Every once in a while, one NFL game can essentially decide a quarterback’s fate with a franchise.
The “prove it” game is the younger brother of the “prove it” season, which often occurs when a player takes a one-year deal with a club due to past injury or mediocre performance and bets on himself for more riches down the road. Unlike the “prove it” season, most “prove it” games occur when a player is still with his first NFL team, the one that rolled the dice on him in the first place and watched as it mortifyingly turned up snake eyes.
Think Jameis Winston’s Week 16 disaster against Houston in 2019, when the 7-7 Bucs, already out of playoff contention but trying to finish with a winning record, saw those hopes go up in smoke with Winston’s four-interception game, which included his sixth pick 6 of a season that he ultimately finished with a cataclysmic 30 interceptions.
That’s all I could think about as I watched Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky struggle throughout Chicago’s disappointing 21-9 road loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in the NFC wild-card round.
Heading into the game, there were multiple reports about how Trubisky, the second overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft, needed a long playoff run to return to Chicago next season. That the door even remained open is a testament to the fact the man who selected him, general manager Ryan Pace, well, remains the Bears’ general manager. Another GM likely would have ejected a while ago.
Pace, understandably, had every reason to want to see Trubisky make it. He wanted to avoid the scarlet letter of drafting an outright bust No. 2 overall, let alone one in front of the likes of Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.
While Trubisky possessed arm strength and athleticism, the NFL is a production league, and after a breakthrough 2018 season under head coach Matt Nagy, Trubisky failed to take the next step. He couldn’t elevate the play of his teammates, like Watson, who killed it this season despite a dumpster fire around him, or Mahomes, the league’s 2018 MVP.
Trubisky could manage the game, which is prescient since more than one scout I talked to leading into that draft compared him to Alex Smith. And to be sure, what we saw over the previous three weeks was a man simply managing the game.
Coaches tell you what they really think about a quarterback by what they ask them to do in actual games. If they don’t trust them, they’ll run the Trent Dilfer Special — rely on the run game, use play-action off that and ask the quarterback to make only a few big throws per game.
That’s what Nagy asked Trubisky to do during the Bears’ three-game winning streak from Weeks 14-16, wisely putting the game in the hands of an improved offensive line and David Montgomery, who is starting to come around as an impact back. And if this were 2000 or hell, even 2010, maybe that would be fine going into the future, provided the Bears committed to complementing a limited offense with a lights-out defense.
But this is 2020, and the game-managing quarterback doesn’t cut it anymore. Not in a league with established playmaking stars at the position like Mahomes, Watson and Aaron Rodgers, or ascending young studs like Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert, and even more on the way in Trevor Lawrence and perhaps, Justin Fields, Trey Lance or Zach Wilson.
It’s a quarterback-driven game more than ever, and when the calendar turns and the stakes get larger, teams need a guy under center who can win the damn game. Because more often than not, the guy on the other side of the ball can do that.
And while that wasn’t the case Sunday — Drew Brees is Hall of Fame bound but he’s not what he used to be — Trubisky’s limitations again shone through against an outstanding Saints defense that was all too willing to gang up on the run, holding Chicago to a measly 48 yards rushing, and let Trubisky beat them with his arm.
And while Trubisky’s stat line was OK on the surface — he was 19-of-29 for 199 yards and an inconsequential touchdown as time expired — he couldn’t exploit the holes in the Saints’ defense as a pocket passer, especially on money downs. It’s the same issue he had his entire Chicago tenure, and the Bears finished a miserable 1-of-10 on third down, 10 of which were dropbacks.
It’s worth noting that the Bears’ receivers were a scrambled unit by the end of the game, thanks to a rash of injuries and an ill-timed ejection on Anthony Miller. The wideout was goaded into throwing a punch by Hall of Fame irritant Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is basically approaching Bill Laimbeer in cleats status.
That actually posed the opportunity for Trubisky to prove he could lift his teammates to a higher level. But he came up short, so much so that even the kids — the kids! — were taking swipes. So bummed were the children who watched Trubisky’s effort that they named him the first “Nickelodeon Valuable Player” during a broadcast of the game that was shown on the popular children’s network, an unintentionally back-handed compliment of epic proportions. Brutal.
Yet, the good news for Trubisky is that he doesn’t have to be remembered this way. Even with his tenure in Chicago very likely over, he’s mobile with arm talent and lots of starting experience, and his genial demeanor makes him a perfect No. 2 quarterback for some team that has an older starter who might be on the way out soon. He’ll never be handed a starting job again, but if he puts his head down and keeps working and signs with a run-dominant team that uses play-action and boot, there’s a chance he can pull a Ryan Tannehill.
Trubisky wasn’t likely thinking about that Sunday during the (likely) final chapter of a disappointing Chicago tenure. Trubisky even said he could “definitely” see himself back in Chicago next season, and that he and the Bears “have unfinished business.”
If Nagy and Pace return, they’ll almost certainly be on the hot seat, which means they can’t go into next season with an option on the roster that isn’t definitely better than Trubisky. And if they aren’t, there’s no way the next GM will want to run that back.
“Prove it” games for quarterbacks don’t happen all that often, but when they do, and they go poorly, no one is ever shocked.
By that time, a fresh start is necessary for all parties involved, and if Trubisky is going to revive his career, it’s likely going to be someplace far away from the weary Bears fans who definitely need to be treated to something different. They’ve seen enough proof.
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