Submitted without comment.
Why did the Bears draft Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson?
By Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell
Chicago Tribune |
Nov 12, 2019 | 5:40 AM
The sports covers of the Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star and Houston Chronicle on April 28, 2017 — the day after the Bears, Chiefs and Texans drafted quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stepped to the lectern. “With the second pick in the 2017 NFL draft ...”
I: ‘The Chicago Bears select Mitchell Trubisky’
The cameras were rolling behind the scenes on that Thursday night in April. In Lake Forest and in Philadelphia. In this document-and-share age, the landmark moment required immediate cinematic treatment.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace had sent a jolt through the draft, trading up from No. 3 to No. 2 to select North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
It was a surprising and pivotal moment, arguably the franchise’s most significant move of the past decade. With so much adrenaline pumping, the cameras kept rolling, gathering moments that the organization could splice together for a fan-enticing social media montage.
The resulting video — 1 minute, 51 seconds — premiered on the Bears’ official Twitter account the next morning.
From inside the Draft room
to the congratulatory phone call,
you don't get more behind-the-scenes access than this.#NFLDraft #BearsDraft pic.twitter.com/B7dDZF0Nmz
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) April 28, 2017
There was Pace, upstairs at Halas Hall, congratulating colleagues in the draft room and emphasizing the collective belief the Bears had in identifying Trubisky as the quarterback they just couldn’t live without.
“That’s conviction,” Pace said. “On a quarterback.”
There was Trubisky, 790 miles away, backstage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, beaming with pride while on the phone with Bears coach John Fox.
“I’m glad I landed in the right spot,” the 22-year-old quarterback said. “We’re going to make it work. It’s going to be perfect.”
April 27, 2017.
The Trubisky selection was the first of three milestone quarterback moves that night.
Within a span of 1 hour, 14 minutes, three general managers got what they wanted. Each traded up in the first round. Each took a bold swing at a franchise quarterback. And after their war-room hugs and high-fives and celebrations were complete, each openly detailed that night’s meaningful decision.
With an undeniable rush, Pace expounded upon his philosophy of never having regrets, about making damn certain he would get the player he truly wanted. He highlighted Trubisky’s accuracy, his ability to see and process the entire field, his knack for extending plays. He emphasized his unwavering belief that Trubisky had great “potential to be a championship quarterback,” the key cog in allowing the Bears to enjoy sustained success.
“When you have an opportunity to get a quarterback of this caliber, you can't pass on it,” Pace said.
Tribune flashback: Bears go all-in, engineer jaw-dropping trade to draft QB Mitch Trubisky »
In Kansas City, GM John Dorsey jumped 17 spots — from No. 27 to No. 10 — to select Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs already had a reliable quarterback in veteran Alex Smith and a playoff-caliber team that had won 12 games the previous season. Still, in Mahomes, Dorsey and his talent evaluation team saw a transcendent talent with comic-book arm strength, impressive athleticism and a penchant for creating big plays.
Finally, in Houston, the Texans were preparing to plaster Clemson’s Deshaun Watson all over the city — on billboards, on media guides, on ticket stubs. Who wouldn’t be excited about landing a quarterback who posted a 32-3 record as a college starter, becoming a Heisman Trophy runner-up and a national champion in the process?
No wonder Texans GM Rick Smith felt compelled to trade up from No. 25 to No. 12.
As it always goes on draft weekend, each organization felt invigorated, sensing unbridled promise for its future. But now, a little more than 2½ years later, the review of that night and that entire pre-draft process feels so much different.
In Kansas City, Mahomes is the reigning league MVP, a walking YouTube montage of touchdown darts and look-away dimes and ambidextrous magic. In his first 27 starts, including two playoff games, he has posted 16 300-yard passing games, 16 games with at least three touchdown passes and 11 games with both.
In Houston, Watson’s statistical production and galvanizing leadership have the Texans staring through a wide-open window of opportunity with a chance to remain Super Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future.
Here in Chicago? Trubisky’s erratic play has become a major civic crisis with the bottom of the Bears’ once-hopeful season in danger of falling out. In the most agitated pockets of the fan base, calls for 33-year-old journeyman Chase Daniel echoed throughout the recent four-game losing streak.
In mid-November of the quarterbacks’ third seasons, the statistical comparisons are startling.
Trubisky: 35 starts (including one playoff start), 7,109 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, an 87.2 rating and a 19-16 record.
Mahomes: 27 starts (including two playoff starts), 8,580 passing yards, 71 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, a 111.5 rating and a 19-8 record.
Watson: 32 starts (including one playoff start), 8,531 passing yards, 64 touchdowns, 23 interceptions, a 102.7 rating and a 20-12 record.
When the offseason arrives, there’s a strong likelihood Mahomes and Watson will sign contract extensions that register as the most lucrative deals in league history. Meanwhile, Trubisky’s development has gone wayward with the organization’s faith in him being tested.
Can Mitch Trubisky be the one to rewrite Bears history after 99 seasons of franchise mediocrity at quarterback? »
Not only has curiosity about Trubisky’s second contract evaporated, there’s now legitimate reason to question whether he even will remain the starter by Christmas.
So what happened? What went into the Bears’ franchise-altering decision-making process before the 2017 draft? Why did Pace absolutely have to have Trubisky over Mahomes and Watson? And how did the Chiefs and Texans succeed where the Bears haven’t in turning their quarterback dice rolls into a major payout?
To piece together the quarterback puzzle of the 2017 NFL draft, the Tribune spoke with more than two dozen people connected to the Bears, the league or the draft process. The Tribune exchanged anonymity for candor with some sources, given the sensitive nature of the situation, which continues to develop with much at stake for those involved.
Three quarterbacks. One draft. Three teams. All traveling disparate paths.
II: The Bears’ search for the next Drew Brees
In the days after the Bears selected Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Pace felt a powerful sense of accomplishment, a proud satisfaction in having a clear vision and seeing it through. In a moment of introspection, he scribbled into his journal.
The entry was full of energy, the kind of no-regrets gusto that accomplished NFL general managers have.
Sure, Pace was hearing the doubters and critics lambasting his trade up from No. 3 to No. 2 and wondering why Trubisky was the quarterback he coveted so much.
The Bears introduce Mitch Trubisky after drafting him with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL draft during a news conference at Halas Hall on April 28, 2017. (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune)
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But the Bears GM was unfazed. He was in control of an organization that had been so lost at quarterback for so long. In the 25 seasons that preceded the 2017 draft, the Bears had started 29 quarterbacks. None of them had been named to the Pro Bowl as a Bear. Only three — Steve Walsh, Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler — had won a playoff game.
