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Incumbency could give Bears’ QB Mitch Trubisky the edge

A shortened NFL preseason schedule will impact the Bears’ QB derby between Trubisky and Nick Foles — but it’s the offense that needs the work as much as the quarterbacks.

Mitch Trubisky will battle veteran Nick Foles for the Bears’ starting quarterback job — whenever training camp begins. The truncated offseason due to COVID-19 could give Trubisky an edge because of his familiarity with Matt Nagy’s offense and his teammates.
Mitch Trubisky will battle veteran Nick Foles for the Bears’ starting quarterback job — whenever training camp begins. The truncated offseason due to COVID-19 could give Trubisky an edge because of his familiarity with Matt Nagy’s offense and his teammates.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Timing is everything. A year ago, if the NFL had canceled the preseason, it would have played right into Bears coach Matt Nagy’s hands. He had no interest in risking injury to his starters before the season. Many starters did not play at all. Others got only token snaps.

But after the offense struggled from the start last season, Nagy changed his mind. And with an open competition at quarterback between incumbent Mitch Trubisky and newcomer Nick Foles, Nagy was more resolute than ever that the Bears needed preseason snaps to get this offense on track and, more important, to decide the winner of the quarterback derby.

As fate would have it, that opportunity is evaporating as the NFL navigates the awkward path of the COVID-19 world of professional sports. The league and the NFL Players Association are negotiating conditions for the safest possible return to on-field play, and the elimination of the entire preseason schedule could be part of that.

The sides agreed on testing protocols Monday that will allow teams to take the first steps toward training camp. Rookies on the Chiefs and Texans were allowed to report to camp Monday. The remaining 30 teams, including the Bears, are scheduled to allow their rookies to report Tuesday. Training camp is scheduled to begin July 28.

According to a memo distributed to NFL teams Monday, players must test negative for COVID-19 “on two occasions separated by 72 hours” before being allowed in their team’s facility. They then will be tested daily for the first two weeks after reporting. After two weeks, testing will be done every other day as long as the overall positive rate is below 5 percent. Testing will be daily as long as the overall positive rate is above 5 percent.

The number of preseason games remains undetermined. But the NFL, which had hoped to settle on two preseason games, offered to play zero preseason games in 2020 on Monday in negotiations with the NFLPA, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

That figures to be a blow to Nagy and the Bears’ offense, which needs as much real work as it can get after a major overhaul in the offseason. There are four new assistant coaches — including coordinator Bill Lazor, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and line coach Juan Castillo — three new tight ends (Jimmy Graham, rookie Cole Kmet, Demetrius Harris) and, of course, Foles.

There’s no doubt that an abbreviated — or nonexistent — preseason will affect the quarterback derby. In theory, it gives Trubisky an edge because of his familiarity with the offense and most of his receivers. Foles might be the people’s choice, but he has been behind from the start with the lack of on-field work in the offseason because of the COVID-19 restrictions. So he has a lot of catching up to do.

“Hopefully, we have plenty of preseason games because I think the most fair way is to let them play on the field,” Lazor said last month of the Trubisky-Foles competition. “So, hopefully, they get an opportunity to do that.”

Be that as it may, the Bears aren’t just looking for a winner in the quarterback derby, but someone who can actually be good at it. Therein lies the real issue with the lack of preseason games — the -offense needs the work even more than the quarterbacks.

With Trubisky and Foles, the offense will make the quarterback as much as the quarterback will make the offense. If the Bears’ offensive line isn’t any better in 2020 than it was in 2019, neither Trubisky nor Foles will be able to consistently put the offense on his shoulders and make something happen, like . . . that guy in Kansas City.

And while the lack of preseason snaps figures to be a detriment to Trubisky and Foles, the total impact is questionable in light of the way the NFL preseason has devolved in recent years. Just because the Bears plan to take the preseason seriously doesn’t mean everyone else will. If the recent trend is any indication, Trubisky and Foles would get limited snaps against first-team NFL defenses, no matter how many exhibition games are played. Their most challenging work still will be against Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack & Co. in training camp.

And that might end up being Nagy’s trump card. If the Bears are limited to one “dress rehearsal” preseason game — or none at all — Nagy can throw caution to the wind and play a preseason game against his own defense. Last year, Nagy used a simulated game at a Halas Hall practice to fill the void of fewer preseason snaps. Take that to another level, with the starting offense against the starting defense, and Trubisky and Foles will get arguably the truest test of where they’re at.

Let’s not forget: It was the Bears’ starting defense that first exposed the flaws in Trubisky and the offense last year in training camp. The Bears argued it was iron sharpening iron. It turned out it was iron obliterating aluminum. But it was an accurate measurement. So with little or no preseason to see what he’s got, Nagy has an option he might not want to dismiss too easily — looking within is still thinking outside the box.