Countdown to Bourbonnais: Trubisky and offense must take next step
By Robert Zeglinski
The weight of expectations on a No. 2 overall pick is different than for most NFL players. They’re the savior. The best and sometimes only hope. The face of an era marked by a vibrant culture and self-assurance. This weight can be a motivating catalyst toward greatness, as the player lives up to his inflated hype. Or it can be burdening to the umpteenth degree, when the player grapples with intense scrutiny and his back breaks from carrying the ambitions of an organization on his feeble back. The definitive judgment on most quarterbacks in this top-pick scenario normally isn’t made until Year 3 of their career: when the game should have slowed down enough to play like a top pick. And when they’ve built up such an unassailable chemistry with their teammates, that it’s difficult to see them fail.
Mitchell Trubisky—he of the next generation of NFL quarterbacks looking to gain their footing—is walking through the door of this scenario in 2019. Through two years there have been flashes of his potential—a football guy buzzword favorite. A game-winning drive against an elite Ravens defense in 2017. A six-touchdown massacre at the expense of the Buccaneers last season. Incandescent playmaking, particularly of the mobile variety, and poise on display toward the end of a 2018 divisional championship campaign.
There have also been disappointments. Occasions where the Bears wanted to lean on Trubisky in a trust fall, and he never caught them. Not because he didn’t want to or because he was playing a childish prank, but because he couldn’t. A maligned early start to his sophomore campaign marked with interceptions and endless sailed throws. Hair-pulling, turnover laden performances against the Patriots, Vikings, and Rams. Defenses that confounded him. Inconsistency marked by the slowest of first halves, followed by an explosion of unstoppable production in second stanzas. The last note had to be the most cruel for the Bears as much as they believe their signal caller is prepared to make The Leap. Trubisky is a quarterback that shows off his ability in one quarter or one half or one week, and then it frustratingly goes missing the next.
The sensible explanation as to why Trubisky has been so up-and-down to this stage is inexperience. He was already a raw passer with a limited college resume. Now he’s been forced to learn the ropes on the fly with the big boys and he hasn’t always acclimated well. When examining it from this prism, it’s understandable as to why there have been growing pains. But you only get to use the excuse of inexperience so much. You only get to be a deer-in-the-headlights the first time a car catches you crossing a dark road. If the problem persists while knowing the threat of motorized vehicles exists and you continue to be surprised by their light, you only have yourself to blame.
On paper, the Bears haven’t been this talented offensively in decades. They haven’t had this much depth and upside at every offensive position since the beaming white eyes of Mike Singletary roamed the middle of the field. They haven’t had a measured coach who understands the innate weaknesses and strengths of his weapons since … ever.
The main question with this attack is whether the young quarterback can take advantage of his supporting cast. Whether in the put-up or shut-up year of his career, he actually puts up. Whether he can cohesively unite the Bears’ offensive moving parts across the board. And whether he can lift a championship contender to the heights they’re ostensibly supposed to climb.
Mitchell Trubisky: If not for the presence of the Bears’ transcendent defense, the magnifying glass fixated on Trubisky would be burning. If the Bears are to book first-class plane tickets (No one wants to rely on Spirit) to Miami in February, it’s on the 24-year-old to forcefully take the mantle through his play. Trubisky’s legs have caught up to the speed of the NFL: he’s been one of the most productive mobile quarterbacks since entering the professional ranks. It’s his arm and his mental processing that have to catch up if the Bears are going to last past the first weekend of January.
David Montgomery: Criticism of trading up for the most replaceable offensive position aside, the Bears hope this rookie back can add a welcome wrinkle of balance. It’s the rationale behind why they acquired the former Iowa State star. The past two seasons have seen Tarik Cohen and former Bear Jordan Howard play a predictable tag-team game in Chicago’s backfield. Montgomery’s presence and versatility ideally changes this reality enough to take pressure off of Trubisky and make life easier for play-caller Matt Nagy.
Kyle Long: In his first three NFL seasons, the veteran Long made the Pro Bowl three times and missed one start. He was one of the league’s most physically imposing offensive linemen: a fact that showed off any time he manhandled a counterpart. In the three years since, Long’s body has been ravaged by leg and neck injuries. He hasn’t played double-digit games since 2015. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and is likely well past his peak given the trajectory of most battered and bruised NFL players. But the Bears brought the veteran back anyway because they believe he has something left in the tank. By some accounts, this off-season has seen the return of the Long of old, the one that bullied respective defensive linemen without falling part himself. The Bears need this virile Long to return if their underrated offensive line is to hold up together for the Long haul. Pun intended.
