Too often building around a quarterback and building around a quarterback’s strengths are confused. When the Bears first acquired Jay Cutler, they thought deep threats were the best way to build around the strong-armed passer, without realizing throwing deep passes wasn’t necessarily his strength. The same is true for Mitch Trubisky who was one of the worst deep passers in the league last year, but one of the best on shorter completions.
The drafting of Riley Ridley was an example of the Bears trying to play to the strengths of their quarterback.
Ridley doesn’t have the speed to consistently blow by defenders, but he is considered an excellent route runner, which should help him get open on underneath passes. He also has a big frame to win the so-called 50/50 balls. Ridley adds to bigger targets that include Allen Robinson and Javon Wims as the Bears look to eat up the middle of the field while still being able to beat defenses over the top, on occasion.
Of quarterbacks with 50 or more attempts, Trubisky is ranked 27th with a passer rating of 61.9 on passes traveling 15 or more yards down the field, according to Pro-Football-Reference. He ranked slightly better than Blake Bortles and worse than quarterbacks like Josh Rosen, Case Keenum, Sam Darnold and Alex Smith.
But Trubisky was elite on short passes.
He had a passer rating of 107 on passes that traveled less than 15 yards in the air – fifth among quarterbacks with 50 or more attempts, behind only Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes.
Despite clearly being better on short passes, 22 percent of Trubisky’s attempts were 15 or more yards down the field. For comparison sake, the very best quarterback at throwing deep — Russell Wilson (131.8 rating) — had just about 21.5 percent of his passes travel that far. The second best — Drew Brees (125.5) — had just 17 percent of his passes go that far down the field. Heck, even the cannon-armed Patrick Mahomes came in with just 21.4 percent of his passes going 15 or more yards down the field.
So, what gives?
Part of it is the play caller. Matt Nagy wants to air it out. He brought the deep pass to Kansas City, where Alex Smith was known almost exclusively as a short-ball thrower. More on that later.
Part of it is the supporting cast. Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson are terrific deep-ball receivers and Anthony Miller showed the ability to get open down the field. Nagy was playing to their strengths, which is what he should do.
Let’s be clear, the Bears didn’t struggle throwing deep because of their receivers or play-caller though. They had plenty of wide open opportunities down the field, the quarterback just missed them far too often. Regardless of the volume, there are a number of passes that Trubisky just has to hit if he’s going to be an elite NFL quarterback. The Bears need him to be better.
Throwing deep was a flaw of Trubisky’s going back to North Carolina, so it isn’t likely that it’s ever going to be a strength. But that doesn’t mean the Bears can’t be effective getting the ball down the field. Alex Smith is a notoriously bad deep-ball thrower, but was the most efficient deep passer in the league in 2017 when Nagy was calling the plays. A big difference was volume, only 17 percent of Smith’s passes went 15 or more yards down the field.
Part of the Bears problem in 2018 was their reliance on deep passes. During the second half of the season we saw the offense struggle when opponents took them away. Without the running game to keep defenses honest and keep third downs manageable, the Bears often stalled and weren’t able to sustain drives. They hope they have the running game fixed with David Montgomery and with Ridley, the Bears have another receiver who can win at or near the line of scrimmage and can snatch the ball even when they aren’t necessarily open.
As good as Gabriel was in 2018, he isn’t going to win many contested battles and doesn’t give quarterbacks much of a window to fit the ball into against tight coverage. That’s where Ridley should come in. We certainly shouldn’t expect the Bears to stop throwing the ball down the field, but they’ll surely need to decrease the attempts to increase the efficiency. It’s the best way to get the most out of their young quarterback.
Trubisky is a butcher on deep passes, but he’s a surgeon underneath.