full season as an NFL starter in another system. Three years, three different systems. Tough for any quarterback, doubly difficult for one with his relative inexperience.
Hence, the tougher developmental curve.
That being said, Trubisky does have to get faster with his reads, and make better decisions when his first option on a route design is not available. Sometimes, this comes in the form of simply getting to that second read to begin with. Trubisky has a tendency to lock onto his initial target and, even if it is covered, force the throw. We saw that against the Minnesota Vikings earlier this season:
Here, Trubisky locks onto the curl route from Robinson, forcing a throw into coverage that is intercepted. If he instead comes off this read, he might notice Ben Braunecker (#84) running open because of a coverage bust.
Sometimes the speed issue comes in the form of getting the ball out late. We saw this on Sunday against the Eagles. On this play, Trubisky looks to Taylor Gabriel (#18) on a curl route but stares it down and waits to see the receiver make his break, rather than delivering a throw with anticipation:
Of all the issues facing Trubisky, this might be the biggest. Until he speeds things up mentally, there will be issues in developing the offense and expanding the playbook moving forward.
There are two areas in Trubisky’s game right now that are an issue when it comes to footwork. First, is his left foot. This is an issue that we drilled down deep on a few weeks ago after Chicago’s victory over the Rams. Trubisky’s tendency to step in the bucket with his left foot on throws to his left, sometimes — but not always — led to mistakes and missed opportunities in the passing game. For example, look at this interception thrown by Trubisky in that game against the Rams, on a throw in the direction of Burton:
Here is another angle of this play, which illustrates from the end zone camera how Trubisky’s lead foot is well left of the target line, leading to the poor placement:
In addition to the problem with his left foot, there is another footwork issue that created some hardships for the quarterback in his second season: Set/reset throws. For an athletic quarterback like Trubisky, athleticism can be a double-edged sword. Sure, it can bail him out of some crowded and/or collapsing pockets, and it can enable him to create some plays with his legs that might become sacks for more statuesque QBs. But there is also a dark side to this trait. Athletic quarterbacks often find themselves keeping their feet moving when in the pocket and/or sliding away from pressure, and throws made from unsettled feet can result in turnovers.
This was something we saw back in Week 2, against the Seattle Seahawks:
This mistake comes immediately after the Bears defense forced Seattle to punt from deep in their own territory, gifting Trubisky and his offense great field position. Nagy looks to capitalize immediately, dialing up this vertical shot to Allen Robinson (#12). But Trubisky is forced to move in the pocket, and as he tries to reset and throw, the feet remain unsettled when he releases the throw. The pass is underthrown and intercepted by Shaquill Griffin (#26).
As you can see from this replay angle, the feet are moving at the release, and we can see the result downfield:
This issue continued as the season wore on, and even into the playoff game against the Eagles. For example, back in Week 9 the Bears coasted to a 41-9 victory on the road against the Buffalo Bills, but that game might have been one of Trubisky’s poorer starts of the season. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 135 yards and one interception, as well as one touchdown, and his quarterback rating for that game (76.0) was his fifth-lowest of the season. Quarterback rating is a metric that has its flaws and might be outdated, but in the context of his entire season of date it is a point to consider.
Again, we saw the set/reset snake bit Trubisky on a throw:
The Bears dial up a Yankee Concept here, a two-receiver maximum protection concept pairing a deep post route with an over route underneath it. It is a route design that we have talked about in various pieces over the past year. Trubisky tries to hit Anthony Miller (#17) on the over route, but he is forced to slide and attempt to reset before making the throw. Right before the throw, Trubisky is sliding his feet, and though he does reset them before pulling the trigger, this is another example of him missing with placement when attempting a set/reset/throw play. Plus, look at that left, or lead, step. It is more to the outside than toward the target, another issue we have seen in the past from the second-year QB.
Putting these footwork issues together, we can see how they lead to some of the negatives we saw from Trubisky this season. Until these issues are ironed out, there might continue to be some bumps along his developmental path.
Building off the previous point, ball placement was and remains an issue for Trubisky. It was, shall we say, inconsistent this season. Yes, you can point to his completion rate of 66.6 percent (good for 14th in the league among qualified passers and above Tom Brady) and say that ball placement is not an issue. But there is a world of difference between completion percentage and whether a throw is placed well or not.
