What lies ahead for the Bears?

But ... the Bears be­lieve Mitch Tru­bisky’s play on the fi­nal drive of the 2018 sea­son can carry over to 2019

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Wiederer

Rarely does a team de­fend its di­vi­sion ti­tle af­ter go­ing worst-to-first the year be­fore. But the Bears be­lieve Mitch Tru­bisky’s play can carry over to 2019.

The penul­ti­mate com­ple­tion of Mitch Tru­bisky’s sec­ond sea­son was an ab­so­lute dart. Corner route. Be­tween two de­fend­ers. Just as he was be­ing hit. Fired into Allen Robin­son’s mitts with con­vic­tion. Twenty-five-yard gain.

This was the throw that pushed the Bears into field-goal range in the clos­ing sec­onds of a play­off game. This was the com­ple­tion Chicago could have spent this past week cel­e­brat­ing and li­on­iz­ing. This was the pass coach Matt Nagy would have pointed to as ev­i­dence of what he’d em­pha­sized three days be­fore the game — that a quar­ter­back’s legacy is ul­ti­mately de­fined by his per­for­mance in the post­sea­son.

“I don’t think it’s a stat thing as much,” Nagy had said. “What peo­ple re­mem­ber are the come­backs, mak­ing big plays at the right time.”

If only Cody Parkey had been able to squeeze a 43-yard field goal into the 18 1⁄2-foot space be­tween the north end-zone up­rights at Sol­dier Field.

Alas … Still don’t min­i­mize the im­por­tance of that fi­nal Bears drive, of that clutch Tru­bisky com­ple­tion to Robin­son with 44 sec­onds left. Had last Sun­day’s sea­son-end­ing one­point loss to the Eagles ended with a dis­com­bob­u­lated four-and-out or an ill-ad­vised sack or a bru­tal Tru­bisky in­ter­cep­tion, the young quar­ter­back would have been blasted for the next six months, stalked through the off­sea­son by ques­tions about his abil­ity and com­po­sure. In­stead? Tru­bisky of­fered ev­i­dence in a pres­sure-packed point of a huge game that he could rise to meet the mo­ment. And late Sun­day night and into Mon­day, it was ev­i­dent in his team­mates’ eyes just how im­por­tant that was. “It was fun to be out there with him,” Robin­son said. “To see him han­dle his first play­off game was cool. This is what we all pre­pared for and this is what we’re all here for. … So for him to be able to make plays when we needed it was fun and ex­cit­ing.” Added guard Kyle Long: “If we’ve got the ball and we’ve got a chance to win, I know we’re go­ing to go down the field and han­dle our busi­ness. And that starts with No. 10. … He’s a leader and he’s a heck of a foot­ball player. He’s the guy you want in your hud­dle in that sit­u­a­tion.” Nagy was in full agree­ment. “Those are the mo­ments you live for,” the coach said. “He did ev­ery­thing that we asked him to do. He made big throws with the big-time op­por­tu­ni­ties that he had.”

‘I’ve come a long way’

Still, as Tru­bisky trudged off Sol­dier Field, he left with the sta­dium score­board giv­ing him plenty to file away for the off­sea­son. Specif­i­cally, the Bears quar­ter­back should have made sure the glow­ing “15” hov­er­ing above him was burned into his psy­che. As in 15 points. As in not nearly enough. Not in a play­off game cer­tainly. But not in most NFL games played in this pin­ball era ei­ther. Only 15 times in 256 reg­u­larsea­son games this sea­son did a team win when scor­ing 16 points or fewer. Tru­bisky and the Bears did it three times. Re­ly­ing on a de­fense so heav­ily, as the Bears did all sea­son, can be dan­ger­ous. Bor­der­line reck­less re­ally. Even­tu­ally, there will be games like last Sun­day’s when the de­fen­sive life raft doesn’t in­flate. Ed­die Jack­son was on the side­line with a sprained ankle and couldn’t save the Bears the way he had in Detroit on Thanks­giv­ing or against the Vik­ings four nights ear­lier. Khalil Mack didn’t get a sack or force a turnover against the Eagles. Kyle Fuller failed to add to the seven-in­ter­cep­tion to­tal he posted dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. The two take­aways the Bears did force with picks by Ro­quan Smith and Adrian Amos? The of­fense con­verted those into only three points. Not nearly enough. Maybe those are the three words that should be bolded and un­der­lined in the com­ments sec­tion of Tru­bisky’s 2018 re­port card, re­minders that the quar­ter­back’s growth in Year 2, while en­cour­ag­ing, couldn’t break the Bears’ long, long drought with­out a play­off victory. “I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Tru­bisky said. “But I also feel like I’m just get­ting started. There’s a lot I can im­prove on. … I’m hun­grier than ever.”

