The Chicago Bears are one win from the playoffs – and years of quarterback purgatory

The Chicago Bears moved one step closer to the playoffs with a 41-17 throttling of the tanktastic Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. But the short-term victory may come with a long-term cost.

At the center of the performance was a rejuvenated Mitchell Trubisky.

Over the past month, Trubisky has re-ignited his NFL career. Benched earlier in the season for Nick Foles, destined for a life as a career backup-swing-starter, a poster child of the NFL’s inability to select quarterbacks at the top of the draft – he was selected ahead of both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft (scratch that off your bingo sheet) – Trubisky was all-but certainly on his way out of Chicago.

But over the past five games, Trubisky has brought a new surge to the Bears stilted offense, guiding the team to three successive wins and leaving them with a win-and-they’re-in Week 17 matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

Trubsiky has been such a breath of fresh air, in fact, that before the game in Jacksonville, ESPN’s Adam Schefter dropped this doozy:

Lead the Bears to the playoffs, and the new, improved Trubisky will pick up a new contract.

In the abstract, that makes sense. Playoff teams do not move on from their starting quarterback unless the quarterback himself decides to move on. Only if a franchise has the chance to land a true Hall of Famer in his prime – Peyton Manning and the Broncos – will a team look to upgrade on a quarterback who has guided them to the playoffs. They may bring in a new face, but the old starter will hang around. They’d rather bet on the known than the unknown.

And that’s how so many franchises find themselves stuck in quarterback purgatory. Stuck with a league-average starter making good money, tying up the team’s salary cap, and always being just good enough to inspire hope that this year could be the year that it all finally clicks, that he takes that next step, that, out of nowhere, the player will ascend into the upper echelons of the position – maybe there needs to be a new coach or a new scheme or new weapons or a new batch of offensive linemen. One year, it will all fall into place.

For a sport that preaches fight and battle and bravery, that traffics in military metaphors, the decision-makers at the top of the sport are often cowards when it comes to moving on from average quarterbacks. Average is fine. Average is good enough. Average keeps you in a job. Average is security.

Mitch Trubisky is average. Worse: he is a poor starter masquerading as an average one.

True, Trubisky has guided the Bears to four straight weeks scoring 30 or more points, the first time the franchise has managed that since 1965. And behind Matt Nagy as the play-caller, the offense has found a good rhythm: David Montgomery running the ball coupled with all manner of play-action and boot-actions to simplify things for Trubisky.

And within that framework, Trubisky has been fine. He’s distributed the ball on time and in rhythm. He has, as the dreaded cliché goes, managed the game. Over the past five games combined he has thrown for 1,200 yards, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions and completed 70% of his passes – good if not outstanding totals.

But those figures are a mirage. Trubisky has fattened up his numbers against the league’s worst defenses. By DVOA ranking (a measure of down-to-down efficiency) Trubisky has faced the 32nd-, 30th-, 13th- and 31st-ranked defenses over the past four weeks. The week before that he faced the frisky Packers group and completed just 56% of his passes. That 13th-ranked defense was the Vikings, a group that was lit up to the tune of 52 points against the Saints on Friday night.

Dig in deeper over the past five games and the numbers get worse:

• Average depth of target: 32nd out of 35 eligible quarterback

• Percentage of yards coming after a catch: third out of 35

• Broken tackles from receivers per catch: first out of 32.

In truth, the Bears offense has been trying to hide its quarterback. The team has been winning in spite of its signal-called. Chicago has put together a strong, deep roster and a savvy coaching staff, a staff that has found a way to minimize the risk of Trubisky doing the typical Trubisky things against some woeful defense. Even then, there have been lapses.

Chicago only had to look to the other side of the field on Sunday to see what it means to commit to an average quarterback while the rest of the roster is championship-ready. Back in 2017, after reaching the AFC title game, Jacksonville had the chance to move on from Blake Bortles, to take a big swing, to draft Mahomes or Watson or even Trubisky. Instead, they stuck with Bortles. They stuck with what they knew. They accepted mediocrity at the most important position. And the classic cycle kicked in: the team failed to get over the line; the average quarterback sunk as the pieces crumbled around him, defense being notoriously unreliable year to year; the team dropped from competitive to awful within 24 months; the quarterback was gone; those who picked the known over the unknown were let go, too.

Rather than run things back with Trubisky, playoffs or not, the Bears are in a great position to take a risk, to take a big swing. Only two times in recent history has a franchise that reached the playoffs (or were steamrolling towards the playoffs) said that OK is not good enough: The 49ers in moving on from Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick; the Chiefs in moving on from Alex Smith for Patrick Mahomes.

Perfect should not be the enemy of good. But average should not stop a team from shooting to be great.

MVP of the week

Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There is no collective storyline the online commentariat embraces more than “the old guy has still got it.” Well, Tom Brady, the oldest of all the old guys, has still well and truly got it. Brady’s performance on Saturday night was his best outing in a Bucs uniform to date. The Tampa offense was locked in as Brady lit up the Detroit Lions to the tune of 348 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, while averaging 12.9 yards per attempt. The early-to-mid-to-late season issues between Brady’s system and the approach of his new coach Bruce Arians (most visible in the differences between Brady’s classic “option route” system and Arians’ approach to option designs – Brady letting the coverage dictate the option; Arians asking the receiver to choose) appear to have finally been resolved.

This is what Tampa believers (Tamplievers?) have been waiting on all season: For the Arians-Brady connection to click, even a little, and for the Tampa offense to rise to the same consistent standard as its defense, to blend the downfield excellence that is a hallmark of the Arians offense with the droning certainty of vintage Brady attacks. While Brady has been largely excellent this season, his game has, more than ever, been dependent on his teammates, his own standards rising and falling with those around him as opposed to him dragging everyone up to his own, often impeccable, standards.

