It’s time for Mitch Trubisky to rewrite the book on Bears quarterbacks
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Here’s a true story: In 2001, former quarterback Jim Miller predicted a major turnaround for the Bears after their 5-11 record a season earlier. He even wrote it down on a piece of paper during the offseason program.
The prediction was put in the desk of Dean Pope, now an assistant video director for the Bears, for safekeeping.
‘‘He told him to lock it up in the drawer, and when the season ended, he brings it out,’’ Bears radio broadcaster Jeff Joniak said. ‘‘It was 13-3. I watched it with my own eyes.
‘‘[Former coach] Dick Jauron told me after that season that if Jim could have just stayed healthy, he would have been a difference-maker. But it just wasn’t meant to be.’’
That’s a true story, too.
The Eagles ended the Bears’ season with a 33-19 victory at Soldier Field in the divisional round of the playoffs. But it was a close game that changed with a cheap shot. As every fan will remember, Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas injured Miller with a body slam after an interception. Douglas later was fined for it.
‘‘I felt really good about that team coming out of training camp,’’ Miller said. ‘‘I predicted that we’d go 13-3 before the season, and that’s exactly what we went. Unfortunately, I got injured and couldn’t finish the deal. And that’s unfortunate.’’
It’s part of the Bears’ history when it comes to their quarterbacks and the playoffs. Miller’s storybook season ended abruptly, but Mitch Trubisky’s story is just beginning.
Trubisky already has had his turnaround. The Bears are 12-4 and NFC North champions. Now it’s time for Trubisky to win in the playoffs, starting Sunday against the Eagles.
Forget about Grossman
Miller remembers the vitriol. It was there in the morning papers for him to read, regardless of the Bears’ unexpected revival in 2001.
‘‘When I played there, there were guys writing like [former Sun-Times columnist] Jay Mariotti, who was spewing straight venom the whole time,’’ said Miller, a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio. ‘‘Everywhere you go, know where you can hide. Everybody knows who you are, and you know what you represent and what you’re supposed to do. Mitch has handled that well.
‘‘You can never get away from it, and Mitch has done a great job of balancing being a first-round pick and being a Bears quarterback — [and] in a huge market where football is everything. He’s done a fantastic job.’’
Part of the criticism of Trubisky has included comparisons to the past. Good Rex, Bad Rex turned into Good Mitch, Bad Mitch.
But comparing Trubisky to Rex Grossman, the Bears’ starting quarterback during their run to Super Bowl XLI in February 2007, always had it faults.
Forget the stats, too. (Trubisky is better.) Grossman was in his fourth season in 2006. It also was his first as a full-time starter for former coach Lovie Smith, who didn’t draft him; Jauron, another defensive-minded coach, did before his final season.
By 2006, Grossman was with his third offensive coordinator in Ron Turner after learning under Terry Shea and John Shoop. It was a Jay Cutler-like experience before Cutler even arrived.
General manager Ryan Pace has provided Trubisky with a completely different situation. He paired with him coach Matt Nagy and invested around him through free agency and the draft.
Not once did Nagy say, ‘‘Mitch is our quarterback,’’ this season Everyone knows it.
‘‘We have a lot of unselfish guys on our team, but [Trubisky] is at the top,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘He doesn’t care whether he throws five touchdown passes or hands the ball off for five. That’s just who we are. Then defensively, it’s the same way. We’re all about ‘we’ and ‘us,’ not about ‘me’ and ‘I.’ He’s the leader of all that.’’
Forget about Cutler, too
During training camp in Bourbonnais, Miller laid things out for Trubisky. He told him he was considered the fourth-best quarterback in the division behind Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins.
‘‘I think it bothered him that nobody had given the Bears a chance,’’ Miller said. ‘‘You can tell that; there was an edge to him. He just fought through everything [this season]. The cream rises to the top, and here he is: the one quarterback out of the NFC North. He’s the one leading his team into the playoffs.’’
Similar to Trubisky, Cutler reached the playoffs in his second season with the Bears in 2010. He had a great defense to help him, too. But this season feels different.
Unlike Cutler, the Bears have built around Trubisky because they believe in him. As Miller said, he’s ‘‘the investment.’’ Fair or unfair, that wasn’t the case with Cutler in 2010.
When the Bears’ philosophies changed under former GM Phil Emery, it was too late. Cutler’s connection with former coach Marc Trestman eventually splintered.
Nagy’s relationship with Trubisky, meanwhile, helped him connect with his entire team.
