The Chicago Bears gave their fans a glimpse of the future, and it was fun. If you could look past the turnovers, penalties and mental mistakes — Bears fans are surely numb to them by now — you saw a more freewheeling team led by quarterback Mitch Trubusky in his first NFL start and the seeds for excitement and growth.
It came in a 20-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Trubisky’s pedestrian statistics and a late, damning turnover cannot be overlooked. But there were elements in the game that showed the potential for upward growth.
“They moved the pocket. They threw past the sticks [and] outside the numbers,” one pro scout from an upcoming Bears opponent told PFW the next day. “Had you seen that before from [Mike] Glennon? Because I sure hadn’t.”
Glennon will go down as a misjudgment by Bears management, an $18.5 million investment for a four-game placeholder, barring an injury to Trubisky. The top pick is the starter now, and there’s no looking back. The easy take is to say that the Bears should have just done everything in their power to make sure they traded up for Trubisky in the first place, without having to pay Glennon unnecessarily.
That financial error likely won’t hurt the team dramatically in the long haul. And what these next three months really are about: setting the table for the future.
“For a first outing, I thought he was really good,” head coach John Fox said. “I know his teammates feel the same way. He’ll just get better with time.”
Fox called a fairly gutsy game Monday that few could have expected coming in, calling for a fake punt late in the third quarter, appearing to want to go for it in a similar situation earlier in the game and green-lighting a two-point play that was as exciting a new wrinkle as the Bears have shown offensively in some time.
The early, scripted portion of the offensive game plan for Trubisky also bore some new fruit, even if the Vikings adjusted and took away the outside stuff. All of that showed some real trust in Trubisky in his debut by Fox and his staff, even as the special teams and defense (Pat O’Donnell’s TD pass and a Leonard Floyd safety) outscored Trubisky (a tipped-ball TD pass and that two-point gem) nine points to eight.
“I think our guys feel it,” Fox said of Trubisky. “They feel his presence.”
Trubisky is just getting settled in. But is Fox coaching for his job? Is Pace’s status in any jeopardy? Those are questions that will work themselves out over the coming weeks. Fox, who is now 10-27 with the Bears, has the hotter seat right now, and it’s not clear if Trubisky thriving in the final 11 games can help the coach’s case to keep his job.
That happening also would prove Pace’s judgment for making the bold move to draft a one-year college starter. But it also would open up questioning the GM for setting such a conservative timetable for Trubisky — shouldn’t he have started from Jump Street, even if he’s made vast improvements since his arrival?
It’s possible that we look back on this game, at who Trubisky was throwing to in crucial situations, and shrug. Markus Wheaton (nine targets, 9 yards this season) has been a non-factor to date. Zach Miller was the target on 28 percent of Trubisky’s throws on Monday. Dion Sims dropped two balls early. Tre McBride flashed early but soon disappeared.
The injuries to Cameron Meredith and Kevin White were gut shots, but even with them the Bears’ pass-catching depth and talent would have been a bit shaky. That’s another area Pace could have stood to upgrade this offseason, and it’s a factor we must consider when evaluating Trubisky’s body of work for the rest of the season.
Perhaps the money given to Glennon, Wheaton ($6 million guaranteed) and Victor Cruz ($1.5 million before he was cut) could have been better allocated to help this group out. Kendall Wright ($1 million) could prove to be a fairly strong investment there. He was Trubisky’s most consistent target on Monday, has been active and fairly productive in four of the five games and suddenly leads the Bears in receiving yards this season.
But two more key players tethered to Pace, left tackle Charles Leno and center Cody Whitehair, also hurt Trubisky’s effectiveness in his debut. Leno had a rough game run blocking and also was beat cleanly for a strip-sack late in the second quarter that gave the Vikings’ struggling offense free points and cost the Bears a lead at halftime. Whitehair’s crucial holding penalty — his third this season — wiped out a 26-yard catch by Tre McBride earlier on that same drive.
Leno signed a four-year, $38 million deal with $21.5 million guaranteed prior to the season. Pace didn’t draft him but did offer the contract. He did draft Whitehair, who has been off to a shaky start and seems to have regressed in Year 2, in the second round in 2016. There have been promising elements to Pace’s drafts, and he ultimately will be judged more than anything after this season on how Trubisky plays down the stretch, but there has been an unevenness to the Bears’ talent hauls the past two seasons. Some quite good, but more help is needed.
The Bears’ remaining schedule is middle of the road — their opponents have a .500 win percentage currently — but they have a tough turnaround for Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, plus good tests against the Carolina Panthers and improved New Orleans Saints prior to the Week 9 bye.
Everything is on the table following those games and the home stretch, which includes four road contests in the final six. Trubisky can help lay a foundation for the next several years, and the Bears’ future at head coach and front office will hang in the balance. That’s what’s at stake, which is plenty, even if the Bears once more fail to finish a season as contenders.