As Pace wrote to himself, he hoped the fan base could direct its focus accordingly. Wasn’t Chicago begging for its dear football franchise to take a big swing at addressing the most important position? And hadn’t he done just that?
For Pace, the Trubisky pick was about avoiding the cautious road or the low-bar temptation of merely trying to lift the Bears back toward 8-8. Hadn’t Chicago been exhausted by Cutler’s eight seasons and the polarizing quarterback’s .500 record?
This was about a think-big, believe-big mission to win a Lombardi Trophy.
“Maybe we can make status quo decisions and please the pundits, or make decisions that are predictable and easily accepted positions,” Pace wrote. “Or we can (expletive) take chances and be bold and be great. I’m not going to look back with regrets. I can’t do that to myself. I can’t do that to this building. And bottom line is you don’t achieve greatness in this league without great quarterback play.”
In many ways, Pace’s fearless approach made perfect sense.
The question, though, was why the Bears had become so deeply enamored with Trubisky and only Trubisky. With their trade up, it was apparent that, in Pace’s mind, the North Carolina quarterback had clearly separated himself from Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.
When multiple teams with quarterback needs began calling the Bears on draft day, considering possible trades into the No. 3 slot, Pace reasoned those same teams were calling the 49ers about No. 2. His biggest fear of losing the quarterback he so badly wanted triggered his aggressive instinct.
He was fixated on Trubisky and unwilling to accept a consolation prize. To move up one spot, he traded four picks: the Bears’ first-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2017 and their 2018 third-rounder.
Tribune flashback: Mitchell Trubisky could be first QB drafted despite relative inexperience »
Over the previous eight months, Pace knew he had to free himself and the Bears from the lengthy limbo that accompanied Cutler’s stay. He admittedly became obsessed with college quarterbacks early in the 2016 season. With Cutler’s contract out of guaranteed money, the impending sunrise fueled Pace’s focus.
His prototype was and still is Drew Brees. Pace was a 29-year-old pro scout with the Saints when they signed Brees as a free agent in 2006. That year, Brees and coach Sean Payton led the Saints back from Hurricane Katrina oblivion to the NFC championship game. Three seasons later, they all had Super Bowl rings.
At Pace’s introductory news conference as Bears GM in 2015, he mentioned Brees eight times. His objective, then, was to find the Bears’ version. A quarterback who fully commands the game. One capable of erasing good defenses, bad play calls, questionable roster decisions and anything else that could go wrong with his lightning-quick mind, deadly accuracy and ability to connect with everyone around him.
Pace — who declined to be interviewed for this story — and his top lieutenant, director of player personnel Josh Lucas, became magnetized to Trubisky by midseason and ultimately reconciled some of the bigger issues that deterred others, including some within the Bears organization.
Pace wasn’t concerned that Trubisky spent his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, N.C., backing up Marquise Williams, who wasn’t drafted. As others scrutinized Trubisky’s college inexperience — he threw only 572 passes compared with Watson’s 1,207 and Mahomes’ 1,349 — Pace focused on the constant spark Trubisky seemed to lend, even when he was in a backup role.
“Every time he got in the game,” Pace said on draft night, “something happened in a positive way.”
TFW all your dreams come true. #BearsDraft #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/6laWMVa8C9
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) April 28, 2017
While Trubisky didn’t ooze charisma like Mahomes and Watson, Pace deeply admired his humility. He valued Trubisky’s family support system and dedicated approach.
At the Senior Bowl three months before the draft, Pace emphasized the pluses of college success for a quarterback. “You want to look for a player who has lifted his program for the most part,” he said.
Brees did that at Purdue. That was also one of Watson’s defining characteristics. What about Trubisky, whose Tar Heels went 8-5 and lost the Sun Bowl in his only season as the starter?
“I think Mitch did that in a lot of ways,” Pace said on draft night.
In Pace’s eyes, Trubisky also demonstrated the most important quarterback traits: sharp accuracy, ability to process defenses, poise under pressure. Pace saw excellent footwork that would enable Trubisky to win from the pocket in the NFL. He told colleagues at Halas Hall that Trubisky seemed like a 22-year-old Brees.
III: Ryan Pace’s stealthy evaluation process for the 2017 QB class
From the get-go, Ryan Pace believed it was imperative to keep the Bears’ fixation on quarterbacks a secret. He went incognito to see Mitch Trubisky in his final college game, sitting alone in the stands at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, with his hat pulled low.
Later in the pre-draft process, the Bears chose not to host Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson at Halas Hall.
Instead, over a four-day span in mid-March, the Bears embarked on a three-city, three-quarterback scouting trip. Pace, Josh Lucas, coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone began in Clemson, S.C., at Watson’s pro day. From there they visited Trubisky in Chapel Hill and Mahomes in Lubbock, Texas. They hosted dinners and private on-campus workouts with Trubisky and Mahomes but not with Watson.
Tribune flashback: How a covert visit to Chapel Hill solidified the Bears' conviction in Mitch Trubisky »
Over dinner at a Chapel Hill steakhouse, Trubisky impressed the Bears with his sense of humor and grounded nature. Conversation flowed smoothly. The quarterback’s hand-me-down 1997 Toyota Camry amused the Bears brass in a positive way.
A day later and 1,500 miles away in Texas, Mahomes showcased his ridiculous arm talent in his private workout. He even pulled out some of the no-look throws he later flashed during his rise to stardom with the Chiefs. At dinner, his swagger was undeniable.
Pace and his staff liked so much about Mahomes and admired his Ben Roethlisberger-like ability to make strong downfield throws with defenders hanging on him. On the Bears’ final draft board, Mahomes was their No. 2 quarterback, in the team’s top “cloud” of prospects that also included Trubisky, Solomon Thomas, Jamal Adams, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey.
Still, that quarterback tour solidified Pace’s affinity for Trubisky.
He considered it an important piece of the scouting pie. For months, Pace had kept his evaluations to himself, not wanting to influence his subordinates. As the reports returned — from area scout Chris Prescott, from national scout Ryan Kessenich, from college scouting director Mark Sadowski, from Lucas, from Loggains — the consensus in support of Trubisky energized Pace.
However, prioritizing secrecy in the pre-draft process created an unusual barrier between the personnel department and the coaching staff. Whereas in Kansas City and Houston, offensive-minded coaches Andy Reid and Bill O’Brien were in the center of the quarterback evaluations, the Bears were, for all intents and purposes, drafting Trubisky for the next coaching staff, a group that was a full season away from arriving.
