By Robert Zeglinski
It’s a tale as old as time. A great defense. A surprisingly exceptional third phase in a special teams group. And a limited quarterback interminably paired with an overcautious and overanxious play-caller. In the century the Bears have existed, they’ve created a lot of worthwhile memories. They’ve established a hallowed tradition rooted in the foundation of professional football. Legends such as George Halas, Dick Butkus, Walter Payton and Brian Urlacher are all synonymous with the sport, and each are emblazoned with the Bears’ trademark orange “C.” And yet, something has always been missing. Every successful iteration—defined by a high bar of a winning season, playoff berth, or championship—has possessed the same mix of tantalizing physicality and ruthlessness on defense, and a vexing offensive incompetence.
Through two games of the 2019 season, the Bears sit at 1-1. Normally their record through such a small 12 percent sample size of a four-month campaign would be nothing to write home about. But how they’ve managed to stay afloat bears mentioning, to be screamed from the rooftops. Because if they continue on in much of a familiar, if listless fashion, they’ll be drowning without a life vest wondering where it all went wrong.
This latest Bears adaptation starts under center, or in the shotgun, or running into unnecessary pressure and eventually missing an open receiver. It starts with Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky is Chicago’s proposed prodigy at quarterback that was ostensibly to make a leap in the third year of his NFL career. He had the weapons and the balance. He had the coach and the belief of an entire burgeoning organization behind him. Stability in a supporting cast, an abundance of talent, and raw confidence: what more can you ask for as a quarterback, or as anyone in any working industry?
If you’re Trubisky, evidently the situation need only be more perfect, more fine-tuned, and more polished to a stage of rust, failure, and inevitable exhaustion.
Instead of making The Leap and showing off any discernible ability to reward the Bears’ faith in a player they once traded up for to No. 2 overall, Trubisky has struggled. “Struggled” would be putting it lightly. A more sincere evaluation, involving a conversation no one in Halas Hall wants to have but must acknowledge, is that the anointed face of the franchise has regressed. In advance of his 30th NFL start, Trubisky has made The Leap in the wrong direction. He’s gone backwards with no signs of slowing down his reverse trip into amateurish ineptitude.
Through two games, in his third year as a starter no less—not second, as much as many would like to disregard the stubborn halcyon days of John Fox ever happening—Trubisky is 32nd among all starting quarterbacks in touchdown passes with zero. He’s 32nd in yards per attempt at a robust 4.8. There is essentially a negligible difference between a Trubisky pass downfield and the Bears’ current average of 4.5 yards per rushing attempt. A demonstrative problem for the Bears and their currently hapless offense. After being touted for his accuracy and ball placement at college in North Carolina, Trubisky’s completion percentage is 58.3: 27th in the league. Given that it’s easier than ever to matriculate an offense based on ceaseless and efficient dinks and dunks, it’s harrowing to see Trubisky dip so far below in official accuracy marks.
Trubisky is like someone attempting to reinvent themselves by taking an advanced dance class at the local strip mall. He may possess the athletic ability and grace to thrive in a Flamenco setting, but when it comes time to execute the intricacy of steps and flow and balance one, he’s breaking the toes of his partner’s foot again and again thanks to a weighty second left foot. He can’t take what he processes in the film, weight room and practice field to the playing field, or the blazing hot dance floor.
It should be distressing seeing Trubisky grapple with much of the same issues that plagued his development in 2018 and even as a rookie in 2017. If Trubisky the project is an ongoing work in progress, his concerns would be palatable in the name of meaningful progress. A deer-in-the-headlights pocket presence where the 25-year-old ducks his head while under duress would’ve begun to dissipate by now, not be exacerbated. Balls demanding touch and pinpoint placement would’ve been more fine-tuned, practiced to excellence, not sailed way wide left and right like an off-key football orchestra. There would be a degree of challenge to facing an electric Trubisky for opposing defenses, any difficulty at all, not merely reusing a carbon copy of a game-plan where they merely have to sit back and wait for him to play himself into a mistake.
A project this ambitious, now over four years in the making of the Ryan Pace era, can’t go backwards. There are deadlines to meet in the form of championship windows. This due date has no grace period to speak of.
Amidst concerns of defensive regression, Chuck Pagano’s group has picked up right where it left off after a historic 2018 outing. If anything, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Roquan Smith look improved and more cohesive. A No. 7 overall ranking in DVOA and onslaught of a survival test in Denver’s punishing altitude is a testament to a tight-knit group’s unity and refinement. Pagano made certain his players didn’t wear white after Labor Day and they in turn have reaped the benefits in style. Chicago’s defense looks as if it could play for a Super Bowl right now, in this present moment. They look as if they would win it on their own. Unfortunately Lombardi trophies are only contested in the shortest month of the calendar year, and they’re seldom won on the strength of a defense alone.
Mack, Hicks, and company can only carry the Bears through the gauntlet of their season so much. Asking even a special defense to shoulder the load of two sides of the ball for long is asking for trouble. It’s asking for a bunch of unscheduled stops marked by collapse and more drastically, a .500 season spent on the outside looking in come January. One need only dive through an extensive history of promising Bears teams relying and falling through the ceiling thanks to this type of faulty dynamic. Trubisky was supposed to make the most recent incarnation different. He’s done nothing but open old wounds instead.
That playoff distinction is the rub of which must be accounted for. Until Trubisky corrects the Bears’ mediocre offensive ship, or rather, if he does, it’s more than appropriate to table championship aspirations. Shooting for a second consecutive playoff berth, something the Bears haven’t managed since 2006, is more apt. Anything can happen if the Bears make it to the crucible of the early winter, provided Trubisky and the ghosts of the Bears’ past can take them there.
Robert is an editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.