This was the subject of a piece written after the Bills game. Looking through that article, you can find examples of Trubisky missing on throws, even when the pass was completed. Throws made to the wrong shoulder or hip, throws that force the receiver to adjust, throws that allow the defender to close and be in position to make a play on the football.
Like this one:
Trubisky’s placement needs to improve. Part of it might come naturally from the game speeding up for him. When a quarterback is getting through reads and decisions faster, he is making throws on time and in rhythm and attacking a defense at more advantageous moments and throwing into better and bigger throwing lanes. Part of it will come from fixing the footwork issues, as previously outlined. But this is the third big area that needs improvement.
The Developmental Outlook
Readers of these pieces this year know that I like to end as much as possible on a high note, and this piece will be no exception. Despite the flaws and the issues that he needs to improve upon, there were still signs of progress from Trubisky this season. There were moments when he made anticipation throws. There were moments when his footwork was better, or his decisions were quicker. The signs are there. In Sunday’s game against the Eagles, Trubisky made a throw to Tarik Cohen that Cris Collinsworth said was the best he had seen him make, and I concur:
The Bears run a four verticals concept out of 2x1 formation, with Tarik Cohen (#29) running one of the seam routes out of the backfield, which turns this into a 3x1 alignment. From the way Trubisky moves the safety with his eyes in the direction of the bending vertical route from Adam Shaheen (#87), to the spot he puts this throw in (away from the underneath defender but in front of the other safety) is very impressive. Bears fans, if you want to take away one play from Sunday in terms of Trubisky’s development, remember this one.
The Summer School Assignments
Develop and improve, or die. That is life in the NFL for every single player, scout, coach and general manager. Get better at what you are doing, or your organization will find someone to replace you. This is a results-oriented business.
For Trubisky, his summer school assignments are clear. Fix the footwork, get faster from a mental standpoint, and improve the accuracy. Yes, they are big things to work on, but they are also critical to his development.
Ultimately, how one feels about Trubisky’s 2019 season largely depends on the criteria used and the bar you were hoping he’d reach or exceed. If one looks at the talent on both sides of the football, the fact the Bears won the NFC North and hosted the final team to get in the playoffs but still failed to put enough points on the board to advance to the divisional round, one might consider Trubisky’s year largely a failure. Or at best underwhelming. When it comes down to it, the NFL is a league that values winning above all, and quarterbacks are often judged in terms of wins and losses, and not in terms of their development and progression.
However, I think that to truly evaluate Trubisky’s second season — and his first full season as a starter — it is imperative to put his career into context and look at where he has come from, and where he is hopefully going as a passer. Coming into this year, many Bears fans were perhaps hoping for a Year Two similar to Goff’s second season, and with reason. After all, seeing the huge step forward Goff took in his sophomore campaign, thanks to the addition of Sean McVay as the Rams’ head coach, Chicago fans envisioned Nagy providing a similar boost to Trubisky.
But they might be a year ahead of schedule.
Before this season started, I was a guest on Locked on Bears with Lorin Cox, and I was asked about whether Bears fans should expect a breakout year similar to Goff. I was hesitant to set the bar that high, given Trubisky’s level of experience coming out of college when compared to Goff, who started for the University of California as a freshman. Instead, I pointed Lorin to Eli Manning’s first and second NFL seasons. Granted, Manning had more experience in college, but in terms of production I thought Manning’s second year (for example, a jump from a TD/INT ratio of 6/9 in his rookie season to 24/17 in his second year) was a more reasonable goal, and one I’d be happy to see Trubisky duplicate.
Trubisky's TD-INT ratio went from 7-7 as a rookie to 24-12 in 2018.
So from where I stand, Trubisky’s second season, despite the flaws and the things he needs to work on, was largely positive. He met my expectations for the year, he shows signs of development and he seems ready to have the kind of third season I thought his career arc was set up for, in terms of a best case scenario. Sure, grading services and quarterback rankings lists and the like might have him in the QB17-22 range this season, but where was he last year? Where was he entering this season?
This was to be a year of growth and development for Trubisky. He took steps forward, and while his performance might not have matched the overall performance from the team, the foundation is in place for him. Year Three is the critical one. Bill Walsh, who forgot more about quarterbacks than I will ever know, always said that if a quarterback doesn’t figure it out by Year Three, then it’s time to worry. So 2019 is the season to watch for Trubisky.