Fox, who rated Watson as his top quarterback, didn’t learn of Pace’s intention to select a quarterback until the morning of the draft, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. Other prominent figures in the organization received the Trubisky news from Roger Goodell’s mouth as the NFL commissioner announced the pick on live TV from a stage in Philadelphia.
For some at Halas Hall, a bit of confusion accompanied the excitement of the pick. Mike Glennon — signed 48 days earlier, guaranteed $18.5 million on a three-year contract and promised the steering wheel for the 2017 offense — had been sent as one of the guests of honor to a team-sponsored public draft party at Soldier Field. While there, he watched the Bears select his replacement.
From Sid Luckman to Mitch Trubisky: All the Bears quarterbacks through the years
Even in the NFL’s cutthroat and hypersecretive world, that struck some as an undeniable sign of disconnect.
On that April weekend, it became clear Fox was a lame duck, his relationship with Pace permanently fractured. Still, during multiple news conferences as the draft unfolded, Pace asserted there was a unified, collaborative approach to selecting Trubisky.
“John and I are arm in arm in all these decisions,” Pace said the night of the pick. “So we talked about this thoroughly, and we’re connected on this. John is just as excited as I am.”
IV: How the experts rated the 2017 quarterback class
It is both easy and wholly unfair to apply revisionist history to the 2017 draft, to argue that the Bears’ selection of Mitch Trubisky over Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes was reckless and out of touch with the league consensus.
The fact is, NFL talent evaluators and draft analysts were divided and perplexed on how to stack the quarterback class.
Mike Mayock, for example, arrived at the scouting combine that February touting Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer as the No. 1 quarterback. Mayock, then an NFL Network analyst and now general manager of the Raiders, acknowledged Kizer wasn’t ready to be an immediate starter and had inconsistent mechanics. But Mayock also raved about Kizer’s ceiling, calling him “the prototype NFL quarterback.”
Big arm, Mayock said. Quick release. Smart. Athletic.
Eight weeks later, Mayock had reordered and finalized his quarterback rankings: Watson jumped to the top of the list, followed by Trubisky, Mahomes, Kizer and California’s Davis Webb.
That’s a small reminder of how fluid these rankings can be, how inexact a science the evaluation process and projection game truly is.
Tribune flashback: Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer discuss the Bears' search for a quarterback from the NFL Combine on March 4, 2017.
In more than a few circles, Trubisky was tabbed as the best pro prospect, lauded for his accuracy and quick release, his mobility and pocket awareness.
In the spring of 2017, a wide majority of major publications pegged him as the top quarterback in their mock drafts. Sports Illustrated. Fox Sports. The Washington Post. USA Today. CBS Sports. The Los Angeles Times.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper also arrived for draft weekend with Trubisky as his top-rated quarterback and No. 19 prospect overall, followed by Mahomes (No. 26), Watson (No. 34) and Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman (No. 59).
His colleague Todd McShay ranked the top five quarterbacks as Trubisky, Watson, Mahomes, Kizer and Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs. But in McShay’s opinion at that time, none was worthy of a first-round grade.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah agreed. Jeremiah, who spent time as a college scout with the Ravens, Browns and Eagles, bunched three quarterbacks in his ranking of the top 50 prospects: Watson 28th, Trubisky 32nd and Kizer 33rd.
Mahomes? Not even on that list.
No one was projecting the Texas Tech quarterback as a surefire long-term starter, much less a can’t-miss All-Pro who would win an MVP award in his first season as a starter.
The most common compliment was that Mahomes had a rocket arm and an ability to make off-balance throws with exciting results. But his habit of ad-libbing was worrisome.
“When I was a kid,” Jeremiah said before the draft, “we played a game — ‘Three Flies Up’ — where you take a tennis ball and chuck it up in the air. Then there’s a scrum of people and whoever catches it three times gets to be the thrower. That’s kind of the way he plays a bit down the field, just throwing the ball up in the air. … If you charted his best plays, they have nothing to do with the play call. It’s just him freelancing and making things happen. Which is exciting.
“But I look back on quarterbacks over the years and try to find guys who live and thrive outside of the play call, and it’s a very thin list. You could make a case that it only contains one guy. That’s (Brett) Favre.”
Tribune flashback: Top QB prospects get only 1 chance to make 1st impression at NFL combine »
Similarly, some evaluators had justifiable concerns about Watson’s deep-ball accuracy and wondered how he would handle the significant increase in NFL pre-snap responsibilities after coming out of Clemson’s spread offense. The 32 interceptions he threw during his three years with the Tigers also were worrisome.
That spring, Jon Gruden brought seven prospects to his made-for-ESPN “QB Camp” at the Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando, Fla. In addition to Trubisky, Watson and Mahomes, Gruden got on the field and in the film room with Kizer, Dobbs, Peterman and Miami’s Brad Kaaya.
In evaluating Trubisky, Gruden — now the Raiders coach — admitted the North Carolina quarterback was “a big mystery to a lot of people.” Without question, Trubisky’s small body of work, with just 13 starts for the Tar Heels, was a red flag.
Furthermore, North Carolina’s shaky finish to its 2016 season bothered Gruden. The Tar Heels, he pointed out, lost to Stanford in the Sun Bowl. They lost their regular-season finale to rival N.C. State. Two weeks before that, they lost another rivalry game to Duke.
And in mid-October, amid miserable conditions caused by Hurricane Matthew, Trubisky had gone 13-for-33 for 58 yards with two interceptions in a 20-point loss to Virginia Tech.
Still, Gruden emerged from his “QB Camp” visit with Trubisky impressed with the way he meshed so naturally with other players at the camp. “He’s a fun guy to be around,” Gruden said eight days before the draft.
He also spoke highly of Trubisky’s attentiveness, information retention and sharp communication skills.
“What’s not on the show,” Gruden said, “are all the plays we install and all the things we challenge them to learn and go out on the grass to execute. He’s into it. The thing I liked about Trubisky is that he is really into it.”
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Gil Brandt, a Hall of Fame personnel administrator who spent 29 seasons with the Cowboys, heralded Trubisky as his top quarterback in the draft, followed by Watson and Mahomes.
Former Redskins GM Charley Casserley had the same order: Trubisky first, Watson second and Mahomes a very distant third, assessed as a possible bargain pick late in the first round or early on Day 2.
“The reason I have Trubisky over Watson,” Casserley explained, “is he’s a more consistent player as far as accuracy and decision-making.”
Seven months later, as Trubisky made his first NFL start in a Monday night game against the Vikings at Soldier Field, Gruden was in the ESPN broadcast boost. Like the Bears, Gruden had grown increasingly enamored with Trubisky’s toughness and his “sincerity to be great.”
