When the Bears took possession of the ball in the final minute of last year’s NFC wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles, QB coach Dave Ragone remembers one thing.
“The look in his eye,” Ragone said.
Trailing by one point in his first career playoff game, QB Mitchell Trubisky needed to lead his team at least into field goal range. All the work and preparation of the past year came down to one drive.
“When coach Nagy was calling the plays as [Trubisky] walked off the sideline into the huddle, you just had that feeling that he’s going to find a way to get us down there,” Ragone said.
Ragone said as much to backup QBs Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray.
“This kid’s going to do something,” Ragone recalled saying.
A 25-yard pass complete to Allen Robinson. An 8-yard pass complete to Robinson. A spike to stop the clock. One shot at the end zone, incomplete. A 43-yard field goal attempt for kicker Cody Parkey.
In the blink of an eye — the clank of a kick — the season was over, and the focus turned from Trubisky’s heroic last-minute drive to a kick that would not soon be forgotten. The look in Trubisky’s eye changed dramatically as Parkey’s field goal bounced off the upright. Trubisky watched with his mouth agape, like most every Bears fan at Soldier Field that day.
As the team left the locker room that night, Ragone made sure Trubisky understood that he did a lot of positive things on that final drive.
“You can’t control if a guy catches it, tips the ball at the line of scrimmage, makes or misses [a kick],” Ragone said this spring. “The fact that you made the right decisions in that last drive, in a situation you’ve never been in, if you can’t build off that as a core foundation, then we need to talk more.”
‘It takes a year’
Few quarterbacks know coach Matt Nagy’s offense as well as Bears backup Chase Daniel. He was the backup with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2013 to 2015, when Nagy was his QB coach.
When offensive coordinator Doug Pederson left Kansas City to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, Daniel followed him there and gained a reputation for helping young QB Carson Wentz learn the offense.
When the Bears hired Nagy last year, they brought Daniel to Chicago for the same purpose. He knows how much work it takes to truly be on the same page with Nagy.
“It takes a year to get fully into it,” Daniel said.
Trubisky has had a year. The third-year quarterback has moved on from the learning phase to, in Nagy’s words, “mastering” the offense.
“Trying to,” Trubisky said.
Despite the modesty from the 24-year-old Mentor, Ohio, native, all indications point toward a far deeper understanding of what Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich are trying to accomplish.
“It’s basically trying to know the offense as well as coach Nagy,” Trubisky said. “Owning every single [thing] — whether it’s protection call, check, adjustment, changing plays, everything within each play — owning and knowing it like the back of your hand. Not second-guessing, being ahead and being able to teach it to everyone else.”
For Daniel, Trubisky’s progress is most impressive not in the classroom, but on the practice field. Daniel said Trubisky is identifying where the pressure is coming from and calling the right protection far more accurately than he did a year ago.
“Pretty much all the time,” Daniel said.
Last year, according to Daniel, it was more like 50 percent of the time.
“To be honest, he wasn’t really thinking about protections too much because we didn’t want him to think about protections too much,” Daniel said. “To see him going up there and taking accountability of it, and taking the power to go up there and do that, it’s cool.”
It’s impossible to avoid comparisons when it comes to quarterbacks. The recent trend is well-documented: draft a young quarterback, hire an offensive-minded coach, play deep into the postseason. The Eagles did it in 2017 with Pederson and Wentz (with a major assist from Nick Foles). The Los Angeles Rams did it last season with coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff. If the Bears are to follow in those footsteps, Trubisky’s performance is going to have to live up to the talk coming out of Halas Hall.
Oh, and they’ll have to find a way past the Eagles and the Rams, among others, in the NFC.
‘The big-time kid’
Ragone has been coaching quarterbacks for the better part of a decade, with some time spent as a wide receivers coach, too. A former quarterback himself, Ragone was the lone offensive coach retained from John Fox’s staff when the Bears hired Nagy.
“This position is so predicated on confidence,” Ragone said. “And it’s inner confidence.”
With Trubisky, look no further than his first big-time game. No, not in the NFL. Not even in college at North Carolina. Trubisky’s first high school football start as a sophomore at Mentor High School in Ohio came against St. Edward at Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2010.
“You see certain guys and you just know this guy is better, he has all the tools,” Mentor coach Steve Trivisonno said.
