The Chicago Bears' much-hyped quarterback battle ended where it started.
Fourth-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky -- the NFL’s 28th ranked passer (by QBR) in 2019 -- will be the starter when the Bears open Week 1 at Detroit on Sunday.
Four NFL teams signed veteran free-agent starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady with the Bucs, Philip Rivers with the Colts, Teddy Bridgewater with the Panthers and Cam Newton with the Patriots) since the end of the 2019 season. Yet in Chicago, a team desperate for improvement at quarterback, the Bears kept the status quo.
Last Sunday, coach Matt Nagy named Trubisky the starter over 31-year-old Nick Foles. But consider what Trubisky did in 2019:
Last in the league in yards gained per pass attempt
Tied for 27th in touchdown passes
Tied for 21st in passing yards
And the Bears traded a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville for Foles, to have him sit on the bench.
After the Bears went 8-8 last year and missed the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, there seemed a clear sense of urgency to fix the quarterback position.
Trubisky, who played much of the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery in January, was far from the only issue. The Bears' supporting offensive cast and playcalling were suspect.
Still, actions speak louder than words.
The Bears traded for Foles, the Super Bowl LII MVP, because of his strong ties to Nagy and several high-profile Chicago offensive assistants. The Bears allowed Foles to restructure his contract and guaranteed him $12 million for 2020. The new deal also worked for Chicago because Foles would take up just $6.6 million worth of salary cap space.
Trubisky, entering the final year of his contract after the Bears declined the fifth-year option, will earn $4,423,968 million and count $9,237,593 against the cap.
Some liken Trubisky to a corporation that’s too big to fail. The Bears will forever be scrutinized for drafting Trubisky second overall in 2017 ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. After stellar 2019 campaigns, Mahomes (Super Bowl champion, 2018 NFL MVP) and Watson were rewarded with massive contract extensions. Most of the discussion surrounding Trubisky consisted of whether his career in Chicago was over.
Even general manager Ryan Pace -- the man responsible for choosing Trubisky over Mahomes and Watson -- was at peace with whatever decision Nagy made regarding the No. 1 quarterback in 2020.
“It's a good question and I can say this with complete honesty ... it was easy for me to watch this unfold because all I wanted is what was best for the team,” Pace said. “Ultimately all that matters is that we win football games. That's all that matters. So, what quarterback gives us the best chance to win football games? And everybody had a voice. Everybody had an opinion.
"But at the end of the day, Matt needed to go with his gut, with his heart, with his instincts and just let that whole thing play out naturally. For me it was a fair, balanced competition, but in my head the entire time is what's best for the Bears, what's going to give us the best chance to win football games.”
The Bears delivered a fair competition, albeit shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which eliminated in-person workouts, OTAs and preseason games. The quarterbacks split first-team reps down the middle, and each snap was meticulously evaluated on film by the staff. The deciding factor boiled down to familiarity with teammates. Trubisky had it, Foles did not.
“I felt good out there,” Foles said after the Bears named Trubisky the starter. “Was I myself, like where I want to be? No, I wasn’t, but that’s not based on footwork [mechanics] or anything else. That’s based on the other circumstances that are out of your control where you are moving your family, you’re with a new offense and you’re with new players. You really get a great time in the spring to go through OTA practices and get those cobwebs out. That’s not an excuse, that’s just a reality of it all.”
Bears receiver Allen Robinson saw the extra work Trubisky put in, and the results.
“For me, training with Mitch early in the spring and leading up into training camp, I was out there all those days with him when he was putting in the work," Robinson said. "I mean, to see him start is not surprising at all. When you put in the work, you get the results. And I saw a lot of the work that he put in from February, March and even some probably before that. So I saw him put the work in. So I mean it’s not surprising at all that he was able to improve his game how he set out to do.”
Instead of ushering in a brand new era, the Bears will try to revive Trubisky’s career. And the 2020 schedule could help Trubisky, at least early on. In the first six games of the season, the Bears face the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, all teams that finished 2019 below .500.
“There is a lot of pressure on Trubisky to perform well,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “I thought the move for Foles was the right one. Not just because of the reliability of play but also the pressure it put on Trubisky to grow up as a quarterback and to grow up as the leader of the football team, which is something Nick excels at.
“What kind of leash does Mitchell have on him right now? I think it’s a little bit longer than people expect. You’re not going from Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles back to Mitchell Trubisky. Once you decide to move on -- if it comes to that -- you’re moving on for now and forever. For [Trubisky] to keep the job, they need to be winning because of him, not in spite of him.
“I think they’re in a good place.”
Time will tell whether the Bears truly feel the same way.