Leading up to that game, in an interview with the Tribune, Gruden expressed his belief that Trubisky’s future would be bright for a long time.
“I don’t think adversity is going to bother him,” Gruden said. “I don’t think success is going to ruin him. I just think he has a lot of real good human qualities. And then you couple that with his athletic ability and his arm talent and you really have something here.”
Even as a rookie, Trubisky’s leadership traits were leaving an impression. So was his willingness to embrace the workload, not to mention the grand expectations of a scarred but hopeful fan base.
“He has that iceman quality,” Gruden said. “He’s just not a nervous wreck. He’s got that calmness that you have to have. … I don’t think it’s going to be too big for him. I like that about him.”
V: The Chiefs’ love affair with Patrick Mahomes
When Chiefs general manager Brett Veach hosted his media session at the 2018 scouting combine, it was the perfect chance for Chicago reporters to pick his brain about one of his best friends — Matt Nagy.
Veach’s former Delaware teammate had jumped from Chiefs offensive coordinator to Bears head coach seven weeks earlier.
“Matt — great quarterback, cannon for an arm, but he’s just an awful athlete,” Veach cracked. “You see him run, it’s, like, embarrassing.”
Pull up YouTube clips of Blue Hens football circa 2000, and it’s clear that, even then, Veach knew how to evaluate a quarterback.
Matt Nagy finds Brett Veach for a score that started the comeback win over Nova in 2000 #100Days100Plays pic.twitter.com/wG9FnToIiw
— Delaware Football (@DelawareFB) July 31, 2016
Looking back, Veach’s comments that day included a slice of deeper insight. A prophecy, even. While discussing Patrick Mahomes’ offseason promotion to starting quarterback, he offered a clue that the face of the NFL was about to change.
“He is one of the best players I have ever seen.”
What a thing to say about a quarterback who had started only one NFL game, a last-second 27-24 win over the Broncos in Week 17 with the Chiefs resting their starters while locked into the AFC’s fourth playoff seed.
One of the best players he had ever seen? How could that be true of a quarterback who was widely questioned for his tendency to escape the pocket, improvise and take risks with his rocket arm?
As it turned out, Veach’s remark had as much sizzle as a Mahomes fastball, a stage-setter for the third 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown season in league history.
More than a year earlier, months before the 2017 draft, Veach became Patient Zero in the outbreak of Mahomes Mania inside Chiefs headquarters. As their co-director of player personnel at the time, he spread his infatuation with the rocket-armed quarterback among the organization’s top power brokers, namely coach Andy Reid, then-GM John Dorsey and Chairman Clark Hunt.
Veach had locked on to Mahomes after his sophomore season in 2015. He was studying Texas Tech offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark when he was distracted by the uncanny arm talent, improvisational skills and bravado of the Red Raiders quarterback.
Veach’s intrigue became obsession by the time the 2017 pre-draft process ramped up. Hence his calculated run-in with one of Mahomes’ agents, Chris Cabott, outside a Los Angeles hotel ballroom at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl that January. That meeting between two of Mahomes’ biggest believers enriched the familiarization process for both sides. Any questions Veach had about Mahomes could be answered.
Veach and Cabott communicated for 94 straight days ahead of the draft, Cabott has said. Phone calls. After-midnight text messages. It was true love.
Patrick Mahomes reacts to being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 10 pick on April 27, 2017. Sirring next to him are Randi Martin and agent Leigh Steinberg at a draft watch party in Tyler, Texas. (Chelsea Purgahn / AP)
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Veach skipped Mitch Trubisky’s and Deshaun Watson’s pro days but not Mahomes’. His infatuation with the Texas Tech quarterback had spawned a vision.
“His talent is unique and special. He is a special person,” Veach told Kansas City media on March 14, 2018, the day Mahomes officially was elevated to starter after spending his rookie season developing behind Alex Smith.
“You have an innovative head coach and an innovative staff. You have a bunch of weapons, and we are looking to have fun. We have the best fans in the NFL and … we want them to watch the scoreboard light up.”
Those were the highlights of Veach’s pre-draft sales brochure. Sure, the Chiefs’ present was bright after the 2016 season. Smith had won 11 games and a division title in 15 starts. But with a proven coach and three future All-Pros already in place on offense, Veach saw an even brighter future with Mahomes.
It was imperative for Reid and Dorsey to see that too. Fortunately for Veach, history was on his side. He could describe Mahomes’ combination of rawness, arm strength and moxie and be certain it would resonate with two men who had Super Bowl rings because of another quarterback with similar traits.
Tribune flashback: Patrick Mahomes' big arm has Bears going deep on research as draft nears »
When Brett Favre led the Packers to the title in 1996, Reid was their assistant offensive line and tight ends coach, and Dorsey was a college scout in the organization.
So it’s no wonder that while many evaluators doubted how Mahomes’ improvisational tendencies would translate to the NFL, Reid and Dorsey saw transcendent potential in his athleticism, arm talent and swagger.
But the franchise-altering question was whether Mahomes could be coached into playing from the pocket within the parameters of an offense that required more protection calls, hot reads and route adjustments than the Air Raid offense he ran at Texas Tech.
To find out, the Chiefs brought him to team headquarters three weeks before the draft. Over a six-hour visit, they got their answer.
VI: Patrick Mahomes rises above the rest
A pre-draft visit to Andy Reid and the Chiefs amounts to a deluxe car wash. Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson each went through in 2017.
Brad Childress explained the itinerary to the Tribune the day the Bears hired Matt Nagy in January 2018. The longtime colleague of Reid and Nagy was the Chiefs assistant head coach in 2017. He followed Nagy to the Bears and is now a senior offensive assistant.
Reid, Nagy and Childress started with each quarterback by installing four plays. They diagrammed each one on the whiteboard and detailed it with route depths, splits, protections, the quarterback’s drop, etc. Then the group watched video of each play so the quarterback could see them at full speed. All of that took a couple of hours.
After breaking for lunch, each prospect was introduced to team staffers and toured the facility. Then each quarterback was brought back to the meeting room and asked to detail for the coaches the four plays they discussed hours ago.
After the series of visits finished in 2017, GM John Dorsey had the coaches rank the quarterbacks on how they learned, retained and regurgitated the information.
He didn’t believe Mahomes, Trubisky or Watson were Day 1 starters. But for the Chiefs to follow Brett Veach’s recommendation and go all-in on Mahomes, Reid had to feel confident that Mahomes could learn his complex, quarterback-centric system.
