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The Keys to Trubisky’s Potential

Why new Bears head coach Matt Nagy has a chance to take his second-year QB to the next level. Plus, why Ty Montgomery’s jersey number matters, what it means to miss OTAs, and revisiting the Seahawks’ decision to pass in Super Bowl XLIX

The Bears are amidst their first post-draft minicamp under new head coach Matt Nagy, and the 40-year-old former Chiefs offensive coordinator would not be here unless management believed his system was the best fit for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. How that marriage goes will determine where both men are four years from now.

To understand it, we must understand Trubisky—both what he can be and what he is currently. For what he can be: Trubisky has a strong enough arm, but he’s not Brett Favre. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not Michael Vick. His greatest attribute is his ability to throw on the move, both by design (rollouts, bootlegs) and improvisation. Like many mobile righthanded QBs, he’s particularly proficient outside the pocket to his right.

But in the NFL, on-the-move passing can only be an offense’s side dish, not the entrée. And so Trubisky’s success, like every pro QB’s, will come down to how well he plays within the pocket. Given his good-not-great arm strength, this means how well he can develop as a timing and rhythm passer. Think of Trubisky as a potentially better version of Kirk Cousins.

This is what Trubisky can be. But Nagy must work with what Trubisky is now. Last year, Trubisky, like many rookies, was up and down. He didn’t show a strong sense of timing and rhythm until December (encouragingly, by the end of the season that included anticipation passing, the highest level of timing and rhythm throwing). But Trubisky that month also still showed the lack of refinement that marred him in October and November. He’d hold the ball too long, or more often leave the pocket too early. That’s normal for a young QB, but it’s also normal for a quality QB to rectify early in his career. Trubisky must continue to improve here.

The hope is Nagy’s scheme will help. It’s a stronger scheme when the QB plays on a crisp schedule, but it’s not overly reliant on that. Nagy’s QB in Kansas City, Alex Smith, read the field with aplomb but was not an exact timing and rhythm player. Smith had to see targets get open, and he rarely threw with anticipation. This meant his reads had to be clearly defined.

The Chiefs did that by emphasizing misdirection and multi-option concepts. Many of their plays flowed one way, then attacked the other. Their designs had Smith throw off of individually isolated defenders. That included the trendy RPO (run/pass options) that we hear so much about. Naturally, play-action passing was tied in. Those occur on first and second down, when the defense is in predictable run-stopping looks. Notably, four of Trubisky’s five longest completions last year came on first or second down.

It’s worth emphasizing that Trubisky doesn’t have the same weapons in Chicago that Smith had in Kansas City. Second-year lightning bug Tarik Cohen can play the Tyreek Hill role (Hill circa 2016, that is, when he was more of a gadget player than true wide receiver), but Cohen isn’t quite as fast as Hill (no one is) and his passing game awareness must improve. There were hurry-up situations last year when Cohen came off the field. Running back Jordan Howard is tremendous in a zone ground game but offers little of what Kareem Hunt did in the passing game. And while the free agent signing of rising ex-Eagle Trey Burton makes Chicago stronger at tight end, there’s still no pure multifaceted receiving weapon at the position, let alone a Travis Kelce.

Still, Burton’s arrival could mean more two-tight end formations, which is a great way to integrate your running game and passing game. That’s critical in a highly schemed offense.

The Bears played a lot of two-tight end packages last season, but that was by necessity. Their starting wideouts barely did better than our own Albert Breer and Robert Klemko would have done. The recent additions of free agents Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, plus second-round rookie Anthony Miller, changes that. Those might not be receivers who can consistently win one-on-one—time will tell with Robinson (coming off a knee injury) and Miller (transitioning to the pros)—but the Bears at least have enough talent to now run a full scheme.

While Trubisky’s developing mental acumen will be the driving factor in Chicago’s passing game, the X-factor will be his mechanics. They were too erratic in 2017. The question is: How much of that stemmed from being an uncomfortable rookie and having a poor supporting cast? The hope is “a lot,” because in the NFL it’s hard to rework a QB’s mechanics, especially when he’s learning a new system. Fortunately, much of Trubisky’s issues stemmed from footwork, which is more correctable than upper-body glitches. Having watched Trubisky in OTAs, Nagy probably already knows where his QB is fundamentally. We won’t know until September, when we see it for ourselves in meaningful games, and perhaps more importantly, when we see how aggressive Nagy is calling plays.

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I know, I’m a curmudgeon. That’s fine. In the NFL, jersey numbers mean something. They make personnel packages easier to process, allowing coaches to substitute smoothly and focus on scheming. Those jersey numbers are also what Mike linebackers go off when making checks at the line of scrimmage. Montgomery came into the league listed as a wide receiver, but he has transformed into strictly a running back. His jersey number should reflect that, like every other running back’s.


OTAs are wrapping up. We tend to think of these as on-field workouts, but they’re much more. Teams use OTAs to install their schematic foundation. Missing them isn’t a huge deal for the players with injuries, but failing to at least be in attendance can be. And for veterans who can afford to miss these sessions, their absence still impacts teammates. I remember last year at a Rams session, Tavon Austin was out with a wrist injury but spent much of the time teaching young receivers route running techniques while they waited for their reps. That sort of thing is valuable.

• STATE OF THE TIGHT END: Why they’re so important for offenses, and why there aren’t enough to go around.


On Tuesday my buddy Geoff Schwartz revisited this discussion. To me, it’s still the greatest football debate of this decade because it focused solely on the details of the sport. Nothing about it bleeds into politics, it’s just pure football. (That is, assuming we ignore the conspiracy theorists who believe the Seahawks threw the ball because they wanted Russell Wilson, not Marshawn Lynch, to make the game-winning play.)

Here’s Geoff’s article. I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis, which is that the Seahawks threw the ball because the Patriots defensive front “didn’t leave them any other choice.” This is the argument I’ve heard most from NFL coaches, including some Seahawks coaches.


A trick I learned to prevent overeating at a restaurant: When you’re full, dump your water on what’s left of your food (assuming you don’t want to take it home and no one else at the table wants it, of course). That way you can’t sit there mindlessly picking at the food.

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