By Robert Zeglinski
It wasn’t that long ago that an injury to a starting quarterback would’ve completely sank a Bears season. When Jay Cutler broke his thumb in 2011 after a 7-3 start, the Bears had no effective answer to replace the magician that had propped them up as one of the NFC’s contenders.
With Cutler, the Bears were a force to be reckoned with. Without, they were a fragile sand castle washed away by the high tide.
To be fair, the Bears of the late Lovie Smith era weren’t and aren’t solely unique in this quarterback-less respect.
Most NFL teams that lose their main signal caller reasonably lose most hope of making something out of their season. The ability to play quarterback at such a high level – the most difficult and nuanced position in professional sports – is such a rare skill set. There aren’t 32 active quality starters at any one moment, let alone the amount of quality backups. There’s such a scarcity behind the context of the state of quarterback play, that if your franchise leader goes down, the odds say that so does your season.
An entire off-season and year’s of work riding on the health and status of one, sometimes fragile, player.
But losing your quarterback doesn’t have to be a death sentence on that work. In fact, it shouldn’t have to be, as much as the exceptions to the rule are incredibly few and far between. To let the health of one player dictate the direction of your team is more a defeatist’s attitude, rather than a warranted excuse of failure if an organization plays it’s cards right. Look no further than the Philadelphia Eagles winning last February’s Super Bowl with Nick Foles: an unprecedented event in a league dictated by the caliber of it’s passers.
For the first time in decades, the Bears have found that balance without their starter Mitchell Trubisky: however long he’ll be sidelined with a shoulder injury. They’ve found a strong support system for backup Chase Daniel, the second-highest paid backup quarterback in pro football. It’s emblematic of how far they’ve come as a winning organization: a collective organization that refuses to say die in the face of adverse circumstances.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy had the best refrain of what the Bears’ attitude without Trubisky is a few days before Chicago’s emotional victory on Thanksgiving. A victory that came with Daniel, not the unhealthy Trubisky, at the helm.
“If it’s something where Chase (Daniel) ends up playing, then that’s the way it goes,” Nagy said.
That’s the way it goes. The Bears’ new and refreshing mantra. No excuses. Just winning. A cliche of “next man up” that rings true for the contending class organizations of the NFL that has finally manifested itself in a welcome fashion at Halas Hall.
Nagy can say that and sell it to his team and coaches because the Bears have established a rock solid foundation, of which he is the creative architect.
For example, while Trubisky is ultimately the straw that stirs the drink and what will separate the Bears against the alpha dogs of the league, there’s enough of a great supporting cast to lift whoever is taking snaps on a temporary basis. Guys like the journeyman but experienced Daniel can play well and manage the game because they have a variety of weapons to unleash in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, Anthony Miller, and Tarik Cohen.
Not only are the weapons conducive enough to let most any manner of quarterback flourish, but the offensive system the Bears have deployed itself is quarterback-friendly, too. Nagy, with his West Coast roots, has always prided himself on focusing on what his passers do well in giving them reads they’re comfortable with, There’s nary a progression or play called outside of the limitations of what the quarterback can do.
When Daniel completed two wheel route touchdowns to Cohen and Taquan Mizzell in Detroit, those weren’t exactly easy completions. But they were things Daniel understood within the confines of the offense and was fine with executing. They were aspects of what Nagy could call that could show out in a road environment for Daniel such as Ford Field.
Daniel hadn’t thrown a touchdown pass in meaningful action since 2014 and it didn’t matter because the weapons and the system were positioned in a fashion that could let him step in relatively seamlessly.
On the other side of the ball, Daniel, any backup, can operate confidently because he knows the Bears star-studded defense gives him a greater margin for error. This was already the case for Trubisky as a young quarterback learning on the fly. It expands tenfold for quarterbacks such as Daniel that may make one or two starts a year in emergency situations, if that.
When you have four potential All-Pros in Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Akiem Hicks, along with a host of rabid and experienced studs such as Danny Trevathan, Leonard Floyd, and Prince Amukamara, you can enjoy a little well-established confidence as a quarterback. You can play with more of a necessary controlled chaos while knowing that if you make a mistake, your elite playmaking defense will inevitably pick you back up. That dynamic can’t be lost in the shuffle of how the Bears operate in life without Trubisky when they have to.
When the Bears signed Daniel back in March to be Trubisky’s backup, they wanted him to be a mentor to their young quarterback. But in compensating him with $7 million guaranteed over two years, that was a sign they knew they could still win games if he was forced to play. That’s due to Daniel’s familiarity with the Bears as a veteran, the quality of their weapons and system, and a defense eager to pick up the slack.
The Bears will visit the Giants this weekend, and it may again be without Trubisky, with Daniel taking another start under his reins. If that’s the case, chances are a resilient Bears team rising above attitudes of failure and adversity perseveres successfully anyway. Their team mentality, without one of their most important players, is something to behold.
“I’m starting to learn as a head coach what this team is, who we are, and it’s special,” Nagy said.
That’s the way it goes.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.