Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky found himself at the butt of another NFL joke this week when his fifth-year option was denied by the Bears.
After the trainwreck of a season Chicago endured and subsequent acquisition of Nick Foles, the Bears’ decision didn’t come as a shock. Trubisky will compete for the starting job with Foles in training camp, but nobody expects or wants him to win the job.
Reasonable career projections for the 2017 second-overall pick are, at their rosiest, that of a career backup. How did we get from that draft day to here? Did things go wrong for Trubisky somewhere in his development as a pro? Or was the pick forsaken from the moment Trubisky was famously taken over Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes?
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as it usually does. Trubisky never really looked like a No. 2 selection; certainly, he never looked better than Watson's midseason debut in their rookie years or the dawn of Mahomes in their sophomores campaigns. But at one point Trubisky did look like he was on his way.
After a narrow loss to the Packers at the start of the 2018 season, the Bears won 12 games. Trubisky missed two games in the middle of the season with a shoulder injury. In the seven prior, he completed 64% of his passes and averaged 8.9 yards per attempt. Trubisky threw 18 touchdowns to six interceptions and ran 37 times for 299 yards and two scores during that stretch.
This was exciting; it was also a bit of a lie. His numbers through the course of several games smooths over the bumpy ride that was the best the Trubisky experiment ever had to offer. He had as many games with a passer rating above 120 as he did games with a passer rating below 75 in 2018. During that time, six touchdowns came from one game against Tampa Bay in Week 4. But Trubisky’s other numbers fluctuated. He had completion percentages of 52% in Week 6 and 77% in Week 9 and yards per attempt of 13.6 in Week 4 and 5.3 in Week 10.
It wasn't so much volatile as it was untrustworthy. The Bears’ offense produced and won independent of Trubisky's performance. Chicago could weather awful games with an elite defense and quality weapons and scheming while Trubisky's best games weren't enough to move the needle on an off day — even with the supporting cast. He made good plays; he had good games but he wasn't a good quarterback even then. And it's only gotten worse. Matt Nagy was initially tagged as the Bears' coach to vitalize Trubisky's career with a modern, spread-and-shred offense that wasn't afforded him in the John Fox era. But Trubisky's dedication to taking quick and easy throws left far too much meat on the bone downfield, limiting the Bears' ability to create explosive plays. In 2019, Trubisky was the sixth-quickest quarterback to get rid of the football and completed passes at the ninth-shallowest depth across the season, per Next Gen Stats. Nagy highlighted plays Trubisky left on the field in postgame press conferences when given opportunities to discuss his growth. Trubisky would ask that TVs be turned off in Halas Hall, the Bears’ headquarters, so he couldn't hear the criticism from the talking heads.
Questions about Nagy's scheme and Trubisky's confidence grew louder and more frequent as their relationship unraveled. Trubisky's usage in the running game never became consistent. It took about 11 weeks for Allen Robinson to start getting WR1 targets, and the few draft picks Chicago had left to spend on offense (Anthony Miller and David Montgomery) didn't pan out. With Vic Fangio left to coach Denver, the defense slid back down to the middle of the pack and the Bears’ safety net vanished.
Something went wrong for Trubisky in 2019, but the reality was that things were never that great to begin with. If any one thing is to blame, it was public perception and the blinders of fandom; the lies that a good defense, a good offensive coach and a good offensive system told about a young quarterback who never showed the promise that his record or stats suggested.
Or, again, perhaps the thing that went wrong with Trubisky circles back to the infamous circumstances of his drafting: when the Bears traded up to secure him and when Watson and Mahomes went after him.
Trubisky was a one-year starter at North Carolina. He was a player who caught fire when he was finally given a starting job he couldn't win for himself. Scouts loved his poise, decision-making, processing and comfort in the offense as well as his accuracy in the quick game. They openly wondered how Trubisky wasn't able to win a starting job. As a college scouting director told NFL.com in the pre-draft process, Trubisky “hasn't played in enough games to really know what he will become as a pro."
There was uncertainty about Watson and Mahomes, lest we forget. Mahomes was unbridled and needed to mature in his NFL playstyle; Watson didn't have top-shelf ball placement the deeper downfield he threw the ball and that remains true to this day. But Trubisky, for all of his delightful film in that electric 2016 season for the Tar Heels, was a much bigger question mark because whatever it was that he did that caught the NFL's eye, he hadn't done it for nearly as long or as consistently as Mahomes and Watson had.
Perhaps that's the inevitable lesson in the question of what went wrong with Mitchell Trubisky: that the pick was just wrong.
Trubisky became a bust; to put the onus on the coaching staff or supporting cast implies that there was a time Trubisky looked like he was worthy of the second-overall pick. I don't think that moment ever came. He was drafted with an assumption of consistency that was yet unverified; he was a projected development that assumed far too much certainty from far too small a sample. In the NFL, he became what he was: a player who couldn't hold down a starting job.
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