“Or we’re going to have to take these massive steps backward,” Reid told the Kansas City Star after the fact.
Indeed, Mahomes was No. 1.
“And so he was able to handle it,” Reid told the Star. “I’m not saying the other kids couldn’t. But he was able to handle it, and we felt real good about that.”
Patrick Mahomes throws a pass during Texas Tech's pro day at Jones AT&T Stadium on March 31, 2017. (Mark Rogers / AP)
Nagy was part of the Chiefs’ consensus that identified Mahomes as a once-in-a-generation player, certainly the top quarterback in the 2017 class.
Meanwhile, Nagy also appreciated Trubisky’s grinder work ethic, pleasant personality and football knowledge. Trubisky impressed him enough, obviously, that Nagy was happy to unite with him with the Bears. When he interviewed for the coaching vacancy, he showed Ryan Pace his complimentary notes about Trubisky from their pre-draft meeting in Kansas City.
“Very impressed with Trubisky’s aptitude,” Childress recalled. “Obviously the skills speak for themselves. He was a very good interview.”
But once Mahomes convinced Chiefs brass that his raw talent could be tamed, they had to have him.
On draft night, when the Bears’ trade up was announced, the Chiefs were relieved Trubisky was the target. Mahomes’ camp knew the Bears liked their guy.
Mahomes’ multisport background appealed to some at Halas Hall. The son of a former major-league pitcher, Mahomes was drafted by the Tigers in the 37th round in 2014 before fully committing to football.
The Chiefs loved that he grew up around big-league clubhouses, where he became accustomed to bright lights and big stages. To move up from No. 27 to No. 10, they traded three picks: their first- and third-rounders in 2017 and their 2018 first-rounder.
That night, Dorsey didn’t dare mention Brett Favre’s name. Publicly comparing Mahomes to the original gunslinger would have senselessly overinflated expectations for a quarterback they planned to keep on the bench for his first season.
Then again, Dorsey couldn’t quite help himself.
“I used to know a guy who used to flip it into coverage, too, sometimes,” he said during his draft-night news conference. “He made it into the Hall of Fame one day. I’m not comparing them, but I’m just saying.”
Dorsey felt the Chiefs had drafted Mahomes into “the perfect situation.” Suddenly, the incubator Veach envisioned came into public view.
Most important, perhaps, Alex Smith was a magnanimous mentor to the quarterback drafted to supplant him.
Reid appreciated how Mahomes sponged Smith’s daily examples of studying opponents and collaborating with coaches on the game plan.
“Patrick could buy him a castle, and it wouldn’t pay for the experience he was able to have working with Alex,” Reid told reporters when Mahomes made his first start.
Tribune flashback: Matt Nagy's jump to Bears will shift how Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes measure up »
Mahomes also credits offensive quality control coach Mike Kafka, a former Eagles and Northwestern quarterback, for his one-on-one dedication to helping him grow. Each week, Mahomes and Kafka formulated and carried out a plan to improve his mechanics and command of the offense. His on-field work had to be detailed. He was that raw.
Three months after the draft, Nagy explained to reporters how Mahomes was so amped during his first practice that he screamed play calls in the huddle loud enough for the defense to hear.
But beginning with his first game as the full-time starter in 2018, Mahomes was unstoppable. He threw for 10 touchdowns with no interceptions in the first two games, winning AFC offensive player of the week honors both weeks.
The highlights seemed endless. From his left-handed pass in a Monday night win over the Broncos to pedestrian checkdowns, Mahomes had command. He dominated.
His jaw-dropping off-script throws on the run diverted attention from his growth in basic areas, such as reading defenses and going through his progressions. But the Chiefs clearly saw him thriving as a pocket quarterback.
By January, with the Chiefs powering toward the AFC title game against the Patriots, the team’s media department produced a 67-second campaign video titled, “Why Patrick Mahomes is the MVP.”
Like selling Girl Scout cookies to a den mother.
The Chiefs’ plan had worked to MVP perfection. Mahomes went from sitting out almost all of his rookie season to becoming the NFL’s youngest MVP since Dan Marino in 1984.
Paul Rudd is a Kansas City treasure. (via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/HHfvLsCXdE
— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) February 3, 2019
Not everyone was shocked, though.
“You knew it was inevitable, it was coming,” Veach told reporters after Mahomes was crowned. “That’s why I said some of the things I said last year at the combine. The thing that surprised me was the ease at which he did it, the consistency at which he did it.”
VII: The calming energy of Deshaun Watson
By the time the 2017 draft arrived, Texans general manager Rick Smith had worked past Deshaun Watson’s shortcomings. It really didn’t take much. Smith had sat inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., 15 weeks earlier for the final night of Watson’s college career.
If the Texans had any significant doubts about Watson’s perceived flaws — his arm strength or his accuracy or his ability to read the entire field — they were all trumped by what Smith had witnessed and felt sitting in the stands near field level as Clemson won its first national championship in 35 seasons.
In the pressure-packed moments of a legacy-defining game, Watson had proved to be the most special player on the field.
He threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns. He took hit after hit after hit and responded with completion after completion after completion. He led a go-ahead 88-yard touchdown march late in the fourth quarter.
Deshaun Watson reacts after being picked No. 12 in the 2017 NFL draft by the Houston Texans. (Elsa / Getty Images)
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And after mighty Alabama responded to take a 31-28 lead with 2:07 remaining, Watson instilled an incredible calm confidence in his teammates, then took them 68 yards in nine plays for a championship-winning touchdown.
The final pass of Watson’s career was a 2-yard TD dart to Hunter Renfrow with one second left.
Clemson 35, Alabama 31.
Smith knew he didn’t have to complicate things or paralyze himself with the minutiae on a scouting report.
“Part of the evaluation process does involve and include measurements and numbers,” Smith said on draft weekend. “But I went to the national championship game. And I watched this guy play against a pretty good defense. And I saw him make all the throws necessary with all the velocity at the specific times that he needed.”
Above everything else, Smith and Texans coach Bill O’Brien found themselves gravitating to two key points. One, when the Texans brought Watson to their facility for a pre-draft visit, spending nearly three hours with him in a classroom setting with a whiteboard, the quarterback’s memory and retention impressed. Later, Watson’s natural engagement with Texans players at the facility stood out.
It wasn’t just teammates whom Watson had the power to energize. It was total strangers too.
On top of that, his college career had established an indisputable fact.
“In clutch moments, in big games, in games that really meant everything — national championship games, big ACC games — the guy came through,” O’Brien told reporters during the draft. “When the chips were down, he was able to lead his team to victory. That says a lot about a quarterback.”
