Chicago Bears' Super Bowl Hopes Lie in Breakout Season from Mitchell Trubisky

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJune 24, 2019

Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (10) warms up before an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The Chicago Bears are entering the 2019 NFL season with something that hasn't existed in the Windy City in a good long while: expectations.

Yes, the 2018 campaign ended in heartbreak, but before that 16-15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round, the Bears went from worst to first, winning 12 games and the NFC North for the first time since 2010.

The Bears hope to build on that success this year, and there are reasons for optimism: They have a young, innovative offensive-minded head coach in Matt Nagy; an offensive line that excelled in pass protection a year ago; a solid array of young, skill-position talent; and arguably the best defense in the game.

But if the Bears are going to make a run at Super Bowl LIV, there's one thing above all else that needs to happen: third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky must take another big step forward.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

His second season was light-years better than his first. In his first year playing under Nagy, he threw 17 more touchdown passes in two more games and posted a passer rating almost 20 points higher than he did in his rookie year. Most importantly, after going 4-8 as Chicago's starter in 2017, he went 11-3 last season.

As Mark Potash wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times last month, Nagy indicated that Trubisky has continued to progress throughout the offseason.

"Last year he learned [this offense]; now he's trying to master it," Nagy said. "He's done a wonderful job of trying to get to some of the adjustments we have within the plays, concepts and schemes. Hopefully a few months from now, we get to training camp and preseason, and you all see that in game situations."

Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich echoed a similar refrain.

"It is night and day, in all the right ways," Helfrich said. "Our standard for him is extremely high. But as far as the operation of what he's supposed to do, what the defense is doing, manipulating protections—just the air about him—it's way different."

Trubisky was not without offensive weaponry last season. The Bears didn't boast a 1,000-yard receiver in 2018, but led by tailback Tarik Cohen's 71 catches and wideout Allen Robinson's 754 yards (in 13 games), the Bears had four guys who caught at least 50 passes, three who posted over 650 receiving yards and three who found the end zone at least five times.

The only major offseason loss among the skill-position talent was early-down back Jordan Howard, who paced the team with 935 rushing yards. The Bears replaced him with rookie David Montgomery, who is more explosive, versatile and a better fit for Nagy's offense. They also drafted wide receiver Riley Ridley (brother of Atlanta's Calvin) in the fourth round.

Chicago's offensive line struggled a bit in run-blocking last year, ranking 28th, according to Football Outsiders. But the Bears were a top-10 pass-blocking unit that allowed just 33 sacks and drew the fewest offensive holding penalties (seven).

Then there's the defense.

Spearheaded by perennial Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Khalil Mack (acquired in a trade with the Raiders last offseason), the Bears led the league in run defense. And scoring defense. And takeaways. They were third in both total defense and sacks.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

When a defense is allowing an NFL-best 17.7 points per game, the quarterback doesn't have to do nearly as much, but that doesn't mean Trubisky isn't going to need to do more in 2019.

As great as the Chicago defense was in 2018, it's likely going to regress somewhat this year. The Bears lost safety Adrian Amos and slot corner Bryce Callahan in free agency and watched defensive coordinator Vic Fangio bolt to become head coach of the Denver Broncos.

Chicago replaced Amos with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but the drop-off from Callahan to journeyman Buster Skrine is...let's go with significant.

Chicago's 36 takeaways last year were five more than the second-placed Cleveland Browns. It's also a stat that tends to fluctuate wildly from year to year. In 2017, for instance, the Bears were a middle-of-the-pack defense with 22 takeaways.

The Bears also had fantastic luck with injuries in 2018. Per Football Outsiders, Chicago was the third-healthiest team in 2018; the year before, the Bears ranked 31st.

This isn't to say the defense will fall off a cliff or that injuries will ravage the team, but the takeaways are probably going down, and injuries are probably going up.

Both mean more pressure on Trubisky to be more than a game manager.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

There have been flashes to indicate Trubisky is capable of doing just that. He has a cannon for a right arm and the athleticism to pick up yardage and move the sticks with his legs. Thanks in part to his 421 rushing yards and three scores on the ground in 2018, he ranked third in QBR last year, trailing just Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees.

That's pretty good company.

There was the 354-yard, six-touchdown explosion against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September. And some beautiful throws:

The Chicago Audible @ChicagoAudible

3rd and 15 from the 36: Mitchell Trubisky delivers a beautiful ball to Allen Robinson for a touchdown. Big-Time-Throw! That's My QB. https://t.co/RmruuHg3UZ

Decision-making and consistency remain works in progress. For every highlight-reel play, there's an errant throw or one into coverage. As CBS Sports' Sean Wagner-McGough noted, Trubisky had the same number of starts last year with a passer rating under 80 as with over 100 (six).

The defense bailed him out of most of those bad performances a year ago, including during a horrific 110-yard, three-pick game against the eventual NFC champions in December. Asking for that to continue is begging to be disappointed. A slow start against the Eagles (including a pair of dropped interceptions by an injury-ravaged Philly secondary) played a part in getting the Bears bounced from the postseason.

This wasn't unexpected. One of the primary knocks on Trubisky coming out of North Carolina was that as a one-year starter, he lacked experience and polish in making reads and throwing the ball with accuracy and consistency.

He's learning by doing, and there's no denying he's getting better. The odds that Chicago will pick up his fifth-year option a year from now sit at about 319 percent—if the team doesn't just extend him.

Trubisky also doesn't have to pull a Mahomes and stand on his head every week. He just needs to consistently be good and kick it up a notch when necessary.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 06:  Mitchell Trubisky #10 of the Chicago Bears walks across the field before the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles  at Soldier Field on January 06, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Gett
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On paper, the Bears have the look of a Super Bowl contender, but there's one prevailing reason why Chicago is fourth among NFC teams in Super Bowl odds, per Vegas Insider.

If the Bears are going to make it back to Miami and avenge that soggy loss to Peyton Manning's Colts back in February 2007, then Trubisky has to continue his ascension. Show the same improvement that he did in 2018.

He needs to become the quarterback the Bears thought he could be when they traded up to draft him second overall in 2017.

Having a decent kicker also wouldn't hurt.