By Robert Zeglinski
The distinction between a franchise quarterback and a replaceable washout in the NFL isn’t convoluted.
Franchise quarterbacks are capable of taking flawed rosters and lifting them to previously inconceivable heights. A franchise quarterback can help a mediocre team overcome an otherwise complete opponent, and often does. Washouts, journeymen, also-rans, nervous Nelly’s – every label is appropriate – veer toward a nexus of neutrality and outright clumsy absent-mindedness. They are either a neutral fold in the grand scheme of things, never swinging the pendulum meaningfully in either direction. Or they take an already haphazardly built group of men and lead them into a bottomless pit of failure. In extreme cases of emotional investment and attachment, that pit mercifully eventually levels out to channelled despair.
The quarterbacks who play late into January somehow always have a life preserver on hand in case their ship sinks. They’re the ones courageously punching tyrannical great white sharks in the nose, all the while asking for more danger. Their direct juxtaposition in a running mill of names of passers who have never found a stable footing, are devoured by the ocean’s most infamous apex predator the moment they suffer an unfortunate traumatic wound in the open water. Instead of punching a carnivorous and conveniently human-sized fish in the nose, they only serve to place themselves in more precarious positions the more they struggle. The more they flail their arms, the more danger they’re in.
In terms of measured time in the professional football universe – which now meanders about similarly to most contests thanks to inundated and faulty officiating reviews – it’s been quite awhile since Mitchell Trubisky strapped on shoulder pads in a meaningful context. Roughly three weeks in the NFL means having missed out on a cornucopia of controversies: justified and manufactured. It translates to a risk of losing out on the particular season’s latest trend or hot button topic sweeping the league. You might as well be playing a divergent era in any instance you miss almost a month of play. Football time does not prescribe to the strict laws of the natural universe, as any mind of a single-minded, drill sergeant coach will readily profess.
What an extended absence affords any player, aside from the ability to disconnect from a harmful cultural ecosystem that refuses to sleep, is the pleasure of being forgotten. That may sound like a characteristic most would want to actively avoid. But in Trubisky’s unique circumstances as a quarterback who has yet to find a steady footing, there’s nothing better than being given a clean slate. Disconnecting allows for proper recalibration. (It’s not the type of “disconnecting” where you unplug a charger and plug it back in desperately hoping for a miracle because you have no other technological savvy.)
The last anyone saw of the third-year passer, Trubisky was writhing around in excruciating pain on Soldier Field’s turf. After an unfortunate scrambling attempt went awry, the 25-year-old happened to enjoy a slight tear in his non-throwing labrum along with a dislocated shoulder. In his absence, the Bears managed not only the passable and palatable of any team without its starting quarterback, but the admirable: they stayed afloat with an entirely anodyne 1-1 record.
The Bears did not thrive without Trubisky. Far from it, in fact. But they didn’t exactly miss his penchant for sailed throws, brain freezes in the middle of crucial plays, and hurried panic at the first sign of no pressure. Trubisky hasn’t been an active hindrance, but he’s a left a lot (a lot) to be desired in the basics of quarterback play taught at Pop Warner levels.
Absence not only makes the heart grow fonder, it also opens the door for the possibility of redemption to those overlooked and disgraced that are seeking it.
As much more sizable bodies in the form of injured reserve mates Kyle Long and Akiem Hicks figuratively begin to drop around Halas Hall, the quarterback’s directive is simple. It’s his job, no one else’s, to lift up an ailing team on the brink of coming apart at the seams over the next 11 weeks (and change, if Chicago enjoys a fit of fortune). It’s a good thing Trubisky started the week as a full participant in Bears practices: always a positive premonition. Now as Matt Nagy deploys the typical cliche nuclear secret game of “will he or won’t he?” before announcing Trubisky’s official return, that vision can’t become a nightmare.
Something jives well with an analogy of a child’s rubber-like malleability to a professional athlete avoiding monstrous 300-pound men running full tilt.
“If he ends up playing, then he plays,” espoused Nagy when asked to elaborate on Trubisky’s status for a monumental bout against the 5-1 Saints this Sunday. “I was dealing with my son playing youth football this weekend, you know. If he’s hurt, and he’s going to get the OK to play; you can’t tell somebody to play a game and not get hit, you can’t do it. If you’re OK to play a game, then you’re OK to get hit. It’s not hard, you know. It’s pretty simple – for me, it is.”
An overly defensive tangent aside, it’s a sound indicator that the Bears can expect their former No. 2 overall pick to be at the wheel against New Orleans. Bearing in mind the state of their conference and division, the 3-2 Bears need all hands on deck, especially their anointed captain. Chicago’s defense is special, but it can’t be the sole calling card of victory to lean on. Eventually the hand betrays you and you overdraw. The NFC on the whole, and the NFC North to a lesser extent, figures to have too much of a glut of ebbing competence and efficiency. There is no juggernaut. There is no dividing line between greatness and everyone else chasing after a Holy Grail. There’s only chaotic, primordial violence separating the best from the worst in accordance with Darwin’s teachings if he paid one iota of his attention to athletics. A survival of not only the fittest, but the prudent. A rumble the Trubisky-led Bears will be lucky to walk away from unscathed.
Every game from here on out has the capacity for the Bears to take significant, fatal damage to their hull, or merely continue sailing on. Every game carries the weight of a playoff berth and a new narrative, for better or worse.
In their moment of need, while plunging full speed ahead into a coming storm, the Bears need the man they selected to be their franchise quarterback to finally start featuring like a franchise quarterback. If he doesn’t, the stuffing will come out out of the fresh creases and it will create quite a mess all over the floor. The kind of mess that can’t be readily stitched back together good as new.
Never before have the Bears needed Trubisky as much as they do in this present moment. He’s been hardily tested to this point, but not as stringently demanding in a situation like this. The next three months either sees Trubisky redeem himself and live up to his proposed potential, or help plant early seeds into the Bears’ minds of their near future at quarterback. In other words, the referendum of a franchise quarterback or journeyman is about to be made. Definitive rulings on game-changers and inept amateurs are routinely made in far less time with little attention to detail.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.