To be clear, the Texans didn’t have first choice from the 2017 quarterback class. They ended up picking behind the Bears and Chiefs. And it never has surfaced publicly how Smith, O’Brien and their colleagues established the order among Watson, Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes.
Still, when it came time to act, the Texans’ belief in Watson’s future persuaded them to move up 13 spots, needing to send only a 2018 first-round pick to the Browns.
The Texans had such confidence in Watson’s special abilities that they made a pick that just felt right. Whether Watson became an elite playmaker or settled in as a middle-of-the-road starter, the Texans knew they would have little regret rolling that dice.
That’s how compelling their belief was in the way Watson elevated everyone around him.
“It’s almost an energy level where he is calm and he’s got confidence,” Smith said on Texans Radio the week of Watson’s first start. “What that does is, in stressful environments and situations, when energy gets heightened and people lose their ability to stay focused, if you have a calming energy around you, then everybody else can settle down and execute and do the things that they’re asked to do.”
VIII: Dabo Swinney and Jordan Palmer to the Bears: Draft Deshaun Watson
The scouting report on Deshaun Watson was hardly concern-free. At Halas Hall and around the league, there were worries about his slender frame and ability to hold up through weeks and months and years of beatings from NFL defenders.
Watson also had thrown 32 interceptions during his college career, 17 in his final season. That was an immediate red flag for many teams and a legitimate concern for the Bears’ top decision makers.
Jordan Palmer, Watson’s quarterback tutor throughout the pre-draft process, kept hearing those knocks and shaking his head. He told anyone who would listen the same thing: “Just don’t overthink it.”
Palmer shared that sentiment with the Bears, among many others. Focus, he suggested, on what makes Watson so special.
Tribune flashback: The Deshaun Watson debate — will QB's first-rate intangibles translate to NFL? »
Palmer knew Watson had so many qualities that would immediately transfer to the NFL. His infectious charisma. His fearless playmaking. His stimulating leadership.
Watson had been strengthened during childhood as his family fought through poverty. He had shown toughness and maturity during his mother’s battle with cancer. He had developed an indefatigable work ethic to go with his caring nature.
Best of all, Palmer emphasized, there was the national championship game. Two national championship games really. A year before Watson held up college football’s most coveted trophy, he had endured the heartbreak of a 45-40 loss to Alabama, a stinging defeat that overshadowed his brilliant 405-yard, four-touchdown performance.
That gave NFL teams tangible evidence of how productive and locked in Watson could be under intense high-stakes pressure. They also had seen how Watson dealt with that heartbreaking runner-up finish in 2015 and then carried Clemson to the top of the mountain.
Almost instantly, Watson’s final college game and final drive became a thing of legend. Tigers teammates talked about the almost hypnotizing belief in his eyes. Members of a nasty Alabama defense couldn’t comprehend how much they had pummeled and battered Watson only to discover his fuel tank still was needling toward “F.”
“We were trying to crush him,” Crimson Tide star Jonathan Allen told the Tribune before the 2017 draft. “And every time, he came back tougher. It’s just that competitiveness.”
To be clear, the Bears never disregarded Watson’s greatest strengths. In the stack of reports from scouts, coaches and front-office executives, there was universal praise for Watson’s calm under pressure, his athleticism, his positive energy, his effect on teammates.
In fact, coach John Fox rated the Clemson star as his top quarterback in the 2017 class. So did quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone.
But ultimately, Ryan Pace and Josh Lucas had fallen harder for Mitch Trubisky, believing the North Carolina quarterback had greater pocket presence and accuracy.
Watson sensed early on the Bears’ interest in him was minimal and shrugged past it. People in his camp, however, were perplexed. Quincy Avery, one of Watson’s private quarterback coaches and a close confidant, scratched his head.
“It just seemed like a big mistake on their part,” Avery said.
If the Bears were truly on the hunt for a franchise-changing quarterback, Avery wondered, why wouldn’t they do the full gamut of homework on a two-time recipient of the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the top quarterback in college football? Why hadn’t the Bears held a private workout with Watson or taken him to dinner as they had with Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes?
Instead, they met with Watson during the assembly-line interview process at the combine and for a bit after his pro-day workout. That was it.
“Honestly,” Avery said, “I thought that either they had some kind of wild process where they were going to try to sneak under the radar and grab Deshaun because they had heard so many positive things about him. Or it was an organization with a bunch of dysfunction that wasn’t prepared to be successful or didn’t have the pieces in place to truly take the next steps.”
Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace at their season-ending news conference at Halas Hall on Jan. 4, 2017. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
During Watson’s pro-day throwing session at Clemson, Fox spent much of his time beside Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, who had famously said a few months earlier that passing on Watson in the draft would be like passing on Michael Jordan. In his conversation with Fox, Swinney doubled down.
“I don’t know how to articulate the type of greatness that’s inside of (Watson),” Swinney said. “And for me, that’s what Michael Jordan represents. I’m sure when Michael Jordan was coming out of North Carolina, he probably had some flaws. But it’s about who he was. It’s that will, that drive. You can’t coach that. And that’s what I want to make sure that I articulate (about Watson). This guy is brilliant between the ears. And he’s special in his heart.”
Palmer’s pre-draft endorsements, meanwhile, came with important background. He had been at Halas Hall as a player for chunks of 2013 and 2014, sharing a quarterbacks room with Jay Cutler. He knew firsthand how badly the Bears organization needed a true hub of energy, a charging station for everyone in the building to plug into on a regular basis.
He knew the fire Watson could light during the week and the explosive performances he could deliver on game days. Palmer envisioned how all of Chicago would rally around Watson’s think-big nature, intense drive and dynamic energy.
Palmer wanted the best for Watson. But he had one predominant wish.
“I want him to go to Chicago,” Palmer said a month before the draft. “It’s the perfect fit.”
Then draft night came. The Bears were the first team to select a quarterback. They traded up to No. 2 and chose Trubisky.
Tribune flashback: In Mitch Trubisky, Bears make bold, overdue move for top QB in NFL draft »
“Honestly,” Avery said, “I thought they were trying to make something that wasn’t there. … Deshaun was a proven winner. The Bears were trying to make Mitch Trubisky into a winner. You’re trying to create something that hasn’t necessarily been seen.”
IX: Mitch Trubisky’s stunted growth in Season 3
By now, Mitch Trubisky’s prolonged 2019 struggles have been well-documented. The end-zone interception in the fourth quarter of a Week 1 loss to the Packers. The easy completions turned into airmailed bloopers. The jittery footwork and anxiety in the pocket. That 9-yard first half by the Bears offense in Week 9 in Philadelphia.