Though Mentor lost that game, 35-28, Trubisky led the Cardinals to two late touchdowns to pull them out of a 21-point deficit.
Mentor went 7-4 that year with the sophomore QB. By the time he was a senior, Trubisky put a young Mentor team on his back and carried it to a 12-2 season and a trip to the state semifinals. He was named Ohio’s Mr. Football his senior year in 2012.
High school football and the NFL are worlds away, but Trivisonno saw the same willingness to learn in Trubisky over those three years starting for Mentor that the Bears are talking about now.
“He was really good with being that gym-rat kid,” Trivisonno said. “They would be in basketball and he’d be out throwing to the other receivers who were basketball players. He was going to work routes. He was going to throw the ball as often as he could and help those receivers get on the same page.”
The basketball coach was none too happy about it, but football was never far from Trubisky’s mind.
“By his senior year he could probably go out and call the plays,” Trivisonno said. “He knows what we’re doing and how we want it done, and does it well. … We always talked about, in our program, having one brain with the quarterback [and] the guy calling plays, so they’re all on the same page. When our quarterback’s on the same page with our OC, and they’re calling it, they’re seeing it, they’re understanding it, it’s hard to stop.”
Trivisonno, who announced this fall will be his 23rd and final season coaching Mentor, makes sure to record every Bears game. He usually catches up with the action later Sunday night. When Trubisky and the Bears faced the Eagles in the playoffs, Trivisonno “was watching that one live, doggone it.”
During that last drive down the field, Trivisonno could see that same cool, calm, confident quarterback who not so long ago was marching Mentor High School toward the end zone.
“Whoa, now you’re seeing the kid grow and mature,” Trivisonno said. “This is the big-time kid coming.”
The thing about football — and any sport — is that at every new level, it’s almost like starting over. Trubisky redshirted his first year at North Carolina. By his third year on campus, his redshirt sophomore season, then-UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf saw everything clicking for Trubisky.
“You could really see it in that fall camp,” said Heckendorf, now the offensive coordinator and QB coach at Arkansas State. “When you go out there, you’re confident and you’re pulling the trigger, it makes you be a lot more decisive and he’s obviously very accurate in how he throws the ball.”
In limited playing time behind North Carolina starter Marquise Williams in 2015, Trubisky connected on 40 of his 47 passing attempts for 555 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
A year later, Trubisky started all 13 games and played well enough to propel himself into the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Heckendorf said there was “no question” Trubisky had mastered UNC’s offense by then.
“Year three coming up in the NFL, I would probably tell you that that same sense of confidence that he developed over a three-year span at North Carolina, it would not surprise me to see that same type of step this fall,” Heckendorf said.
‘Think quick and play fast’
By his final year at North Carolina, his redshirt junior season, Trubisky was leading the quarterbacks meetings when the coaches were out on recruiting trips.
“Some guys, they know it, and they get up there and they draw it and it makes sense in their mind, but then they turn around and they look and everybody in the room is going, ‘I’ve got no idea what you just said,’” Heckendorf said. “[Trubisky] was able to get up and teach it to the other quarterbacks in a manner that covered all the bases. And he knew the plays inside out.”
The Bears don’t have too many new offensive players this year, but Trubisky has taken it upon himself to make sure that the newcomers know what they’re doing.
“It’s a great thing that I know the offense as well as I do now, that I’m able to help the new guys, the young guys and even the guys who are coming back in this offense,” Trubisky said.
Trubisky is at a point now, with 27 NFL starts under his belt, where there’s not a whole lot a defense can throw at him that he hasn’t already seen. It comes down to reading what he sees and making quick decisions.
Trubisky has been testing his abilities in practice, trying throws he might not have tried in a game last year. And that’s what his coaches want. Ragone wants him to push the envelope in practice so he has a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
“You want to think quick and play fast,” Daniel said. “You put more on the quarterback. Your offense will go as your quarterback goes. Mitch is just taking that next step.”
If it all clicks come Week 1, Ragone might be seeing that look in Trubisky’s eye more often in 2019.
“From him specifically, it’s just a different mindset, it’s a different calmness,” Ragone said. “It’s way different. From where he was when he entered here as a rookie quarterback to where he is in his third year, yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of night and day difference.”