The risk and reward, the beauty and beastliness, of Mitch Trubisky the runner
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Mitch Trubisky is an evasive species. He leads NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards because he’s fast, has some moves and has shown a willingness to go the extra yard.
But you can be as evasive as a politician, and it’s not going to protect you from injury in a sport in which large men are intent on causing harm. The Bears and their quarterback learned that last Sunday, when Vikings safety Harrison Smith was penalized for a late hit after a Trubisky run, causing a right shoulder injury that kept the QB out of the Detroit game on Thanksgiving.
Two things are true when it comes to Mitch the runner: One, the Bears can’t afford to regularly expose their most important offensive player to injury and, two, running the ball is one of the things, if not the thing, he does best. Do they want to deprive themselves of that?
Trubisky has rushed for 363 yards and is averaging a very valuable 7.1 yards per carry. That average is as valuable to the Bears as anything else they do on offense.
Did I mention it might get him killed?
You can see the quandary.
When Trubisky decides to take off with the ball, sirens go off for the other team. And the echoes of those sirens are heard not just the rest of that game but in the video sessions of future opponents. A successful run puts defenders, head coaches and defensive coordinators on their heels. The very threat of Trubisky taking off gives coach Matt Nagy’s game plan breathing room. The idea of a Trubisky run, the fear of it, might be just as important as when he actually tucks the ball in and goes.
But fear is an equal-opportunity sleep-depriver. No matter how good Trubisky is as a runner, he opens himself up to the possibility of a big hit whenever he scrambles or executes a designed run. And that has to be on the minds of Nagy, general manager Ryan Pace and ownership whenever their 2017 first-round pick leaves the backfield and seeks adventure. I’m thinking it might be the leading cause of front-office chest tightness.
So, still smarting from the lesson of what happened against the Vikings, do you tell Trubisky to put his legs in storage? The Bears, after all, are in first place in the NFC North and a very good bet to make the playoffs. No matter how well Chase Daniel performed in Trubisky’s absence in a 23-16 victory against the Lions, it’s hard to see the Bears playing to their potential with a guy who has had three starts in a 10-year career. It’s possible, but not something you want to have to find out.
The long-term answer is in Trubisky becoming a better pocket passer and learning how to avoid pass rushers without always having to bolt. The best example of that is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who moves in and out of the way of bloodthirsty defensive linemen and linebackers like a waltzer. No one is expecting Trubisky to be Rodgers, but if he can do a halfway decent imitation of him, it would cut down on his exposure on scrambles.
If Trubisky is going to be the quarterback the Bears need him to be in (what they hope is) a long career, he’ll have to become more of a pocket passer. If you want to hold up Seattle’s Russell Wilson as proof that running quarterbacks can be successful, have at it. But just know that Wilson is incredibly smart about protecting himself when he turns into a runner. Trubisky can learn from Rodgers in that regard, as well. You rarely see the Packers quarterback make himself a target as a runner for opposing defenses.
Bears coaches have been exhorting Trubisky to become better at sliding at the end of run plays to avoid getting hit. You can understand why. He took big shots earlier in the season after several nice runs and lived to tell about it. But sliding doesn’t put bubble wrap around a quarterback, as Smith’s hit on Trubisky’s awkward slide proved.
Hitting is part of football. And running is part of football if your quarterback has wheels. What to do?
‘‘That’s definitely a part of football; that’s where we’re at,’’ Nagy said.
‘‘I think you see it in every game with quarterbacks that can run. That’s a part of the risk-reward.’’
The risk and the reward. A perfect description of the Trubisky situation. And perfectly precarious.