CHICAGO — A freshly printed banner was hanging in the Northeast corner of Soldier Field, near the tunnel where the Bears run out. “When you’re hungry for quarterbacks, you’ve got a … Big Mack Attack.” The accompanying photo, across from a bootleg golden arch, showed Khalil Mack returning a pick-six in his Bears debut one week earlier.
Less than 10 yards away, during the pre-game warm-ups Monday night, was an even catchier pun. Zach Miller, the Bears tight end who is recovering from a life-threatening knee injury, was wearing a brand-new shirt printed with the words, “Mitch Please.” Miller’s fashion choice was in both good humor and support for the Bears’ young quarterback. Viewed a different way, though, it’s an apt slogan for a city and fan base that has been waiting too long for the Bears to be good again: Mitch(ell Trubisky), please (take the next step).
Monday night’s 24-17 win over Seattle stirred memories of the great Bears defenses of years past. With one of the finest pass rushers in the world regularly crashing the right side of the Seahawks’ line, the Bears sacked Russell Wilson six times, took the ball away from him twice in the fourth quarter—a pick-six by cornerback Prince Amukamara and a strip-sack by Danny Trevathan—and flustered the Super Bowl-winning QB into the kind of mistakes he normally does not make.
On this night at least, it looked like the kind of defense that could break the Bears’ seven-year playoff drought or end the run of five seasons without a winning record. But do they have the QB to match? Count Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, who sacked Trubisky once and pressured him on several other plays, among the skeptics.
“He was O.K. It wasn’t nothing special. Average QB,” Clark said. “When you are a great QB, you get the job done; that’s your job. I felt like he had a little bit of help. ... I’ve definitely seen better. ... He made some good passes, some good check-downs, everything was quick game for the most part. I didn’t see him beating us. Honestly didn’t see him beating us. I feel like their defense beat us. … We lost the game, yeah, but I feel like our defense beat their offense.”
Trubisky, who passed for 200 yards with two TDs and two INTs, did enough for his team to win the game; in the NFL, that’s no small task. But after an opening-drive touchdown while working off a pre-planned script of plays, the offense failed to find the end zone again until the fourth quarter. And Trubisky often looked impatient in the pocket, eager to dump the ball off before routes had developed, or pull it down and run. (“Once he feels any pressure,” Clark said, “head down, he’s gone.”) A week ago, when the defense couldn’t prevent the heroics of Aaron Rodgers, these were factors in a Bears loss.
Trubisky started the Bears’ second possession by overthrowing a wide-open Taylor Gabriel on a deep pass into Seattle territory. A few plays later, the drive stalled out when Trubisky bounced outside instead of plowing straight ahead on a third-and-3 QB keeper. His next throw, an underthrown deep ball intended for Allen Robinson, was picked off by cornerback Shaquill Griffin. The Bears’ next possession ended with another Trubisky INT by Griffin, this time on a tipped pass.
“I’m trying to get over dwelling on plays too much. It’s hurt me more than it’s helped me,” Trubisky said after the game. “Coach keeps saying, it is going to be a process. We want immediate results, but finding ways to win is very important, and we did that tonight.”
You get the sense that Trubisky is aware of the scrutiny. Last week, a freeze frame depicting what appeared to be a missed TD against the Packers was posted by a beat writer and shared thousands of times on social media. The situation was a third-and-goal, late in the first quarter, and tight end Trey Burton is waving his hands alone in the back of the end zone. (Instead, Trubisky threw horizontally to Taylor Gabriel for a loss of 5 yards.) The scrutiny reached so far that Jason Witten, the former Cowboys tight end and current MNF commentator, defended Trubisky on the broadcast, pointing out that what may look like a huge window in a still picture might not be in real time with defenders closing at top speed.
The pressure is impossible to ignore when you were a No. 2 overall pick—not just that, but the team that took you valued you so much over the other QBs in the draft class that they spent a cache of draft picks to move up a single spot to make sure to get you. And how about those other QBs? Deshaun Watson, taken 12th overall in 2017, was a Rookie of the Year candidate last season before tearing his ACL. Patrick Mahomes, selected 10th, already set an NFL record by tossing 10 TDs in the first two weeks of this season.
To many, the trade for Mack signaled that the Bears are ready to launch. That, of course, depends in large part on the QB launching. After we saw Carson Wentz make that leap, from rookie with room to grow to MVP candidate catapulting a Super Bowl run in his second season, that growth trajectory has become the gold standard. And taking advantage of the affordability of a QB on his rookie deal—which the Eagles did last year, and which the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson five years ago—has become a roster-building blueprint. A big reason the Bears were able to bring in Mack and sign him to a record-setting deal is that Trubisky’s entire $29 million rookie contract, spanning four years, is less than some quarterbacks’ annual pay.
Not even Clark doubts Trubisky’s potential. “He’s young, and he has to do a little bit more studying of good QBs,” the Seahawks defensive end said. “I feel like he has the tools to be a great quarterback one day—he has the feet, he has the escapability.” But so far, Mack has proved to be more of a spark for the Bears than Trubisky; the defense has improved in a hurry while head coach Matt Nagy references “subtly” getting better on offense.
"We need to get this offense rolling,” said receiver Allen Robinson. “Our defense is playing lights out. So for us, we want to make sure we are doing enough on our end.”
This is Trubisky’s second season as a starter—he took over for Mike Glennon in Week 5 last year—but his first in Nagy’s offense. While Trubisky learns the new offense, and Nagy learns his new QB, the coach is pulling from every resource to make the 24-year-old’s job easier. In Clark’s blunt review of Trubisky, he said the “help” he referenced was not only from the defense but also the head coach’s game plan. The opening-drive TD the Bears scored, on a zone-read shovel pass to Burton, is found in the playbooks of Andy Reid’s Chiefs, Doug Pederson’s Eagles and now Nagy’s Bears. Later, on a third-and-1 play, Nagy pulled out a direct snap to Burton to keep a field goal drive alive.
One of Trubisky’s best throws of the night was on his second TD pass, early in the fourth quarter. He faked a give to running back Jordan Howard, rolled to his left on a bootleg and fired a throw to Anthony Miller. When he came to the sideline, Nagy embraced Trubisky, talking in his ear for several seconds. They are both invested in making their partnership work. “This is going to be fun,” Nagy said post-game, “and I’m excited for our future together.”
With a defense playing like this, it becomes a little more difficult to stay patient while waiting for that future to arrive.
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