The 2018 NFL season has largely been defined by a second-year quarterback. He came into the 2017 draft as a talented yet unproven commodity, but that didn’t stop his team from rolling the dice to draft him in the top 10 last spring, not knowing whether he would prove worth the risk. This year, that same quarterback has taken the reins and propelled his team to the playoffs in his first full season as a starter. I’m talking, of course, about Mitchell Trubisky.
Before rolling your eyes and clicking out of this tab, let me explain. No, Trubisky hasn’t been the revelation that Patrick Mahomes II—or even Deshaun Watson—has been during their short time in the league. The Trubisky Experience is a nonstop thrill ride that, so far, has often been more frightening than fun. This season, he’s finished four games with a QB rating of at least 120. He’s also finished four with a rating less than 75. He’s equal parts maddening and exciting, splicing a loop of air-mailed throws with Houdini-like escapes that turn likely losses into improbable first downs.
In terms of his impact on the Bears and this NFL season, though, his on-field performance is almost beside the point. Instead, as the centerpiece of the Bears franchise, Trubisky has influenced every level of Chicago’s team-building plan. The Bears made all of their moves this spring with their 24-year-old QB in mind, whether they were in pursuit of improving his play or maximizing his contract value. And that strategy is the reason they’re headed to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Trubisky’s rookie season was a nightmare on every level. He finished the year with seven touchdown passes and seven interceptions, while working in a prehistoric offense that did all it could to hide him. The experiment clearly wasn’t working, and head coach John Fox and his offensive staff were fired in early January. When Chicago’s decision-makers began looking for a new coach, they understood that their next hire needed to be someone who could lift up their young quarterback. Sean McVay’s reclamation of Jared Goff—from worst rookie QB in the history of the league to the leader of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense—was fresh in everyone’s minds, and the Bears’ goal was to create their own version of the Rams’ surprising success story. Enter Matt Nagy, who spent the previous five seasons in Kansas City working under Andy Reid.
By chasing a head coach like Nagy, the Bears made it clear that their no. 1 priority was getting all they could from their young quarterback. In 2017, Reid and Nagy had turned Alex Smith into a viable MVP candidate who piloted a Chiefs offense that finished fourth in DVOA. Chicago hasn’t reached those heights this year, but in his first season in charge, Nagy has done a remarkable job of using both his system and the team’s offensive talent to elevate Trubisky. Through 14 games, Trubisky is above average in both expected points added and success rate, with numbers in both categories that are comparable to quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck. Trubisky deserves some of the credit here; he’s made considerable strides since his rookie season, and his rushing ability has become one of the Bears’ best offensive weapons. But a lot of this has been possible because of Nagy’s masterful play-calling and ability to scheme receivers open to create huge throwing windows.
Hiring Nagy was the first step in the Bears’ Trubisky-centric plan, but it was far from the last. It was crucial to land an offensive-minded head coach that could squeeze the most out of their franchise QB, but that wouldn’t go very far without some drastic upgrades to the receiving corps. Chicago’s top target in 2017 was Kendall Wright, who caught 59 passes for 614 yards. Wright is currently a free agent after he was cut by the Vikings on the eve of the season. The Bears needed wholesale changes in that area, and, oh boy, did they get them. In the early days of free agency, general manager Ryan Pace signed former Jaguars star Allen Robinson (three years, $42 million, with $25 million guaranteed), tight end Trey Burton (four years, $32 million, with $22 million guaranteed), and speedster Taylor Gabriel (four years, $26 million, $14 million guaranteed). Along with 2018 second-round pick Anthony Miller, those four have been the main components of the Bears’ pass-catching group all year.
Trubisky’s connection to the skill position renovations is obvious on a football level, but his influence extends further than that. The financial timeline on most of Chicago’s sizable free-agent deals mirrors that of Trubisky, whose contract jumps to more than $29 million in 2021 if the Bears pick up his fifth-year option. Nearly all of Robinson’s guarantees come in the first two seasons of his contract, and the same goes for Gabriel. Burton would have just $3.75 million in dead cap remaining after the 2019 season. Trubisky’s relatively modest price tag is what allowed Pace to break out the checkbook last March. It also allowed him to make one of the boldest moves in franchise history a few months later.
When the Bears swung a trade for Khalil Mack on Labor Day weekend, snatching him from the Raiders for a host of future draft picks, the suspicion was that Chicago would ink him to a long-term deal sooner rather than later. And that suspicion was quickly proved correct. It took less than a day for the Bears to make Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, signing him to a six-year, $141 million deal with $90 million guaranteed. The Raiders had balked at the idea of paying Mack upward of $23 million a year, in part because Oakland was already set to pay Derek Carr between $21.5 million and $25 million a year over the next three seasons. Compare that to Trubisky, whose combined cap hit during that span is $23.7 million. Mack’s extension looks daunting, but nearly all of his guarantees are packed into the first three years of the deal, which means they’ll be doled out before Trubisky’s fifth-year option (or pricey extension) kicks in. And the Bears’ free-wheeling ways on defense weren’t limited to Mack, either. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman received a contract extension this offseason. Pace matched the four-year, $56 million offer sheet that Kyle Fuller received from the Packers. And Prince Amukamara was retained in free agency on a three-year deal. Chicago was able to keep many of its key defensive pieces while adding the league’s best edge rusher in large part because of the discount it’s getting at quarterback. As a result, the Bears have fielded the most dominant defense in football this season.
There will be a time when the bill comes due, though, and that’s the downside to such an aggressive strategy. In 2021, a large portion of Mack’s guarantees will overlap with Trubisky’s prospective higher price tag. And at some point, the Bears will have to pay Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson, and other defensive cornerstones. But in the interest of winning now and carving out a real window of opportunity—and with the cap exploding each season—that’s a price the Bears are willing to pay.
Making the most out of a rookie QB contract isn’t a new idea. Neither is understanding the importance of surrounding a young passer with a coach and a system that accentuates his talents. The Eagles exhausted every avenue last season to bolster their roster and take advantage of Carson Wentz’s rookie deal. Howie Roseman traded for players like Ronald Darby and Timmy Jernigan; he signed Alshon Jeffery to a one-year deal that eventually led to a multiyear extension. The Rams have also made similar moves over the past two years. Hiring McVay to revive Goff was an essential step on the franchise’s path to relevance. And this offseason, general manager Les Snead took a cue from the Eagles and bolstered the roster by trading for Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib, and Marcus Peters while also signing Ndamukong Suh.
What makes the Bears different in this rookie QB arms race, though, is their timing. Unlike the Eagles and Rams—and likely because of the lessons Chicago learned from both—the Bears made all of their moves in concert. Doug Pederson was already in place before the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz. McVay and Goff were entering their second season together when Snead went on his spending spree. And in both cases, each franchise had a pretty good idea that their quarterback was worth building around before they started shelling out cash. The Bears had no such comfort. When Pace pushed all his chips into the table this offseason, he had no assurances that the QB he’d drafted second overall in 2017 would even become an average passer in the NFL. But that didn’t stop him from going after an offensive-minded head coach and signing a flurry of free-agent deals to take advantage of that contract in one fell swoop.
Pace understood that the window to maximize the value of a rookie QB is small, and there’s no time to waste waiting to see whether that quarterback will pan out. The Bears executed their plan in the dark, and their steadfast commitment to that plan has brought them into the light. Both fans and pundits will spend the next two weeks wondering whether Trubisky can be good enough to lead the Bears to the Super Bowl. Whatever the answer is, his presence—and the Bears’ grasp of the larger implications surrounding him—is the reason they have any chance at all.