Amid a disappointing season, the Bears showed glimpses of brilliance in an impressive 36-7 victory over the Texans Sunday at Soldier Field.
And yet, in many ways, that brilliance left behind as many questions as it did answers.
Here’s a big one: would this season have gone differently if Mitch Trubisky had never been benched back in Week 3?
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As torturous as that question might be to ponder, it is relevant because the top decision-makers at Halas Hall undoubtedly should be asking the same question. The quarterback position was the most important evaluation of the preseason and the decision to bench Trubisky was the most important decision of the regular season.
Trubisky hasn’t been perfect since returning three games ago, but he’s been plenty good enough to win with and, more importantly, the offense obviously functions better with him under center. Against Deshaun Watson Sunday, Trubisky was 24-of-33 for 267 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 126.7. Overall, the Bears accounted for 410 yards of offense and averaged 6.9 yards per play.
Don’t worry, I’m not re-writing any Trubisky history here. The benching was certainly defensible given the quarterback’s overall track record in Chicago and it was hardly surprising considering what the Bears invested in Nick Foles in the offseason.
But as I’ve maintained throughout the season, this isn’t so much Trubisky vs Foles as it is what the Bears’ offense looked like with each quarterback. Throughout training camp, the Bears installed heavier sets under center and used more play-action to aid the offensive line, improve the running game and, yes, help Trubisky with his reads. The fourth-year quarterback played well enough to win the starting job over Foles in camp, and when the games started, the offensive line looked better, the running game improved and Trubisky played well enough to win his first two games.
That all changed in Atlanta in Week 3, however, as the running game stalled and Trubisky committed two critical errors – missing a deep ball to Anthony Miller in the second quarter and opening up the third quarter with an interception. It was in that moment that Nagy made a gut decision and inserted Foles into the game. Foles underwhelmed for a quarter before firing off three straight touchdowns in the final 6:20 to complete a miraculous comeback and improve the Bears’ record to 3-0.
But in hindsight, that might have been the worst thing that happened to the Bears in 2020. From that point on, Nagy went all in on his spread-it-out West Coast offense and -- save for one really good win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- the results were very poor. The running game disappeared and the Bears failed to score more than 23 points in any game Foles started.
Eventually a hip injury to Foles forced Nagy’s hand, but it’s fair to wonder if the head coach would have gone back to Trubisky sooner had he not suffered a shoulder injury on his only snap played as the backup quarterback. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Trubisky is back and the offense is looking the best it has since the 2018 season. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is calling the plays now and the Bears have gone back to some of the things that worked – primarily in the running game – back in Week 1 and Week 2.
Courtesy of JJ Stankevitz, just take a look at running back David Montgomery’s production with the two quarterbacks:
Montgomery with Trubisky: 76 carries, 442 yards (5.8 YPC), 4 TDs
Montgomery with Nick Foles: 94 carries, 318 yards (3.4 YPC), 0 TDs
The success on the ground also coincides with stability on the offensive line, which is still without two Week 1 starters in left guard James Daniels and right tackle Bobby Massie. But before injuries get blamed for the previous struggles, the issues up front started before Daniels and Massie went down. There’s a much sharper correlation to the quarterback switches and that’s not surprising considering that Foles’ inability to scramble put a lot more pressure on his protection. With Trubisky, the line gets help from tighter formations, some play-action (there could still be more) and the quarterback’s ability to scramble and execute designed rollouts.
Trubisky’s shoulder injury in Week 8 gives Nagy an alibi for not going back to the younger quarterback sooner, but it doesn’t answer all the questions. In an ugly Week 7 loss in Los Angeles, Foles did plenty to warrant a benching, but his leash proved to be much longer than Trubisky’s.
Sunday’s 36-7 victory over the Texans feels like too little too late, but the Bears aren’t completely out of the playoff picture yet. It’s also true that most of the offensive production has come against the weak defenses of the Texans and Lions, or in garbage time in a blowout loss to the Packers.
But there’s also no denying that the Bears have found the rhythm on offense that has eluded them for much of the last two seasons, and Nagy even believes they’re finally establishing an identity.
I asked Nagy Sunday how he describes that identity. His answer:
“I think you’ve got to be able to run the ball, you’ve got to be able to pass protect, you’ve got to make good decisions and then when you get the football in your hands, you’ve got to be able to make plays. Our guys did that today.”
Maybe the Bears can keep doing that the next three weeks and sneak into the playoffs. But if they don’t, it will be fair to wonder if they would have found that identity sooner had Trubisky never been benched.