‘‘He’s a young leader at a very valuable position, a position that I know,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘I feel like I have a good temperament on how things go. People will always go to the quarterback, and the quarterback has a good gauge for where guys are at.’’
During Cutler’s eight-year run with the Bears, he brought stability but also tumult to the most important position in sports. Some of it was his fault, some of it wasn’t. But the Bears certainly wanted more than two playoff games from him when they acquired him from the Broncos.
Cutler’s postseason ended in disappointment, too. He injured a ligament in his knee against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, remained on the sideline and didn’t return.
It was just another chapter in the Bears’ quarterback history. It’s on Trubisky to rewrite the entire book.
‘‘He’s got the mental makeup,’’ Miller said. ‘‘He’s got the toughness that you need at that position. And he’s an extremely talented young man. He’s just going to get better and better. . . .
‘‘We’ll see what unfolds. But he’s got that type of talent, and he’s serious about the position. He’s serious about his craft. He’s the perfect quarterback for the Chicago Bears.’’
Rookie vs. All-Pro
In Week 14, rookie left guard James Daniels showed why he’s a building block for the Bears’ offensive line. With the help of center Cody Whitehair, Daniels slowed down Rams superstar Aaron Donald.
In 68 plays, Donald finished with two tackles and one quarterback hit. The hit came against backup right guard Bryan Witzmann on a screen to running back Tarik Cohen.
That performance makes the Bears feel good about Daniels’ matchup against Eagles defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Haloti Ngata on Sunday. Cox had 10½ sacks during the regular season and was named a first-team All-Pro on Friday.
‘‘We like where [Daniels is] headed,’’ offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. ‘‘He’s a guy that is kind of quietly confident. He’s naturally a quiet guy, and the more you’re around him, I think he just has that calmness.
‘‘We believe in him. It’s not a situation where we are going: ‘Hey, we have to turn this way or that way or the other.’ He’s going to have some tough matchups, and we expect him to win them.’’
A humble Howard
The only thing that has changed about running back Jordan Howard during the course of the season is his production. And coach Matt Nagy appreciates that.
‘‘He’s been the same,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘He really has been the same from the start. Nothing has changed. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He just comes out and just does his job.’’
Howard failed to reach 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his three seasons, but he matched his touchdown total from last season with nine. He ran for a season-high 109 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears’ 24-10 victory against the Vikings in Week 17.
‘‘If he has a game where he didn’t have a lot of yards or his yards per carry was low or he didn’t have a lot of attempts, any natural human being in that situation is going to be frustrated because they want to be able to help,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘But he hasn’t really done that. And even after a game like this that he just had — 100 yards, a couple of touchdowns — it’s the same.’’
Q: So why haven’t the Bears used Javon Wims more? Earlier in the year, you mentioned he was a vertical threat, only with limited route-running. Sure looked good on Sunday. Will he be used more for the playoffs? — @kgod1226
A: Wims needed to develop, and he obviously got time to do that throughout the season. Why didn’t he play more? The Bears simply see more in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller right now. Matt Nagy’s offense is complicated, and all three players have made their mistakes this season. All that said, Wims definitely showed something against the Vikings. He made two big third-down catches and has something to build on now. If it were up to me, I’d keep him active for Sunday. At the very least, it would give the Eagles more to prepare for and watch on the field during the game.
Q: Do you see the Eagles’ offensive tackles (both have Pro Bowl credentials) being able to neutralize Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, et al.? — @iJoeMarino
A: Here’s the thing: Jason Peters and Lane Johnson might be able to handle Mack and Floyd in more one-on-one situations than other tackle tandems, but the Bears’ pass rush is diverse. The mere focus on Mack and Floyd opens the door for others. Akiem Hicks is obviously a factor, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has excelled at dialing up the right blitzes and pressures at the right times. Linebacker Roquan Smith’s speed is a threat. He had five sacks, and Danny Trevathan had two. In other words, the Bears have ways of manufacturing pressure even if Mack and Floyd are held in check. Besides, I don’t think Mack will be contained.
Q: Do you think Ryan Pace has a contingency plan should Vic Fangio take a head-coach position? — @InExcelsisDale
A: Promoting secondary coach Ed Donatell would make sense. He has been a defensive coordinator at three stops in his long career, including the Packers in 2000-03. But Donatell is close with Fangio. They’ve been together since 2011. I also think it’s on Nagy to have the contingency plan. He’ll have options if Fangio leaves. Don’t forget he’s close with former Jets coach Todd Bowles.