Mitchell Trubisky already established himself as Bears' franchise-saving QB

Transcendent quarterbacks are to Chicago what wins are to Cleveland: rare, foreign, and always elusive. But while the Browns failed to get a win this past year, the Bears got their quarterback.

When Bears general manager Ryan Pace cut the franchise's all-time best quarterback and one of the game's most underappreciated players ever, Jay Cutler, in March, he signaled the beginning of a new era, telling Chicago to let the past die. But when Pace signed the very tall, but very bad Mike Glennon as Cutler's replacement, he insulted both Cutler and Chicago with a laughable succession plan. It felt like the dark times would continue forever. And then, when Pace traded up one spot to select Mitchell Trubisky second overall in last year's draft, he sent the entire league and city spiraling into a state of confusion.

Why did Pace commit $18.5 million to Glennon when he already had a better quarterback in Cutler? If he knew he'd be trading up to draft a rookie in the draft, why waste money on Glennon? Did he even have a plan or was he throwing darts at the board hoping one would hit the mark?

It turns out, it really doesn't matter all that much. While Pace can be criticized for his process of moving on from the Cutler era -- because process matters -- he did something that eludes most franchises: He found his quarterback. One of his darts actually connected with its intended target. Trubisky is the franchise-saving quarterback the Bears have been looking for since, well, forever really.

His teammates nicknamed him The Pretty Boy Assassin. A New Hope might be more fitting.

It certainly didn't begin with hope. And even today it's not overtly obvious. After an impressive showing in the preseason, the Bears now defunct coaching staff kept Trubisky on the bench for Glennon. He didn't last long. By the end of Week 1, it was evident that Glennon wasn't the answer. By Week 5, the starting job belonged to Trubisky, who flashed promise in his debut against the Vikings, but spoiled it by throwing a horrific late game-losing interception, an act that undoubtedly looked familiar to fans who spent nearly a decade cheering for and moaning about Cutler. By the end of the season, Trubisky had pieced together an underwhelming stat line in 12 starts.

  • Completion percentage: 59.4
  • Yards per attempt: 6.6
  • Touchdown passes: 7 (2.1 percent)
  • Interceptions: 7 (2.1 percent)
  • Passer rating: 77.5
  • Rushing yards: 248
  • Rushing touchdowns: 2

But evaluating Trubisky's 12-game season, during which he threw to a no-name receiving corps led by Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman in a "basic" offensive system better suited for the middle ages, requires looking beyond his conventional stat line. When diving into his film, his potential and ability to thrive in the NFL is apparent.

Trubisky's been compared to 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff because of their lackluster stats in Year 1 and because of the similarities between the 2016 Rams and the 2017 Bears. The two are even rooming together this offseason. But it's not a fair comparison. Unlike Goff, who suffered through a horrific rookie season before engineering a Year 2 turnaround, Trubisky's rookie-year film features plenty of positives. Pro Football Focus actually graded Trubisky's rookie year higher than Deshaun Watson's.

He's already arrived.

Precision, arm talent, timing

Trubisky's accuracy and precision immediately jumps out. According to Cian Fahey, who tracks advanced statistics for an annual quarterback catalogue, Trubisky finished as the fifth-most accurate quarterback after adjusting for depth

On his first-ever NFL pass, he demonstrated his ability to throw with precision into areas that help his receivers while also preventing defenders from challenging for the ball. 

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Low and away so that the defensive back can't break up the pass, but also far enough away from the sideline to give his receiver space to land in bounds:

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There's a difference between completion percentage (Trubisky ranked 27th) and accuracy. Completion percentage measures a quarterback's ability to complete a pass without taking into account his ball placement. Accuracy factors in a quarterback's ability to place the ball in a spot that helps his receiver make an easy catch and pick up yards after the catch.

Below, if Trubisky hadn't led his receiver toward space -- if the receiver had to slow down to catch the ball -- the Bears wouldn't have picked up a fresh set of downs on third down. It looks simple, but it's the simple things like ball placement that are the differences between punts and third-down conversions.

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On third downs, Trubisky posted a higher completion percentage (61.6), yards per attempt (7.8) and passer rating (88.7) than he did on any other down. Furthermore, on third downs with 7-plus yards to go, Trubisky went 43 of 58 (74.1 percent), averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, and accumulated a 107.6 passer rating, picking up 22 first downs in the process (18 passing and four running).

The low-and-away throw like the one at the beginning of this section is one that shows up often on Trubisky's tape. He also understands when to protect his receivers from incoming hits. 

Below, he saw the defensive back lurking downfield. So, instead of leading his receiver so that he could try to turn up field, which would've resulted in a bone-crushing hit and perhaps a drop, Trubisky forced his receiver to go down to make the grab, thus shielding him from the hit.

