Mitchell Trubisky did not play like a great NFL quarterback in the first game of his second season as an NFL quarterback. That's one of the biggest takeaways from the Bears' devastating 24-23 loss to the Packers on Sunday night, when they blew a 20-point lead to a one-legged Aaron Rodgers. For as much as the defense is to blame for collapsing in the fourth quarter, the offense deserves just as much blame for not putting the Packers away when they had to chance.
And that brings us to a photo that's been circulating on Twitter for much of Tuesday.
On a third down from the Packers' three-yard line, this play went for -minus five yards. Bonus points if you spot the open player.... pic.twitter.com/sLrsDmvK04— dan durkin (@djdurkin) September 11, 2018
It's a photo that appears to show Trubisky missing a wide-open Trey Burton in the end zone on a third-and-goal late in the first quarter -- not in the sense that Trubisky misfired, but in the sense that he failed to pull the trigger entirely. Instead of throwing the ball to Burton, Trubisky came back across the field to Taylor Gabriel, who made a catch and promptly lost five yards. The Bears kicked a field goal and extended their lead to 10-0, which ended up being important later when the Bears lost by one point.
Did Trubisky miss an easy touchdown? Or is the photo misleading?
The answers to those questions, as expected, aren't as simple as yes or no. Many, like Hall of Fame contributor finalist and former Cowboys VP of player personnel Gil Brandt, were quick to point out that screenshots can be misleading. The game moves faster than a photo or a slow motion replay.
Game looks awfully easy in slow motion, much less still-framed. https://t.co/E3N6TakmDz— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) September 11, 2018
In the photo and in the slow-motion replay, Burton is as wide open as wide open gets.
But what does the play look like at full speed? It looks like this:
I'll be honest: The first time I watched the play at full speed, I was convinced that Trubisky didn't have a window. No shot, I thought. That Packers defensive back was lurking and he made a beeline toward Burton as soon as Trubisky stopped looking at Tarik Cohen heading toward the flat, which the Packers shut off, and set his feet to potentially deliver a strike to Burton. And if that throw gets picked off, which it very well might've been, then we're spending the next few days talking about how Trubisky needed to just throw the ball away and settle for a field goal in that situation instead of forcing a ball into a window that wasn't there.
To put it another way, it ain't easy being a quarterback in the NFL.
Former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky seemed to think that the throw could've been picked.
Yea balls picked off if he throws it.— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) September 11, 2018
Listen I’m not bashing DJ at all here. I get how this looks bad. But QB’s often feel color-the color rocketing from the left is what I presume gets him off it. It’s 3rd down in the RZ-maybe he’s ultra aggressive and fits it in. Doubtful but maybe..— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) September 11, 2018
Even Packers cornerback Kevin King said that his teammate would've intercepted that potential pass.
Lol everything look open on a screenshot, @haha_cd6 woulda been Lambeau leapin if he woulda threw this, facts 🤷🏽♂️ https://t.co/x1iwUQNHjm— Kevin King (@King_kevvoo) September 11, 2018
But the more I watched the play and thought about Trubisky's performance throughout the entirety of the game, the more I came around to the other side, at least partially. Is there an argument to be made that Trubisky should've spotted the open target sooner?
He wasn’t, as I said. Was a screen to Gabriel. But the screen action influenced the safety, giving Burton leverage off the snap. Window was there, Mitch likely looking to make primary read/throw work, but GB wasn’t fooled.— dan durkin (@djdurkin) September 11, 2018
It's a difficult play to analyze, and that's why it's difficult to blame Trubisky for the final outcome of the play. The very fact that we're debating if Trubisky should've thrown the ball indicates that the opening wasn't as obvious as that initial screenshot made it seem. There's a very real chance that the pass gets picked off if Trubisky tries to force the ball into Burton. And that's the one outcome Trubisky needed to avoid.
But can Trubisky be criticized for not seeing Burton earlier? I think so, especially because failing to cycle through his reads was an issue throughout most of the game. He spent much of the second half dropping his eyes as soon as his first read disappeared. If Trubisky had realized that Cohen was covered earlier and spotted Burton as soon as he was open, he might've had a touchdown -- again, maybe.
To get back to the original question, I think the answer is that Trubisky might've missed a touchdown, but even if he did, his failure to spot the touchdown is an understandable mistake for a second-year quarterback who started one full season in college and 12 games a season ago in a Stone-Age offense. He's going to struggle at points this season until he gets more comfortable in Matt Nagy's system and more generally speaking, to the NFL. The target he missed wasn't as obvious as that screenshot and slow-motion replay made it seem. It wasn't an easy play. But as time goes on, one would expect Trubisky to make that read quicker.
The fact of the matter is, Trubisky actually made a more critical mistake on the play before when he misfired to Allen Robinson in the end zone. Trubisky had Robinson open, but he just sailed the throw. If Trubisky hits this pass, we're not spending our Tuesday arguing about a touchdown that he may or may not have missed.
We've spent a lot of time discussing Trubisky, so it is worth mentioning that Trubisky wasn't the reason the Bears lost on Sunday night. Nagy deserves just as much blame for his play calling and decision making late in the game, when he called for a passing play on third-and-short and then kicked a field goal to put the Bears up six, begging Rodgers to beat them by a point. The defense should've done more to prevent Rodgers from tearing them apart in the second half. Jordan Howard shouldn't have ran out of bounds. And so on. Trubisky isn't blameless, but he also isn't the only one worth blaming.
And here's the good news: Trubisky wasn't even at his best against the Packers and the Bears still should've won the game. If Trubisky progresses the way we expect him to, this Bears team should be able to make the leap from competitive to good.
One blown lead shouldn't define this version of the Bears. And one controversial play in the red zone shouldn't define Trubisky's season.