Perhaps most significant, the Bears are 4-5 with an offense ranked 29th in the NFL in total yards. Three months ago, Super Bowl aspirations felt so real and within reach. Now? The Bears are playoff outsiders, a third-place team dealing with sharp disappointment. And for the last two months, Trubisky has been fighting through a crisis of confidence.
After Sunday’s 20-13 win over the Lions, Trubisky ranks 25th in the NFL in passer rating (85.2). Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson (fourth at 107.1) and Patrick Mahomes (second at 114.1) have established themselves as MVP candidates on division-leading teams.
Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky faces reporters during a news conference at Halas Hall on Nov. 6, 2019. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Mahomes’ explosion last season validated what the Chiefs saw in him. Watson, meanwhile, enjoyed immediate success with the Texans in six starts as a rookie before tearing the ACL in his right knee in practice.
In three seasons, Watson has thrown just 23 interceptions in 1,060 attempts, including one playoff game. His synergy with coach Bill O’Brien has been undeniable. Watson also has shown savvy, knowing when to use his athleticism and creativity to turn nothing into something without being reckless.
In Houston, there’s widespread belief that Watson’s extensive college success bought him credibility with teammates and that his natural confidence creates a teamwide mindset. None of the Texans’ 11 regular-season losses with Watson as their starter have been by more than one score.
The Bears, meanwhile, are still trying to find their formula for success. What’s especially maddening is that Trubisky has shown the physical skills and mental fortitude to succeed at this level — at times.
They point to his six-touchdown explosion against the Buccaneers last season as proof he can make his reads and fire on-time, on-target darts. They reference the poise he exhibited in the fourth quarter of last season’s playoff loss to the Eagles. They highlight the improbable 36-yard touchdown throw he pinpointed on the move and off script to Taylor Gabriel against the Redskins in Week 3 this season.
It’s all in there. Somewhere.
Column: Now it’s on Mitch Trubisky and the Bears to prove the 3-TD surge in their Week 10 win actually means something »
Even Sunday, after the offense sputtered through most of the first half, Trubisky hung in and threw touchdown passes on three consecutive possessions in the victory over the Lions.
“What I really appreciated about Mitch was the fact that he never got rattled in all that stuff,” coach Matt Nagy said after the win. “It’s hard for everybody to see in those moments because there were mistakes today that weren’t his fault where it’s easy to become unraveled. And he didn’t do that. He stayed composed the whole time.”
GM Ryan Pace has acknowledged that Trubisky needs to play better. But the Bears also realize the offense’s problems aren’t confined to quarterback play. The line has struggled. Tight end production has been nonexistent. At times, the commitment to the running game has wavered and the play-calling has been questionable.
Still, behind the scenes, efforts to stabilize and boost Trubisky’s confidence have required time and energy on a weekly basis.
In some ways, Bears coaches have learned, Trubisky’s admirable inner drive and self-critical nature can be his worst enemy, occasionally creating self-induced pressure that becomes suffocating.
In that regard, an argument can be made that the Bears’ 100th season arrived at exactly the wrong moment.
Jim McMahon and Mitch Trubisky pose for photographs after participating in a panel conversation during the Bears100 Celebration at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center on June 8, 2019. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
After Trubisky’s bumpy ride through training camp this summer, with too many uneven practices and the tenacious defense feasting on an August interception binge, the Bears hosted the NFL’s 100th-season kickoff party. That meant a big-stage Thursday night battle against the rival Packers.
Amid all the pomp and circumstance and with the whole league watching, Trubisky failed to lead the offense to a single touchdown and threw a costly interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
The Bears lost 10-3.
Trubisky lost some of his self-belief.
And with 10 days before the next game, the opening for an intensely self-critical quarterback to stew on his struggles was there.
“Three (extra) days to really dwell on it,” Trubisky said in the middle of the next week. “Which you’re not supposed to do.”
A Week 1 Sunday noon game against the Giants — win or lose — probably wouldn’t have felt so seismic.
“Maybe so,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “That (loss) was a slap in the face. But you’ve got to recover.”
The reclamation project at Halas Hall has been demanding, with the Bears balancing their efforts to push Trubisky’s knowledge of the offense forward with the need to simultaneously stabilize his psyche.
In Week 3, the Bears thought they had their remedy against a weak Redskins secondary and a game plan designed to provide the psychological jump start the whole offense needed. At halftime that night, everything was on script. Trubisky’s first-half stat line: 20-for-23, 173 yards, three touchdowns. The Bears led 28-0.
Alas, that momentum was short-lived. With a chance to throw his fourth TD pass on what should have been a family-picnic toss to Anthony Miller from the 6, Trubisky instead made a predetermined read, a poor decision and a worse throw to Allen Robinson. Josh Norman picked off the pass. It was a frustrating blunder that punctuated an easy victory with a period rather than an exclamation point.
Six days later, Trubisky dislocated his left shoulder on the first series against the Vikings. Three weeks passed before his next game. His return against the Saints was one of the shakiest performances in his three seasons. Ugly losses to the Chargers and Eagles followed.
So much for refueling the self-belief tank.
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Even to outsiders, it’s clear Trubisky has felt every ounce of the discouragement with the Bears’ lackluster start. Quite simply, the 25-year-old quarterback has seemed to struggle mightily with struggling mightily.
The fear of having let an entire city down seems to be blanketing Trubisky’s enthusiasm and confidence. Said one source who knows the quarterback well: “Think about it. How the (expletive) couldn’t it?”
The arc on Trubisky’s growth chart through two seasons didn’t foreshadow his 2019 regression. As a rookie, with a receiving corps led by Kendall Wright and Josh Bellamy, Trubisky crossed the finish line with encouraging efficiency. His promotion to starter came after four games, far earlier than the Bears had hoped. But Trubisky’s poise and playmaking flashes reinforced the potential Pace saw.
The 2018 season also showed growth and enough production to aid a 12-4 run to a division title and to earn an invitation to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.
And it’s not as if Trubisky ever showed signs of being averse to this season’s grand expectations. To the contrary, he embraced that opportunity.
“Honestly,” Trubisky said at the Bears100 convention in June, “the simplest way I can put it is, ‘Let’s go.’ When your chance comes, you try to make the most of it.”
With everything else slowly trending upward, the biggest change in 2019 has been the expectation. The high intentions, as Nagy prefers to label it. The elevated pressure.