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He can throw a covered receiver open. Below, Trubisky understood that his tight end, Adam Shaheen, was open even though he was blanketed in coverage. The defender guarding Shaheen wasn't looking back at the quarterback. He was just trying to keep up with his man. So, Trubisky whistled in a fastball over the trailing defender's shoulder.

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The throw above demonstrates his arm talent. It's less about distance and more about velocity. 

Tremendous velocity without losing precision allows Trubisky to pull off tight-window throws that some quarterbacks wouldn't dare try. According to PFF, Trubisky wrapped up the regular season with the third-highest passer rating (108.1) on throws that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. 

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That pass might be one of the most impressive completions of the entire 2017 season -- not just by Trubisky, but by any quarterback. So is the throw below. 

In Trubisky's second start, the Bears found themselves on the cusp of field-goal range with fewer than five minutes remaining in overtime. On third down, Trubisky eluded the blitz and while stepping back, fired a laser into the tightest of windows, essentially winning the game.

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His ball placement was especially evident on some of his red zone touchdown passes. There, Trubisky excelled when given a chance to throw up weighted passes to his tight ends, especially Shaheen.

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Seriously, the Trubisky-Shaheen combination -- both were rookies last year -- is poised to become a major red-zone threat in the years to come.

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Timing also matters. Most of Trubisky's passes targeted timing routes. The Bears lacked deep threats of any kind, so they relied on play-action and short-to-immediate passes -- slants, outs, throws to the flat, screens, etc. Those are simpler throws for most quarterbacks, but that doesn't make them easy. Over the course of the season, Trubisky honed his timing, firing darts into tight windows immediately after hitting the top of his drop. 

Is the play below a simple concept? Yes. But it also require a ball that beats the underneath linebacker in coverage, a ball that is thrown far away from the trailing coverage, and a ball that is quick enough to get there before the safety arrives. 

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Below, Trubisky recognized the zone coverage and patiently waited until his target crossed the inside linebacker before hitting him in stride. Again, the ball placement allowed his target to pick up yards after the catch.

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According to PFF, 12 percent of Trubisky's passing attempts went to receivers on crossing routes. On such plays, he averaged 10.5 yards per attempt and posted a 104.9 passer rating (league average was 95.5).

On the move

Trubisky throws on the run a ton. A part of that is a function of the play-calling, as the Bears' staff tried to coddle him at times by simplifying the game-plan for him. Rolling out cuts the field in half. And Trubisky is dangerous on the run. So in that sense, the Bears were smart to cater the game-plan to his strengths.

Even as Trubisky masters the intricacies of the playing from the pocket, his ability to throw on the run will still matter. The Bears should continue to roll him out frequently. He's alarmingly proficient at throwing while moving.

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It's amazing how his accuracy doesn't disappear even when he's mobile.

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What's also noticeable is that he usually keeps his eyes up even when he's leaving the pocket. He's not looking to run as his first option. He's almost always looking for an open target even as he approaches the line of scrimmage.

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But when he wants to run, he's efficient. He's a smart runner in the sense that he picks and chooses his moments. 

Below, Trubisky knew that he faced a blitz, which left fewer defenders in coverage. He also knew that the Browns were in man coverage. So, once he sidestepped the blitz and once his receiver running a drag across the field took his man with him, he knew the entire middle of the field had been cleared out. He took the space.

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Below, Trubisky looked to his right the entire time and pumped to draw more defenders to that portion of the field, which opened up a whole lot of real estate to his left. He took it and acquired a third-down conversion.

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He's also capable of making defenders miss. In the play below, the Bears trailed by three points with fewer than 30 seconds remaining. Facing a fourth-and-forever, Trubisky kept the Bears alive with a Johnny Football-esque scramble.

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The Bears then went on to miss a game-tying field goal, which is just about the perfect representation of Trubisky's supporting cast. There is one area that the Bears are stacked at, though: running back. Together, Trubisky and Jordan Howard / Tarik Cohen form a dangerous duo down near the goal line. Trubisky's mobility features a quick first few steps, which makes the zone-read deadly in and around the end zone.

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Opposing defenses will have to respect Trubisky's legs in the red zone and everywhere else. He's not as mobile as a Russell Wilson, but he's not a statue either. He can move.

Cycling through reads

Perhaps the most impressive quality of Trubisky is his willingness to go through his reads this early in his career. When the Bears did call for plays that didn't involve rollouts that cut the field in half, Trubisky cycled through his options instead of settling on his first target.

Below, Trubisky worked his way from the left side of the field all the way to the far side of the right, where he hit his checkdown just before the pressure arrived. It led to a first down.

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Below, Trubisky started his progression by looking to his far left. Then, he went to his next target just to the right of the far-left receiver. Finally, he hit his third read, Shaheen, in the middle of the field. This might seem simple, but it's important. It's the difference between a negative play and a positive play.

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He can do this in part because he's composed and resourceful under pressure. He rarely panics.

