There’s much more than the postseason at stake for quarterback Mitch Trubisky when he returns from a shoulder injury.
He’s playing for at least $100 million.
If Trubisky makes the strides the Bears have yearned for during the next 11 games, assuming he comes back Sunday against the Saints, that would put a contract extension up for serious discussion in the offseason. Based on recent deals, Trubisky would be in line for something around four years and $120 million.
At minimum, general manager Ryan Pace must decide after the season whether he wants to exercise the 2021 team option that will cost at least $22 million.
All of those financial factors fuel the urgency for Pace and coach Matt Nagy to decide if Trubisky is worth the investment in terms of money and time. With a championship-ready defense and a strong set of skill players, the Bears are at risk of missing their shot.
Teams always hesitate to part with a highly drafted quarterback unless he’s a total mess.
Trubisky already has proved he’s better than that. As long as he’s viable, it’ll be difficult for Pace to concede that he got it wrong by trading up and taking him No. 2 overall in 2017 — a move that already looks like a whiff because he bypassed Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. And with few coaches enjoying legitimate job security, anyone in Nagy’s shoes would rather try to make it work with Trubisky than endure the pain and risks of starting over.
That’s why most teams opt for the extension, even if they fear the quarterback might never make the leap.
There’s more desperation for bare-minimum competency at this position than any other, which is why Kirk Cousins will surpass $130 million in career earnings next year. It’s why Alex Smith lasted eight years with the 49ers even though the first six were dreadful.
And it’s why the Bears will more than likely keep waiting for — and paying — Trubisky, even if he keeps playing below his perceived potential.
After a summer of Nagy proclaiming he was primed for a big season, Trubisky has seen all of his numbers dip. In three full games, he completed 65.1 percent of his passes, averaged 193 yards, had three touchdown passes (all against the Redskins) against two interceptions and posted an 81.3 passer rating. Chase Daniel, who will start against the Saints if Trubisky is unable to go, outperformed him over two games in his absence.
There has been little evidence of meaningful progress from Trubisky, and this is the harsh question the Bears need to start contemplating when it comes to quarterback: Do you want to be the Dolphins?
Obviously, nobody wants to be them now as they flounder along as the worst team in the NFL, but they didn’t arrive there overnight. Their recent quarterback history is a cautionary tale for the Bears or any other team in that perpetual state of trying to figure out if it has the right guy.
The Dolphins took Ryan Tannehill eighth overall in 2012 despite his limited time as a college starter. Sound familiar? After a supposed breakthrough in Year 3, when he was 14th in the league with a 92.8 passer rating, the Dolphins gave him a four-year, $96 million extension and spent the entirety of that contract still uncertain if he was good.
They stuck with him for six seasons before injuries finally made the decision for them. Over that time, Tannehill was neither disastrous nor dazzling. His 87.7 passer rating — Trubisky’s is 87.0, by the way — ranked 33rd among players with at least 300 attempts.
In an era in which passing is the most important aspect of the game, the Dolphins were 25th in the NFL in yardage through the air and went 52-60 with one playoff appearance during the Tannehill years. They traded him to the Titans for late-round draft picks in March.
Other teams have gone through their own, slightly less painful version of this quandary with quarterbacks.
The Redskins’ indecision led them to franchise-tag Cousins two consecutive years for a total of nearly $44 million, and now the Vikings have buyer’s remorse after giving him $84 million guaranteed over three seasons. The Buccaneers and Titans seem like they’re headed down that path, as well. They exercised $20.9 million team options on Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, respectively.
Incidentally, the Titans benched Mariota this week and plan to start Tannehill against the Chargers on Sunday.
It’s expensive to keep these guys, and the longer a team waits to make the call, the more it delays the necessary reset. The Dolphins’ stalling eventually sunk them to the point where they might go 0-16 this season.
The Bears’ outlook isn’t nearly as bleak because they’re so well-stocked at many other positions, but they’ve already seen that poor quarterback play can undercut everything. Considering their incredible defense, imagine where they’d be if they weren’t in the bottom 10 in total yardage, points and passer rating.
It would take an overwhelming performance to justify negotiating a long-term contract with Trubisky in the upcoming offseason, but pulling the trigger on his 2021 option makes sense. Fifth-year options are guaranteed only in the case of injury, which means the Bears could take another season to analyze their choices.
Trubisky can make it an easy decision for them, but that goal becomes even more difficult because of the injury. Even with it being his non-throwing shoulder, it’s going to have an effect. If he’s back against New Orleans, he also will encounter a string of opponents with strong pass defenses.
It doesn’t seem ideal in the short term, but it might be the most helpful scenario for Pace and Nagy in their ongoing evaluation. If Trubisky can overcome a slow start to the season, a significant injury and a struggling offensive line and knock off some playoff-caliber teams to get the Bears back on top, that would create a strong argument for opening the checkbook.
But he needs to be a factor in winning. If he’s just a passenger, the Bears need to find someone else. They can’t lock themselves into years of mediocrity.