To that end, Trubisky’s college career never provided much evidence of how he might respond. He made only 13 starts for an 8-5 Tar Heels team that finished second in the ACC’s Coastal Division and lost a nail-biter to Stanford in front of 42,166 people at the Sun Bowl.
As one league source put it: “He wasn’t the point guard at North Carolina. He was the quarterback at North Carolina. You know?”
X: Is Mitch Trubisky fading from the picture?
In January, on a rainy Sunday in Florida, Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson made good on a pact to gather for a ceremonial photo. They did so at Camping World Stadium in Orlando after playing in the season’s penultimate game.
Trubisky squeezed between the two AFC quarterbacks with the words above each of their jersey numbers seemingly emerging in 3D: “Pro Bowl.”
All three players wore proud smiles, a “we told you so” clapback that Mahomes took to social media. In a Twitter post with that photo, the Chiefs quarterback wrote: “They said we had a bad Qb draft class! 2 years later...”
They said we had a bad Qb draft class! 2 years later... @Mtrubisky10 @deshaunwatson https://t.co/qaasy0XrOd
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) January 27, 2019
For all three, the future seemed so bright, so boundless. The weekend felt like the first of many January reunions they would enjoy deep into the 2020s.
Now? Trubisky has been left behind and left to deal with that baggage. And the Bears now must make a brutally honest assessment of their predicament, revising their evaluations and fallback plans for the rest of this season as well as the future.
Ryan Pace and the Bears will never have a souped-up DeLorean that can take them back in time to retry the 2017 draft process. Instead, they must focus on being solution-oriented and forward-looking, which for the remainder of 2019 means devising a plan to spark some kind of developmental breakthrough in Trubisky.
Internally at Halas Hall, a belief remains that every quarterback experiences a unique journey and that players such as Drew Brees or Alex Smith can offer Trubisky examples of peers whose emergence didn’t occur immediately.
Brees was benched eight games into his third NFL season in 2003. As the Chargers began 1-7, the second-year starter threw 12 interceptions, seven touchdown passes and completed only 57% of his passes.
Eli Manning, in the middle of his third season in 2006, was struggling and under fire in New York, with the harshest of critics believing his time as Giants quarterback was running out. Now Manning owns two Super Bowl rings, with his Hall of Fame candidacy up for debate.
The danger of a premature surrender can’t be ignored.
Should the Bears bench Mitch Trubisky? Making the argument for — and against — sitting the starting QB. »
The Bears also recognize the high-profile struggles within the NFL’s 2018 quarterback class — players such as Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen — and realize the frustrations aren’t exclusive to Chicago.
In the Bears’ ideal world, Trubisky would soon break out of the slump that has defined his third season and rod through the mental clog that has impeded his growth. All it may take, the organization believes, is one big play or one clutch drive or one exciting win to get things pointed back in a positive direction.
If and when that turning point comes, the Bears can exhale and try to get their quarterback’s development plan back on schedule.
Still, that best-case scenario may be hanging by a thread. Each week, it seems, a new what-could-have-been reminder comes from Kansas City or Houston.
In Week 2, for example, while Trubisky and the Bears offense were stumbling through the first half of a win over the Broncos, Mahomes erupted for 281 yards and four touchdown passes against the Raiders — in the second quarter alone. (In Trubisky’s 35 career starts, including playoffs, he has only seven games with more than 280 passing yards.)
In Week 8, while the Bears were digesting a brutal 17-16 home loss to the Chargers that included two fourth-quarter Trubisky turnovers, Watson was sparking a 27-24 rally past the Raiders with 279 passing yards and three touchdown passes. The last was a Cirque du Soleil trapeze act in which he twisted and spun from two defenders, took a cleat to the eye, had his vision impaired and regrouped to fire an off-script, off-balance 9-yard scoring dart to Darren Fells.
“Doggone Watson,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said immediately after the loss. “He wills it out of his team. And he makes something out of nothing.”
In contrast, a few hours earlier at Soldier Field, Trubisky overthrew what should have been a win-sealing 58-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Gabriel, with the speedy receiver open down the middle.
“You hit that,” coach Matt Nagy said, “and it’s close to being the dagger.”
“Just missed,” Trubisky admitted.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace and quarterback Mitch Trubisky talk after practice on May 29, 2019 at Halas Hall. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
It was more undeniable evidence of the gap in playmaking prowess between Trubisky and his more accomplished draft classmates.
Heading into the Week 10 games, according to sportsbetting.ag, Watson and Mahomes were among the top six favorites for this season’s MVP award, in a stratum with Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers and Christian McCaffrey.
At this stage, the Bears’ pleas for patience are falling on deaf ears, appeals seemingly made out of desperation more than realistic wishes. And the reality is Trubisky faces an incredible challenge to get himself and the Bears out from under the avalanche of criticism that has buried them.
Allusions to Brees or Smith trigger counterpoint references to Blake Bortles or Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder or Robert Griffin III or Vince Young. In some cases, critics point out, an anticipated leap never occurs.
For Trubisky, the next seven weeks will be telling. With nearly three dozen starts under his belt, it’s quite possible his body of work is already large enough to formulate a verdict. And the Bears, at the very least, must start considering alternatives for 2020 and beyond.
Is this season recoverable? Can Trubisky get his career journey out of the ditch? Said one league source: “I think so. I really do. But he’s going to have to be a tough mother (expletive). We’re going to find out what his DNA is. Because that’s a hard thing to pull out of.”
Bears quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone still believes wholeheartedly in Trubisky’s approach. “As long as (he) continues to fight and continues to get back up and try again and try again and try again,” Ragone said, “eventually, in my opinion, we’re going to knock down that wall.”
Whatever the case, that Pro Bowl snapshot now seems like an ancient relic. So does that journal entry from Pace and the hype video the team launched a day after drafting Trubisky.
Pace has stressed since he arrived in Chicago how valuable a standout quarterback is to the long-term direction of the franchise. Without one, he has said, “you’re a ship without a sail.”
On draft weekend 2017, Pace was confident he had, at long last, found the Bears’ Hope Diamond.
“There are times when you’ve got to be aggressive,” he said then. “And when you have conviction on a guy, you can’t sit on your hands. I just don’t want to be average around here; I want to be great. And these are the moves you have to make.”
Dan Wiederer has covered the Bears since 2013 and also specializes in enterprise journalism and feature writing across all Chicago sports.
Rich Campbell covers the Chicago Bears and the NFL. Prior to joining the Tribune in 2013, he covered the Washington Redskins for 4 seasons. He also has covered the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Ravens and high school sports. Campbell was a sports reporter at The Washington Times, The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) and The Washington Post.