Minutes after the Bears’ 21-9 wild-card loss Sunday to the Saints, Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky took some time to thank his teammates in the locker room.
Trubisky singled out offensive linemen Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno — ‘‘Those guys, among others, mean so much to me,’’ he said — who have protected him throughout his four-year career with the Bears.
But Trubisky didn’t want the emotional moment to serve as a goodbye. A free agent in March, Trubisky said he wants to return to the Bears next season.
‘‘I think I can definitely see myself back here next year,’’ he said. ‘‘Obviously, a lot of that is out of my control, but it feels like home and it feels like we have unfinished business.
‘‘Right now, I’m just bummed about this season being over and how the game went. So [I have] a lot of emotions going on right now. But I can see that. We’ll see. There are a lot of things that have to happen and a lot of decisions that have to be made, and that’s out of my control. But I can see that.’’
It was a different response than Trubisky gave last month, when he said that ‘‘thoughts come and go’’ about free agency.
The more important question, of course, is whether the Bears want him back.
General manager Ryan Pace showed what he thought of Trubisky when the Bears didn’t pick up their fifth-year option on him last offseason. Coach Matt Nagy did the same when he benched Trubisky in Week 3.
After returning to replace Nick Foles, however, Trubisky appeared to be a revelation against three teams that combined to win a quarter of their games.
Against the two best teams in the NFC the last two weeks, though, Trubisky posted an 88.4 passer rating that looks an awful lot like his career 87.2 mark. That includes the garbage-time drive at the end of the game Sunday that yielded 92 of his 199 passing yards, nine of his 19 completions and his only touchdown pass.
Before the 99-yard drive, which ended with a touchdown catch by Jimmy Graham at the gun, the Bears had punted seven times and were 0-for-9 on third downs.
Does that qualify as progress? Does this season?
‘‘I feel like I’ve gotten better over these four years and, really, this season,’’ Trubisky said. ‘‘It’s been tough. There’s been some ups and downs. But I’m proud of where I’m at and where we battled and how we got better over the year.’’
A breakup might benefit both sides. Trubisky finally could shed the expectations of being drafted above stars Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in 2017.
Of any team in the NFL, however, the Bears could offer Trubisky the clearest path to a starting job. With Foles under contract, they could give Trubisky a prove-it deal and draft a quarterback.
But if the game against the Saints was the end, it was a microcosm of his career with the Bears — one in which he failed to make instinctive plays but also got little help from his teammates.
Late in the first quarter, Trubisky split right as a receiver when the Bears put running back David Montgomery in the shotgun in a wildcat formation. Montgomery handed off to Cordarrelle Patterson, who pitched to Trubisky on an end-around.
Rolling left, Trubisky stopped and threw a heat-seeking strike five yards into the end zone — only for receiver Javon Wims, with no one covering him, to drop it.
‘‘It was a touchdown,’’ Trubisky said. ‘‘You don’t get a lot of opportunities like that and get your guy pretty wide-open behind the safety.’’
Wims, who before Sunday had three targets and no catches in the last month, was the Bears’ No. 3 receiver only because do-everything rookie Darnell Mooney missed the game with an ankle injury. By the middle of the third quarter, Wims was functioning as the team’s No. 2 receiver because — in an act of monumental stupidity — Anthony Miller was ejected for punching Saints cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson, a noted pest.
There were moments, however, when Trubisky was his own worst enemy.
Three plays after Wims’ drop and immediately after a timeout, the Bears went for it on fourth-and-four from the Saints’ 34. Trubisky scrambled right and held the ball out with his right hand, as though planning to stretch it toward the yard marker. But he slowed to stutter-step, was caught by Gardner-Johnson from behind and wound up out of bounds, two yards short.
Then with the Bears down 11 on third-and-eight late in the third quarter, Trubisky dumped the ball off to receiver DeAndre Carter a yard short of the line of scrimmage. That left Carter, whose last catch was in Week 1 with the Texans, to have to run nine yards for a first down. He gained four.
Maybe the Bears have seen enough. Maybe the feeling is mutual. Trubisky still was trying to process it all.
‘‘It’s tough, and you try not to think about too far down the line and take it one day at a time,’’ Trubisky said. ‘‘I know there’s decisions that are going to be made this offseason.’’