In need of more

Tru­bisky must un­der­stand he is still the linch­pin of the Bears’ Su­per Bowl hopes. A trip to At­lanta next month is off the ta­ble. And if the Bears have se­ri­ous as­pi­ra­tions of par­tic­i­pat­ing in Su­per Bowl LIV next win­ter in Mi­ami Gar­dens, Fla., their of­fense will need to make a ma­jor leap for­ward in 2019. Which means the start­ing quar­ter­back will need to make mon­u­men­tal leaps for­ward too. For as bril­liant as that fi­nal-drive throw to Robin­son was last Sun­day, for as spe­cial as the back-to-back com­ple­tions of 34 and 22 yards on a touch­down drive two pos­ses­sions ear­lier were, it’s hard to shake the vi­sions of Tru­bisky’s play­off strug­gles. Re­mem­ber the throw to Robin­son in the sec­ond quar­ter that Avonte Mad­dox cut in front of and caught? Sure, a re­play re­view showed Mad­dox bob­bled the ball and never got his left foot down in bounds. Thus a po­ten­tially costly Tru­bisky turnover be­came a rel­a­tively harm­less in­com­ple­tion. Still, it was an er­rant throw that just can’t hap­pen. And what about the Cut­ler-es­que force into the end zone on first down later in the first half? Just be­cause Eagles safety Tre Sul­li­van han­dled that sure pick as if it were a cat­fish cov­ered in Crisco shouldn’t let Tru­bisky off the hook for an in­ex­cus­able de­ci­sion. Through three quar­ters of a play­off game, the Bears of­fense had 241 to­tal yards and six points. Their quar­ter­back had failed to pro­vide a spark. “That’s how it was with our of­fense,” Tru­bisky ac­knowl­edged. “Some­times we were rolling and in rhythm. And other times we weren’t.” Tru­bisky de­serves credit for per­se­ver­ing past a rough start, for show­ing an abil­ity to work through his strug­gles enough to turn an ugly per­for­mance into some­thing more pleas­ant. That’s not some­thing many Bears quar­ter­backs have been able to do con­sis­tently. But even­tu­ally a higher stan­dard must be set. Seven times in Tru­bisky’s 15 starts this sea­son, the Bears of­fense failed to reach 20 points. That won’t cut it. Much more is needed if the rest of the league is to see the Bears as a com­plete team and not just a feisty op­po­nent with a scary de­fense.

Growth chart

Over­all, Tru­bisky’s strong fin­ish against the Eagles meant some­thing. His aplomb through­out the fourth quar­ter left a last­ing im­pres­sion on team­mates. “When you go back and see the progress he made through­out the whole sea­son, he’s done an un­be­liev­able job for a young quar­ter­back,” cen­ter Cody White­hair said. “We see that his ceil­ing is re­ally high.” Through­out the Bears locker room, such sen­ti­ments are preva­lent. There’s a be­lief that Tru­bisky has all the tools to be­come a star — the ta­lent, the work ethic, the con­fi­dence, the hu­mil­ity, the aura. When train­ing camp be­gan, be­fore any­one had any clue the 2018 sea­son would turn into a rocket ship to the play­offs, the con­ver­sa­tion cen­tered around whether Tru­bisky could be a de­cid­edly bet­ter quar­ter­back in late De­cem­ber than he was in mid-July. That bar, for most ob­jec­tive ob­servers, was cleared. Eas­ily. Tru­bisky posted a 66.6 com­ple­tion per­cent­age and a 95.4 rat­ing. He had four 300-yard pass­ing games and showed he could be a sig­nif­i­cant threat as a run­ner. Lit­tle by lit­tle, he grew more com­fort­able in a new sys­tem. Tru­bisky sharp­ened his tim­ing and rap­port with a large cast of pass catch­ers. He grew to bet­ter un­der­stand the wide ar­ray of looks from op­pos­ing de­fenses. Nagy also praised the quar­ter­back’s im­prove­ment with his nextplay men­tal­ity and over­all vision. As an in­con­sis­tent quar­ter­back in a ma­jor me­dia mar­ket, Tru­bisky rode a roller coaster with im­pres­sive equa­nim­ity. The ca­coph­ony of crit­i­cism and praise never af­fected him much. He re­mained im­mersed in the grind and ob­sessed with his pur­suit of im­prove­ment. Still, Chicago heads for Tru­bisky’s third sea­son still di­vided on what car­ries more weight. Should Tru­bisky’s sec­ond-sea­son suc­cesses be held up as proof that he’s as­cend­ing into a star? Or were his oc­ca­sional strug­gles, some­times quite pro­nounced, a warn­ing that his in­con­sis­tency might be per­ma­nent? This trial was al­ways go­ing to take longer than a frus­trated foot­ball city wanted it to. For now, it’s a hung jury. Tru­bisky, mean­while, heads into this off­sea­son with two re­al­i­ties to bal­ance. His fourth-quar­ter con­tri­bu­tions against the Eagles were re­as­sur­ing and clutch. Said Nagy: “In big-time sit­u­a­tions, how did you re­spond? I know this: I want him on my side.” But the Bears are left as spec­ta­tors for the sec­ond week­end of the NFL play­offs and be­yond. So those late con­tri­bu­tions must also file back into that im­por­tant three­word re­view: Not nearly enough. Tru­bisky un­der­stands that as well as any­one. “I’m go­ing to do a lot of sel­f­re­flect­ing and make sure I get bet­ter from this,” he promised. The de­mands in 2019 will only be­come greater.

“In big-time sit­u­a­tions, how did you re­spond? I know this: I want him on my side.”

— Matt Nagy on Mitch Tru­bisky

AR­MANDO L. SANCHEZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

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