CHICAGO — They piled into SUVs and Bearsmobiles hours before the 2019 NFL’s curtains spread, some well before noon, all in anticipation. The long wait for their year – the Chicago Bears’ year – was almost over. Thursday, in the minds of some 60,000 fans tipsy on optimism, was supposed to be their night.
Supposed to be a Super Bowl contender’s showcase.
Supposed to be a sign of progress. A validation of inflated expectations. And so much more.
Instead, over 60 minutes, the Bears deflated those expectations. More specifically, the offense did. Most specifically, Mitchell Trubisky did.
His numbers were underwhelming. His performance was much worse. It was grotesque. Exasperating. He missed throws high. He missed throws wide. He rifled them perilously late, or didn’t rifle them at all. He took costly delay-of-games. He checked down on third and long. And on the most consequential play of a 10-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, he sent fans streaming toward Soldier Field exits with an end-zone interception. A fitting end to a dreadful night.
“Unacceptable,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said with the first word of his postgame news conference. And he wasn’t just talking about Trubisky. No, he meant the entire opening-night display.
“Three points is ridiculous,” he later added. Fans trudging back to parking lots used harsher synonyms.
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But it was the QB who provoked most of their ire. Whose failings were most blatant and most disheartening. Trubisky is one of this NFL season’s most influential variables. The Bears won 12 games in 2018. Vegas expected regression. Diehards expected just the opposite.
Their case rested on improvement from their third-year signal caller. The possibility, or rather the assumption, was embedded in the minds of two local sports talk radio hosts who picked the Bears to win the Super Bowl Thursday afternoon. It was the reason a third host called this “the most anticipated season of our lifetime.” The reason secondary-market tickets were more expensive for Thursday’s opener than they had been for last January’s playoff game. The reason fans buzzed throughout Grant Park hours before kickoff, milling about with excitement and confidence.
And then, en masse, they made their way down to the stadium to realize that Mitchell Trubisky, at least for now, is still Mitchell Trubisky. Still an average quarterback holding back an otherwise elite team.
So they sat on their hands.
They rustled with displeasure.
With last January’s double-doink in mind, they unleashed a half-sarcastic, half-genuine roar when kicker Eddy Pineiro drilled a 38-yard field goal to give their team a 3-0 lead. But Cody Parkey’s infamous miss almost distracted from a more troubling issue: The Bears averaged just 18.4 points over their final five games of 2018. They finished 20th in offensive DVOA.
They won with innovative playcalling and a ferocious, opportunistic defense. The latter was back and better than ever to begin 2019, holding Aaron Rodgers to his lowest point total in the rivalry since 2010. They sacked the future Hall of Famer and swarmed him. Ten out of 12 times, they got off the field on third down.
They got stops. And the offense stalled.
Then they got more stops. And the offense stalled again, and again, and again.
“We wanted to make Mitch play quarterback,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “We knew they had a lot of weapons. We knew they were dangerous. We knew all of those things. We knew if we could make Mitch play quarterback, we would have a chance.”
When the Bears found any semblance of rhythm, they committed pricey penalties. “We had a third and 40 at one point,” Nagy said, a tad exasperated. “I don’t have a play call for 3rd and 40.”
He and Trubisky both spoke of “frustration.” And the head coach empathized with fans as well. “Every fan that showed up from Chicago today should be upset,” he said. “They have every right to boo. Every right to boo. … They deserve better.”
And they’ll surely get better. But will they ever get good enough?
The modern NFL’s most valuable asset is a quarterback on a rookie contract. It gives a franchise flexibility. Freedom. Freedom to build a terrifying defense. To stockpile talent. And that’s exactly what the Bears have done. It theoretically enables contention.
But only if that quarterback on a rookie contract develops. Not when he’s shaky and shoddy and, frankly, mediocre. The contract becomes a window. And the most frightening, maddening part of Bears fandom after Thursday’s drudgery is the intensifying thought: What if Trubisky still isn’t good enough by the time that window shuts?
On Sunday, those fans who packed Soldier Field will retreat to their sofas and watch a quarterback drafted eight spots after Trubisky begin his MVP defense. The following evening, they’ll watch a second QB taken two spots after that, from the same draft class, begin a legitimate run at silverware of his own.
Trubisky doesn’t have to be Patrick Mahomes. Doesn’t have to be Deshaun Watson. But after Thursday night, he has Bears fans wondering, just hours after all that optimism: Will he ever even come close?
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