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Can Mitchell Trubisky Really End the Bears’ Postseason Drought?

The Chicago QB has shown plenty of progress in his second season, his first under coach Matt Nagy. But sometimes it’s still difficult to tell whether he’s galvanizing his team or holding it back.

Mitchell Trubisky’s back with his hands on his helmet Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Let’s play a game, one that can be both wildly misleading and also very informative. Here are a few stats from two mystery NFL quarterbacks:

Player A: 2,304 yards, 65.5 percent completion, 19 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 101.6 passer rating, 7.9 Y/A

Player B: 2,385 yards, 61.2 percent completion, 16 touchdowns, four interceptions, 101.5 passer rating, 8.5 Y/A

They’re basically a wash, right? Now, unlike most versions of this exercise, I’m not going to ask you to guess who the players are. This is an article about Mitchell Trubisky, after all, so you’ve probably determined that one of these players is the Bears QB. That player is Player A, and those numbers are from Trubisky’s first nine games of the 2018 season, his second in the league. Player B is Jared Goff, and his numbers are from the first nine games of last season, his second in the league.

It’s almost too fitting that Trubisky and Goff have such eerily similar stats through the first half of their second seasons, as the Bears and Rams were repeatedly linked stylistically in the offseason (and Trubisky and Goff even lived and trained together over the summer). After Trubisky’s relatively mediocre 2017 rookie campaign under head coach John Fox, the Bears brought Matt Nagy over from the Chiefs in January in hopes that he could install a progressive scheme that would help their young passer blossom like Sean McVay did with Goff when he took the Rams job in 2017. Goff had a historically awful rookie year within Jeff Fisher’s system, but he had a solid sophomore season with McVay installed as his play caller and is now on the fringe of MVP consideration.

The Bears naturally hope that Trubisky could have a similar progression under Nagy, and based on the numbers above and his performance this season, that seems possible. The Bears passer has been good enough to lead the team to an NFC North lead and a 6-3 record—which is as many wins as the Bears have had in any season since 2013. And don’t fool yourself into thinking those wins have come solely because of the team’s dominant defense: Chicago is the only team in the league that ranks in the top 10 in DVOA on both offense (10th) and defense (first). The Bears are also seventh in passing offense DVOA and ninth in rushing, which makes Chicago one of the best all-around teams in football judging by advanced stats.

But look under the hood, and it’s clear Trubisky isn’t Goff. This season, Trubisky has been prone to inconsistent play, missing easy throws and making bizarre decisions. It’s been tough to get an accurate read on him and the team, especially when all six of the teams the Bears have beaten—the Seahawks, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Jets, Bills, and Lions—currently have losing records.

This week, Chicago will play the Vikings on Sunday Night Football—a true test of whether Trubisky and the Bears have what it takes to win the NFC North this year. But to determine whether Trubisky is the real deal, we’ll have to look beyond the surface-level stats.

It’s both a compliment and somewhat of an indictment that the first thing that stands out about Trubisky’s game is his ability to run the football. He’s been the best rushing QB in the NFL this season, averaging 7.8 yards per carry—by far the most of any QB with at least 20 carries—for a total of 320 yards on the ground (second among QBs) and three rushing touchdowns (tied for second). My favorite Trubisky run this year came against the Dolphins in Week 6. Look how hard the cameraman bites on the fake handoff:

If only Trubisky hadn’t tripped. I think he was so shocked by how much open space he had that his feet just stopped working. Nagy designs a few of these plays for Trubisky each game, and they’re particularly effective in the red zone, where the Bears have scored touchdowns on 65.6 percent of their trips (12th in the league). Take this play against the Lions in Week 10, when Nagy split four receivers out to stretch the defense horizontally and then sent Trubisky on a rush behind a block from running back Jordan Howard for a 4-yard score:

Of course, not all Trubisky runs are planned out. When plays break down, the QB is capable of making magic happen with his legs. This play against the Patriots in Week 7, for instance, was just ridiculous:

That ability makes Trubisky dangerous—but it’s also something he’s become overly reliant on as he’s developed bad habits elsewhere. He often drops his eyes in the face of oncoming pressure and frequently scrambles with the intention of running rather than looking for an outlet to pass. Trubisky also panics with rushers in his face, which explains why his passer rating falls from 10th in the NFL overall to 21st when he’s blitzed. Trubisky’s rushing ability puts plenty of stress on NFL defenses, but he’s not much of a threat as a passer when facing pressure.

Trubisky’s second-most defining trait is his aggressiveness as a passer. He leads the NFL in deep passing percentage, according to Pro Football Focus, with 19.3 percent of his throws targeted 20 yards or more down the field. Even Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes II, who is second in that metric among QBs who have started at least seven games this season, throws it deep on only 15.9 percent of his passes.

Unfortunately for the Bears, that high percentage of downfield throws hasn’t translated into consistent success. Trubisky’s passer rating of 92.9 on deep passes ranks just 19th in the NFL among qualified QBs, according to PFF. Eli Manning has technically been a more efficient downfield thrower than Trubisky this season.

Still, going deep that often puts pressure on defenses to defend the whole field. And Trubisky does occasionally make highlight-worthy throws—I particularly enjoyed this pass that split two Lions defenders:

And though this touchdown from the team’s Week 4 win against the Bucs isn’t technically a deep pass, it shows some of the touch Trubisky can display when he does need to loft the football downfield:

Trubisky’s accuracy struggles don’t just apply to deep throws—he ranks third in the NFL in overall off-target passes, according to Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar (21.5 percent of his throws miss the mark). It doesn’t even matter if he’s under pressure or not. He misses throws in a variety of ways: Passes sometimes travel too far, or hit a receiver too low, or arrive too late in the play. Those plays wouldn’t be too concerning on their own—every QB has their misses. What is concerning, though, are the throws when it’s not clear who Trubisky is even passing to, like this bizarre side-armed toss against the Jets in Week 8:

Those off-target throws can lead to some of the ugliest interceptions you’ll ever see, like this one against the Bills in Week 9:

Last but not least, Trubisky has benefitted from some luck. His receivers have dropped only 2.1 percent of his passes, tied for the lowest rate in football. If that number regresses to the mean, Trubisky’s second-half numbers won’t look nearly as good as his first. And for the Bears to have a chance to compete in their division, and the NFC overall, that can’t happen.

Overall, Trubisky is a tough passer to evaluate. Despite all the negative aspects of his game, he is having a stellar season by box score numbers, ranking inside the top 10 in adjusted net yards per attempt, passer rating, touchdown percentage, and ESPN’s total quarterback rating. And while it’s true that Nagy has used screen passes and easier throws to help the offense stay on track, Trubisky deserves credit for executing those plays and helping make the Bears a playoff contender (according to The New York Times, they have a 73 percent chance of making the postseason).

But Trubisky has also shown enough flaws that it’s not yet clear what his future holds. In order to become the franchise QB Chicago envisioned when it took him second overall in the 2017 draft, Trubisky will need to become more consistent and accurate. But that’s a goal Bears fans can put off for future seasons.

Right now, he’s been good enough to lead a well-schemed offense to the top of the NFC North, and he has Chicago on track to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2010 season. In that sense, at least, he’s had a similar progression to what Goff went through in his second year. Trubisky’s next step will be actually getting his team to the playoffs, and this week will provide a tough divisional test. He will have to show that his positive attributes can continue to outweigh the negative ones.