Within a five-play span in the last two minutes of the first half against the Rams last week, Mitch Trubisky had two opportunities to play quarterback and make something happen. And all he got out of them was a seven-yard gain and a hip pointer.
On second-and-11 from the Bears’ 44, Rams outside linebacker Dante Fowler jumped offside just before the snap, giving Trubisky a free play — the kind of play in which Aaron Rodgers throws a 30-yard pass to Jordy Nelson or James Jones. But instead of throwing downfield, Trubisky threw a safe pass underneath to running back Tarik Cohen for a seven-yard gain.
Four plays later, on third-and-eight from the Rams’ 37 — the fringe of field-goal territory — with 39 seconds left, Trubisky was flushed out of the pocket and had a chance to create an opportunity with his mobility. He tried to make something happen, but nothing did. Without a receiver open, Trubisky was sacked by cornerback Troy Hill and suffered a hip pointer when defensive lineman Michael Brockers’ knee hit Trubisky’s side.
Those plays are a good illustration of the futility of Trubisky and the Bears’ offense this season — the inability to make the most out of an advantageous situation and the inability to make a big play out of a bad one.
Coach Matt Nagy absolved Trubisky of blame on the free play. Just their luck, the Bears did not have a downfield route to take advantage of the freebie.
“The Packers do a good job of [that],” Nagy said. “[Rodgers has] done that for his whole career. He does a great job with cadence, and when they do get that free play, there’s a gray area of whether the refs are going to let it go, No. 1. But when they do, do you have a check to be able to go vertical with that throw? Some teams do it, and some teams don’t. On that play, we didn’t have anything where we had guys going vertical, so he threw it down below.”
As for the scramble play, Trubisky said he just made a bad decision to hang on to the ball. But even that, he admitted, is a second-guess for a freak play.
“Probably just run out of bounds,” Trubisky said. “Trying to extend the play, just create more time for guys to scramble drill, get open downfield. I get down to try to protect myself, and it’s just unfortunate that you take a knee into the wrong spot. It happens.
“But it’s a part of the game. Maybe just run out of bounds or do something different next time. Hindsight is 20/20.”
Bad decisions. Bad luck. Bad timing. In what is becoming a lost season, Trubisky is sinking into Jay Cutler territory of disappointment — there’s always something. The implosion of the Bears’ offense isn’t all on Trubisky; Nagy and the offensive line are right there with him at the top in terms of culpability.
The reason Trubisky’s status as the Bears’ franchise quarterback — which seemed at least promising after last season — is in tatters right now is because the 2017 No. 2 overall draft pick has shown little to no indication he can rise above the muck. All systems have to be go and every piece has to be in place for him to succeed. He has shown the athleticism and mobility to escape pass rushers, but not the intuition or instinct it takes for a quarterback to make a big play out of a bad one.
And irrespective of the Rams game, when Trubisky has had similar opportunities — free plays and scramble plays — he rarely if ever has made the most of them. Last year, he used his mobility more to pick up first downs with his feet. It was a pretty effective weapon. But the next level is using your feet to make plays downfield with your arm. And Trubisky doesn’t appear even close to doing that.
The Bears’ coaching staff is trying to bring that instinctive play out of Trubisky.
“We constantly tell him, ‘Look, trust your eyes, play instinctual football,’ ” quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone said. “You can’t be a robot at quarterback at this level. No chance.”
Therein lies the great divide between those on the outside who watch Trubisky and can’t see the “it” factor anywhere and his coaches at Halas Hall, who see a quarterback with instinctive qualities that just haven’t shown up yet. How can he have those qualities if we haven’t seen them yet?
“That’s a great question,” Ragone said. “Rodgers is a great example. Everybody tells the quarterback, if you get the guy to jump, then take your shot. But that’s a lot to process in, really, a second [of time]. The one thing we have seen from [Trubisky] is, we do believe in his instincts.”
Ragone points to Trubisky’s nimble feet and ability to escape as evidence.
“To be able to instinctively move in the pocket when everything is coming at you and find a way to get out of it,” he said, “you can drill that all you want. [But] for a quarterback to be able to move and get out unscathed, to me, that’s instincts in the pocket — things you can’t coach.
“Do I think he’s an instinctual player and can be as he continues to play more and more games? Absolutely.”
Trubisky’s flashes of excellence this season could be evidence of his potential or fool’s gold. Six of his nine touchdown passes came against the Redskins and Lions — two of the worst pass defenses in the league. Two other touchdown passes came in garbage time in a blowout loss to the Saints. Trubisky’s only other touchdown pass came against the Rams — a 14-yard pass to Cohen in the third quarter.
And much of that success has come in brief spates of offensive effectiveness. The three touchdown passes against the Redskins came on consecutive drives in a 12:40 span. The three touchdown passes against the Lions also came on consecutive drives in a 10:02 span.
It’s almost like Trubisky is effective in two situations: when the offense has momentum and rhythm, and in hurry-up or desperation modes when everything is bang-bang and there’s less time to think. Some examples: the ill-fated final drive against the Eagles in the playoff game, the final drive to beat the Broncos this season, the ill-fated final drive against the Chargers, the no-huddle touchdown drive at the end of the first half against the Lions.
“I think every time when you’re sitting there in a two-minute situation,” Ragone said, “you’re less thinking about, is it second-and-eight? And more thinking about, OK, here we go — let’s go. Keep-the-foot-on-the-gas type of mentality.”
The trick, Ragone said, is to “capture that and spread that out through consistency.” But Trubisky and this offense have been unable to do that. And it’s getting late. The Bears believe in Trubisky, but if he’s healthy enough to play, these last six games will be as much about evaluation as development.
“Through 16 games of the regular season, we’ll see how it plays out,” Ragone said. “[Seeing] where he goes from here — game by game by game — and measuring him . . . and seeing where his progress is on some of the instinctual plays, not just throw 1A, throw here or throw there. There was nothing there, and you took off. Let’s see exactly how you did in those situations.’’
Slowly but surely, you can feel the momentum moving toward reality about Trubisky. Almost certainly, it will be an interesting offseason evaluation inside Halas Hall.