In the ensuing competition between Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles, the Bears and Matt Nagy will be trying to defy an NFL truism: “The team that has two starting quarterbacks has none.”
That’s a particularly daunting situation for the Bears, with their dubious history of quarterbacks since the glory days of Sid Luckman. Most years, even when they have one starting quarterback, they actually have had none.
It’s an unenviable, but not impossible situation. The last time the Bears had a true “open competition” for the starting quarterback position was in 2008, when Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton were even-steven going into training camp. There was little separation in camp and the preseason and coach Lovie Smith went with Orton on a “gut feeling.” Orton was as mediocre as ever in 15 starts (18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, a 79.6 rating). The Bears went 9-7 and missed the playoffs by losing to the Texans in the season finale.
And the instance before that memorably bore fruit — in 2001 when Shane Matthews, Jim Miller and Cade McNown had equal shots at the job entering training camp. Miller’s hamstring injury early in camp helped settle the matter and Matthews was “penciled in” as the starter by coach Dick Jauron after the first preseason game.
As it turned out during that magical season, any quarterback worked. When Matthews was injured in Week 2, Miller replaced him and led the Bears to a comeback victory over the Vikings. When Miller was injured against the 49ers, Matthews trumped him with an even more spectacular rescue in an overtime victory against the 49ers.
A week later, Matthews engineered another frantic finish in regulation as the Bears beat the Browns in overtime — on Mike Brown’s second consecutive game-ending pick-6. The following week, Miller returned and went 4-1 down the stretch as the Bears finished 13-3 to win the NFC Central — after going 19-45 the previous four seasons.
Statistically, the Bears team that had three starting quarterbacks had none — Miller and Matthews combined for 18 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 74.2 rating, which ranked 21st in the league. But, backed by an opportunistic defense, each quarterback made big plays to win games, and the rest was history.
The lesson of both previous open competitions is that there really was no difference — Kyle Orton-or-Rex Grossman; Jim Miller-or-Shane Matthews. The quarterback didn’t make the offense. The offense made the quarterback. It wasn’t like the winner became Kurt Warner or Tom Brady.
That is very likely where the Bears will find themselves this season. Will they have an offense that can make a quarterback out of Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles?
This is unlikely to be a prize fight where one guy wins by a knockout. As the offseason becomes shorter and shorter, the odds increase that it’s going to be a close call. Trubisky has the advantage of incumbency and familiarity. He’s spent two years in Nagy’s offense. He’s developed a rapport with Allen Robinson, the Bears’ leading receiver. Foles has the advantage of not being Mitch Trubisky, and the obvious pedigree of being a former Super Bowl MVP who is familiar with this offense — though not exactly this offense — as well.
So even though the Trubisky-Foles battle will be under an electron microscope whenever training camp begins, the guy with the most to prove is Matt Nagy, who arguably had the biggest regression of all last season. The team with two starting quarterbacks often has none. But with an elite defense, an inventive offensive mind and a dash of pluck, you can still make it work.