Friday night, news leaked that Mitchell Trubisky would be the Bears’ week 1 starting QB. While this is a decision that greatly surprises me, I want to explore what the Bears need from Trubisky in order to make it work.
This immediately led me to look for what he has done differently when he has been the most successful in his Bears career. There was actually a stretch in 2018 when he performed pretty well, starting with his breakout game against Tampa Bay in week 4 and continuing until he hurt his shoulder against the Vikings in week 11. In that 7 game stretch, Trubisky was 138 of 217 for 18 TD, 6 INT, and a 107.3 passer rating. Not every game in there was good – he had 3 games with a passer rating below 80 – but overall it was easily the most impressive stretch of his career, as you can see below (note: I’m ignoring his rookie season in 2017 and focusing solely on what he has done in this offense the last 2 years).
Three things stand out to me here:
- He moved the ball efficiently. Look at that yards/attempt; it’s beautiful. For context, the average NFL pass gained 6.7 yards in 2019. Trubisky was well above that for one magical seven game stretch, but has been below it for the rest of his career. And this isn’t just a one-game outlier; Trubisky was above 10 yards/attempt in three of the 7 games, and only below 6.5 in one of them. For a little more context, 8.7 yards/attempt would have ranked 2nd in the NFL last year, while Trubisky’s 6.1 yards/attempt was last in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks.
- He threw touchdowns. 4.5% of all passes thrown in the NFL in 2019 went for touchdowns. In that seven game stretch, Trubisky was nearly double that. Even if you remove the Tampa Bay game as an outlier, he’s still at 6.3% for the other 6 games, which is well above league average. For the rest of his career, he has struggled mightily to throw touchdowns.
- His legs were a weapon. This has more to do with running efficiency than volume, though you can see he also ran more often when he was at his best. From weeks 4-11 of 2018, Trubisky averaged over 8 yards/carry, while he was around 4 yards/carry in the other samples.
Those are the differences. Trubisky didn’t throw it more or less often than in other times, he didn’t complete more passes, and he didn’t avoid interceptions. He just gained more yards, threw more touchdowns, and ran it more effectively.
Accounting for the Opponent
I’m going to look in a minute at what he did differently as a passer to gain more yards and throw more touchdowns in that stretch, but first I want to check and make sure this wasn’t just due to facing bad defenses. As I’ve written about in the past, Trubisky has made a living the last two years by beating up bad defenses while getting consistently dominated by good ones (even after accounting for the quality of the opposition). So let’s look at the average passing statistics the defenses in these three samples allowed to see if that might account for why Trubisky had a hot 7 game stretch.
It certainly doesn’t appear as though the defenses Trubisky faced in his good run were all that different from the rest of the 2 years. 2019 defenses were a little tougher than the 2018 ones, largely because there weren’t as many games against cupcakes; the 100+ column on the right is the % of games against teams who allowed a passer rating of 100 or higher on the season, which are the teams Trubisky has most feasted on. However, the number of cupcake defenses was actually lower in Trubisky’s hot stretch than the rest of 2018, and the overall numbers those defenses allowed on average aren’t all that different, so it would appear Trubisky’s succes in that run was not primarily driven by the caliber of defenses faced.
Different Passing Approach
Now I want to look at some advanced statistics to see how Trubisky’s approach as a passer changed during that hot stretch. As you can see in the table below, the difference is startling.
A few thoughts:
- Most of the time, Trubisky is a dink and dunk QB. This is evidenced by his time to throw, completed air yards, intended air yards, and air yards to sticks all being appreciably shorter than the NFL average. He’s also not very smart about how he dinks and dunks, because he still throws into tight coverage (aggressive throws) and takes sacks at a league average or higher rate despite playing with a style that should keep those numbers low.
- In his hot stretch, Trubisky morphed into a gunslinger who threw it deep almost 29% of the time, about 10% more often than the NFL average. For comparison, when I examined deep passing in the 2019 offseason, only 10 of the 155 QB seasons I looked up threw it deep at least 23% of the time, and nobody topped 26% for an entire season. His passes traveled much farther than NFL average (both in intended air yards and relative to the 1st down marker, which is the air yards to sticks category), and it worked for him.
- This explains why Trubisky had a higher yards/attempt than other stretches despite a comparable completion percentage: the passes went farther. It also explains the touchdowns, as deep passes lead to big plays. So Trubisky’s passing success we found earlier was largely driven by throwing the ball deep more often.
- Of course, it wasn’t JUST that Trubisky threw it deep more often. He also played smarter. Notice that he didn’t throw into tight coverage all that much more despite throwing the ball deeper, and his sack rate plummeted despite holding the ball longer (sacks are a QB stat more than an OL one). Couple the low sack rate with running more frequently and efficiently, and it’s pretty clear to see that Trubisky made smarter decisions about when to bail from the pocket. Couple deeper passes with only marginally increased throws into tight coverage and interceptions, and it’s clear that Trubisky made smarter decisions about where to throw the football.
I also want to note that Trubisky was still not terribly efficient throwing the deep ball during his hot stretch. As you can see in the table below, which shows statistics for deep passes only, it was the best deep passing stretch of his career, but it was still around average overall in terms of efficiency.
Deep passing has always been an area where Trubisky struggles due to his issues with pass accuracy getting magnified. He supposedly worked on improving his passing mechanics this offseason, so we’ll see if that pays off for him.
What We Learned
Trubisky had one magical two-month period in 2018 when he was actually a capable (albeit inconsistent) NFL quarterback. In that stretch, he played reasonably smart football, took more deep shots, and ran the ball. If the Bears want to do anything meaningful in 2020, they need to get Trubisky back in that form. If he plays like the timid, clueless passer he has been for the rest of the last two years, the transition to Nick Foles should happen fairly quickly.
Trubisky has always been a streaky QB. He has trouble mentally overcoming a bad game, and the week 1 dud against Green Bay in 2019 set a tone that he struggled to move past. The one good stretch of his career immediately followed a monster performance against Tampa Bay, and he stayed relatively hot until he got hurt. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic as a Bears fan, the Bears’ first 4 opponents – the Lions, Giants, Falcons, and Colts – were all awful pass defenses last year (cumulative 66% completion, 7.4 yards/attempt, and 120 TD to 44 INT, for a 97.3 passer rating). If that continues into 2020, the opportunity is there for him to start hot, which could give him the confidence he needs to keep it going.
Of course, I personally have my doubts that happens. I’m having a hard time washing visions from 2019, when he spent most of the season looking scared, indecisive, and inaccurate, from my mind. Here’s hoping Trubisky is able to prove that 7-game stretch of 2018 was a sign of things to come instead of the fluke it appears to be right now.