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Weaknesses 

Clearly, though, Trubisky isn't a perfect product. He still contains some glaring weaknesses, which is to be expected out of a rookie quarterback who entered the NFL with only one year of college starting experience. While he showed prolonged glimpses of the qualities that indicate he can be a future star, he's not there yet.

Despite his pinpoint accuracy, he sometimes sails throws to his left.  

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He takes bad sacks, the kind of sacks that result from holding onto the ball for far too long. Below, he stared directly at the blitzer to his left, but he either ignored or forgot about him as he scanned the other side of the field after his initial reads weren't there. He took way too long to unload the ball and fumbled as a result.

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The sack below, which was a far more common result, came because Trubisky couldn't find anyone open and instead of throwing the ball away, he took a negative play, which pushed the Bears to the edge of field-goal range.

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Statistically, he struggled in the red zone, completing under 50 percent of his passes for four touchdowns, one pick, and a 78.9 passer rating. His numbers under pressure were atrocious. According to PFF, he posted a 48.7 passer rating under pressure, which ranked 34th out of 40 qualified quarterbacks. 

More broadly speaking, while his standard stat line shouldn't be the only way we grade his rookie season, it can't be ignored. If he really was a star already, he wouldn't be generating subpar stats. He'd overcome suspect play-calling and a bad supporting staff. Trubisky's film indicates that the traits are there for him to become a great quarterback. But he's not there yet because his traits haven't always translated into touchdowns and yards. He hasn't put all the pieces together yet.

Again, it's important to remember that he's started 12 games in his NFL career. He's going to make mistakes. In fact, it's important that he does makes mistakes like the one he made in his first career start, when Vikings safety Harrison Smith baited him into throwing a game-losing interception in the fourth quarter of a tied game, because it should make him a better player as soon as next season.

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The Bears shouldn't be overly concerned because as his supporting cast improves around him and as he garners more experience, his weaknesses should dissipate. The Bears' receiving corps didn't exactly excel at creating separation. The Bears' play-callers didn't always put the offense in the best possible position. Trubisky's stats say he sucked under pressure, but there are more than a few examples of him keeping his composure under duress just like how there are examples of him weighting perfectly lobbed passes to Shaheen in the end zone. 

Now, he just needs to apply those traits more consistently once he gets supplied with more capable playmakers. Once that happens, we can anoint him as a good quarterback. Until it happens, he'll be stuck with the promising label. But at this point in his career, that's all the Bears can ask for. They have a quarterback who, with the right coaching and right players around him, can hone his skills and develop into a star.

He needs help

Starting Glennon over Trubisky seemed like a colossal failure of player evaluation, but it's defensible from at least one perspective. Throwing a rookie quarterback into a predictable offense without a single reliable target wasn't the smartest course of action. But the Bears can now be so optimistic about Trubisky's future after seeing what he did within the structure of that predictable lackluster offense. 

The Bears fired John Fox for Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, and, well, just listen to Howard talk about the impending changes.

"I felt great about that because last year we were pretty much basic and everybody knew what we were going do, they knew what was coming pretty much every play so it was pretty easy for them to stop us," Howard said on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football". "Now, I feel like we're going to be a lot more creative and have defenses off-balance."

Nagy deserved blame for the way the Chiefs' offensive output evaporated in the second half of their embarrassing playoff loss to the Titans, but he also deserves credit for helping run one of the most creative offenses in football. Nagy helped turn Alex Smith of all quarterbacks into the league's best deep-ball passer. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt was an immediate star. Tyreek Hill continued his rise as bonafide playmaker. Andy Reid will rightly get most of the credit, but when the Chiefs' offense was mired in a mid-season slump, Reid handed play-calling duties to his offensive coordinator. 

Already, you can see similar pieces on the Bears' roster. RPOs will help Trubisky. Cohen might be a running back, but he's just as dangerous of a weapon as Hill, finishing second on the Bears in receptions. Take it from Hill himself:

An optimistic view says Shaheen can be the Bears' version of Travis Kelce. If Cameron Meredith can recover from a torn ACL, he can be a dependable possession option for Trubisky. 

The Bears need to address receiver in free agency or the draft to get Trubisky a more-vertical threat. They'll also need to plug a hole in the offensive line now that they've decided to release top-tier guard Josh Sitton. Right tackle was already an area they could've upgraded. Meanwhile, they can't just ignore the defense, which still needs some bolstering.

You get the point. The Bears don't have one or two holes. They have a Titanic-sized hole at receiver and then some smaller leaks that need patching. This might not take one offseason. It'll likely take two. But the Bears can take solace in the fact that they already did the hard part. The Bears acquiring a potentially transcendent quarterback is like the Browns finding a way to win a game. It's not impossible, but it almost never happens. This time, it actually happened. Now, it's time to give him a supporting cast that can accelerate his development.

Trubisky's stats at the end of his first season didn't demonstrate his potential, but his film did. His final results weren't great, but his process indicated that he has greatness in him. And process matters. 

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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