The biggest question facing the Bears as they headed into the 2018 season was: How quickly would second-year QB Mitch Trubisky be able to master the offense installed by new head coach Matt Nagy?
Trubisky is a long way from “mastering” the scheme, but his progress in his first year in the system was mostly encouraging.
His passer rating improved from 77.5 as a rookie in 2017 to 95.4, and he was sacked seven fewer times while throwing 104 more passes because he became much more proficient at escaping pressure and turning potentially negative plays into positive yardage.
The difficult task Trubisky faced wasn’t just that he was learning his third offense in as many years, dating to his final season at North Carolina. The 24-year-old also had to develop a rapport with an almost entirely new cast of pass catchers. Of the Bears’ top five receivers in 2018, RB Tarik Cohen was the only one who had ever caught a regular-season pass from Trubisky entering Week One. Nagy envisioned a well-balanced passing offense with an equitable distribution of the ball, and that’s exactly what he got from Trubisky.
But he also got a quarterback who showed a much better ability to escape danger with his quick feet and willingness to pick up tough yards when it mattered most. His 6.2-yard average on 68 runs spiced up what was, for most of the season, a mediocre running game.
The Bears scored 24 points or more 11 times in 2018, something they managed just three times a year earlier.
In the regular-season finale in Minnesota, a must-win game for the Vikings, Trubisky threw for just 163 yards, but he was neither sacked nor intercepted against one of the NFL’s top defenses. After the Vikings closed a 13-0 deficit to 13-10, Trubisky directed a 16-play, 75-yard drive that took 9:05 off the clock, and he did it without any of his top three wide receivers, all of whom were sidelined with injuries.
To Nagy, that game demonstrated how far the second overall pick in the 2017 draft had come.
“Mitch had a great game,” Nagy said. “He was a leader of the offense. He’s been really, really strong in regards to that and consistent with his progressions and his reads on third down the last two games. He’s doing great things, and when you do that, when you protect the football, you get conversions. I just really liked where we’re at and how we responded there.”
While it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for Trubisky and the offense, the young QB made impressive and noticeable strides throughout a franchise-changing, 12-4 season. After he bottomed out with a three-interception dud vs. the Rams in his first game back after a right shoulder injury, Trubisky bounced back big time over the final four games, throwing 126 passes without a pick.
Chase Daniel was Nagy’s hand-picked backup for Trubisky, having played the same role with the Chiefs for two years when Nagy was the QB coach in Kansas City. But Daniel was much more than a backup. He was also a mentor for Trubisky and a coach on the field. Having worked in a similar offense for several years, Daniel needed only limited training camp and preseason reps, allowing Trubisky to receive a crash course in the new system.
Daniel is adept at running the offense, as he demonstrated in two starts when Trubisky was out with the shoulder injury. But just as obvious were his physical limitations, especially as a foot athlete. While Trubisky was sacked 24 times in 14 starts, Daniel was sacked nine times in his two starts. But he did throw for 515 yards in two games with a 90.6 passer rating.
No. 3 Tyler Bray spent most of the season on the practice squad, where he has resided off and on for five years, while appearing in just one game and remained a virtual unknown. At 6-foot-6, he has ideal stature, a strong arm, and he knows the system, having spent most of his time with the Chiefs.
Most improved: Trubisky.
Best play: Some called the Bears’ 24-17 victory over the Packers in Week 15 the game that could go down as the turning point in the Bears-Packers rivalry, which has been dominated by Green Bay for decades. And it was Trubisky’s 13-yard TD pass to TE Trey Burton in the fourth quarter that put the Bears ahead 21-14. He finished with a 120.4 passer rating, easily outplaying Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who had a 68.9 passer rating.
Key stat: In Week Four, against the Bucs, Trubisky threw for 289 yards and five touchdown passes to five different receivers – in the first half.
Room for improvement: Trubisky must improve his accuracy, which is normally fine, but he had an alarming tendency to occasionally misfire badly and miss wide-open targets.