Saturday was different. Saturday saw vintage Brady arrive to the proceedings: Playing in rhythm; challenging every level of the defense; ripping fastballs into tight, congested areas; completing even the most improbable throws. And all just in time for the playoffs.

Whether Brady can continue that level as the competition rises is an open question. But if the mid-2000s Brady is able to stick around for another six weeks, the Buccaneers are more than capable of knocking off the Saints and Packers in the NFC.

Quote of the week

“If you can’t care enough to give it everything you got and try your hardest, then that’s bullshit. We stink, but they care and they still want to win. We’re getting paid handsomely. That’s why.” – JJ Watt on the Texans’ defensive effort in the team’s 37-31 loss to the Bengals

Watt tore into his team after the Texans’ latest setback. The situation in Houston makes for grim reading. After this defeat, the first-round draft pick the team owes to the Dolphins thanks to the Laremy Tunsil trade moved into the top five; and the team has among the worst cap sheets in the league. Things are about to get worse before they get better.

Moving Watt on this offseason will be taxing, financially and culturally, but given the bloated cap sheet and the Texans’ trajectory, it may be the in the best interests of both sides to orchestrate a trade of Watt to a contender.

Video of the week

Here is a story told in two parts:

The Falcons coughed away what would have been a stunning upset against the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs in Kansas City. With the game on the line, Mahomes forced a maybe-I-shouldn’t throw into the end zone. It should have been picked. It was … and then it was dropped.

On the very next play, Mahomes delivered a strike over the middle of the field go give the Chiefs the win and wrap up the No 1 overall seed in the AFC.

The Falcons brought a bold plan to Arrowhead. They played a heavy dose of man-coverage – typically a no-no against Mahomes and his band of merry receivers – and were happy to tip their coverages all game long. It worked … until it didn’t. Holding the Chiefs to 17 points should be enough for any team to win. But such is the Atlanta way that even with the team’s performance of the season, they found a way to lose.

Stat of the week

The Steelers returning from a 24-6 deficit to win 28-24 represented the largest turnaround victory during Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach.

Heading into the third quarter on Sunday, it was fair to wonder what had become of the once 11-wins-in-a-row Steelers? And, disconcertingly, what was ahead? The offense looked tired. There was no zip on Ben Roethlisberger’s throws. The defense continued to rally and run but was always a step behind the Colts’ funky offense.

At 24-7, the Steelers looked lifeless. And then the defense sparked. And then Roethlisberger sparked. And then the officials sparked.

All three helped the Steelers get back into the game, with the Pittsburgh defense closing out the contest. In a 10-minute burst, the Steelers forced three consecutive punts, scored on three straight drives (with some help from the officials to extend a pair of those drives), and forced an interception.

The win hands the Steelers the AFC North title. Still, there are issues. Roethlisberger continues to struggle to throw the ball consistently down the field; the run game has fallen off a cliff; the defense is starting to teeter after carrying the load for two straight months. But the win assures the Steelers a spot in the playoffs, wraps up the division crown and puts Tomlin’s team back on the right track as they head towards the postseason.

Elsewhere around the league

• On the other side of the Steelers’ win was Indianapolis’ defeat. A win in Pittsburgh would have guaranteed the Colts a playoff spot. Now, they head into Week 17 with the potential of missing out on the playoffs altogether. This game should be remembered as a missed opportunity. Philip Rivers has, on the whole, been really, really good for the Colts this season. But the reason Indy handed him a $25m contract with the fifth-largest cap hold in the league was to lead fourth-quarter, game-winning drives. Instead, Rivers through another late-game interception to seal the Colts defeat.

• This year’s Tankapalooza has been decided. With the Jets beating the Browns and the Jaguars losing to the Bears, Jacksonville clinched the first overall draft pick in the upcoming draft. So excited were the Jaguars fans to land the top pick – and their pick of the top-two quarterback prospects in the draft – that those in Jacksonville were audibly cheering every Bears score and Jaguars error.

• After Ryan Fitzpatrick’s off-the-bench heroics in the Dolphins come-from-behind win on Saturday, Brian Flores referred to the team’s backup as the “relief pitcher”. On Sunday, he walked that back by saying he “didn’t want to attach labels” to Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa. To continue Flores’ cross-sport metaphor, the Dolphins coach has pitched a perfect game so far this season. Turning to Fitzpatrick to bring a jolt to the Miami offense with Tagovailoa struggling (the starter was efficient but predictable) was an inspired choice. What he does from here on out, whether he turns the team back over to Fitzpatrick for a potential playoff run or opts for the rookie, will be the biggest choice of his young coaching career.

• During the Chiefs victory, Travis Kelce became the first tight end to have two 100-catch seasons. He also broke the single-season yardage record from a tight end with a game to spare. We are not that far away from a ‘Who would you rather have in their prime, Gronk or Kelce?’ discussion becoming a real debate.

• Another outstanding defensive stand gave the Seahawks a 20-9 win over the Rams and with it the NFC West crown.

• The Cowboys ended the Eagles season with a comprehensive 37-17 win. The right to represent the NFC East in the playoffs will now go down to the final week, with the Cowboys, Giants and Washington all still with a chance to win the division.

• The decision-makers in New England and San Francisco will have watched Sam Darnold’s performance against the Browns with keen interest. It has been a mess of a season for Darnold. He has continued to regress across the board, and the early promise from his rookie season has all but evaporated; non-Darnold Jets have thrown for more touchdowns this campaign than the team’s starter. The Jets will almost certainly draft a quarterback with their first-round pick. But there is a talented player underneath all that rubble. On Sunday, glimpses of the old Darnold were on display. If the Jets decide to move on this coming offseason, there will be suitors.


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