Money quote: “Don’t let people on the outside take control. You’re in control of your time, and how you’re working, and your peace of mind, and how you sleep at night. Being aware that you’re obsessed gives you that control.” — Trubisky on his tunnel vision in-season mentality.
Nothing but skill
Former Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad once said Chicago was “where receivers go to die.” His assessment of an archaic passing game was first met with angry fervor, but was mostly accurate. If you wanted to make something of yourself as a feared flanker, playing for the Bears was not going to be the ideal route toward achieving lofty dreams.
Alshon Jeffery, who played in a mere 53 games over five seasons with the Bears, is the franchise’s third all-time leading receiver. A running back, albeit one of the greatest to lace them up, is fourth in Walter Payton. The Bears have just 14 individual 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Only six have come in this millennium—four in this decade alone. Most NFL teams who entered the modern era long ago have more than double that number.
The Bears have always been known for their sloppy dance in finding The Answer at quarterback. It’s as much a calling card as sideline-to-sideline linebackers, running backs, and Bill Swerski’s Superfans. The connection many never bridge is how this has affected their receivers: who suffer most directly from a dearth under center.
For the first time since their incarnation, they might not have this issue anymore. For the first time, they might be able to cackle in Muhammad’s face.
After suffering through years of No. 1 receivers like Bernard Berrian, the Bears’ receiving room is now stocked to the gills with a variety of complimentary skill-sets. Allen Robinson, the classic possession receiver and go-up-and-get-it champion. A polished route-runner whose fuel is nothing but competitive fire in Anthony Miller. Taylor Gabriel, the gadget burner. A possession receiver in waiting in Riley Ridley. Cordarrelle Patterson, a three-trick pony and one of football’s most dynamic game-breakers. An undrafted free agent steal in Emanuel Hall with third-round talent (but undrafted free agent hamstrings). And Javon Wims, the big-bodied wild card who could find himself sticking with the Bears if all goes swimmingly.
Never have the Bears possessed this distinctive a receiving group. Their skill position ranks, with enough seasoning and time, could become the envy of the rest of the league. This is a case where even if one of these players misses any time, it’s unlikely the remainders of the group can’t pick up the slack. The only drawback is that there’s but one ball to go around.
Patching up holes in the wall
A healthy Long should give the Bears’ offensive line a desirable boost with a kick. It should also set the Bears up with a premier interior led by Long, newly-minted center James Daniels, and the steady Cody Whitehair. As Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie are set to return as the respective left and right book-ends, Chicago has a rare situation up front where all five starters from 2018 are locked in. If there’s one place you want continuity, it’s on the offensive line. If each of the five players have to work in unison as an amoeba, then it benefits the rest of the offense when they already understand each other’s strengths and faults. And when they can communicate like childhood friends.
But sometimes continuity has to sand over the rough edges. That is, if it can.
The departed Howard and poor play-calling weren’t the only contributing reasons to a haphazard running game for the Bears last year. Lapses in the Bears’ blocking played as much of a factor in the minimal push they often created. If you can’t move bodies up front, then the players you’re making way for don’t have room to work with.
According to Football Outsiders, the Bears were 28th in adjusted line yards in 2018: how much space their offensive line actively manifested in the running game. They were stuffed or gained no yardage on 20.5 percent of their carries: 23rd in the league. When running to the left or right side, they didn’t rank any higher than 17th. The one area that most detracted from their efforts was in the middle: where they were 30th in adjusted line yards. That’s the clear one area of which can most improve with ascendance from Daniels and Long’s return, but it still sticks out as a glaring crevasse of a problem.
The dream at Halas Hall is that continuity rings true. That offensive line coach Harry Hiestand can take his pet projects, present them at the weekly science fair at Soldier Field, and they pass with blue ribbons for everyone. The fruits of his labor can already be noted through the NFL’s seventh-best offensive line in pass protection and sack rate. Another year could mean more glory.
Montgomery can’t diversify the Bears offense if he doesn’t have any holes to run through or enough time to get out into his routes. The beauty of Chicago’s newfangled weapons can’t propagate if they never have enough time to get the ball into their hands either. Trubisky can’t grow up if the Bears’ offense is again a one-note predictable scheme.
The guru in Hiestand has been known to work his magic. For the sake of the seemingly limitless potential the Bears’ offense has at its disposal, he’ll have to sit back and let continuity feasibly shine light on the proper path.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.