LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Like a vitamin-deficient pirate, Mitch Trubisky wears a long, sparse, black beard, the first one he’s grown in his 24 earthly years.
When did this follicle cultivation commence?
“Week One,” he said. "So, I started the playoff beard a little early.”
A playoff beard? Seriously?
For a five-win team in 2017 that fired its coach? A team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in seven years? A team on its fourth coach in six seasons? A team whose new coach is a 40-year-old former real estate salesman?
A team that had just lost its season opener?
“Um … I had faith.”
Now, in turn, the Bears must have faith in Mitch. They are a team built around a superb, dynamic defense, with an offense that is a work in progress. Still, in the playoffs, excellent quarterback play trumps all else.
Nick Foles brings the Eagles to Soldier Field for the Wild Card playoff game Sunday with a 113.2 passer rating in five postseason starts and a Super Bowl MVP award that’s less than a year old.
Trubisky, in his 26 career starts, has never compiled a 113.2 passer rating in any five-game span. This will be his first playoff start. Of the 12 playoff quarterbacks, Trubisky’s 95.4 passer rating ranks 11th, ahead of only Ravens rookie Lamar Jackson, who started just six games.
Little wonder, then, that the Bears are making sure that Trubisky is as comfortable as possible as he prepares for his first playoff game. The message: Be yourself. And don’t think too much.
Shouldn’t be a problem.
“I just tell him to have fun,” said Bears tight end Trey Burton, who last year watched as Foles dealt with two months of doubt before he was named the Super Bowl MVP. It was Burton, of course, who threw the Philly Special pass to Never Nervous Nick. “What people are saying, you know — what’s going on in the offense, what people think about you — you can get easily, easily get caught up.”
Trubisky isn’t getting caught up.
“I like talking to Trey about that, because, obviously, he was on that team last year,” Trubisky said. “He just keeps telling me it’s a special time, and we got a special team in this locker room.”
That doesn’t mean Trubisky is the special talent that can win the Bears' first playoff game in 11 years. Because he doesn’t win games. He manages them.
Among playoff passers with at least seven starts, only Russell Wilson averages fewer yards per game than Trubisky’s 230, but Wilson averages more yards per attempt and has 35 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Trubisky has 24 TD throws and 12 picks, and his 2.8 percent interception rating is worst among the 12 playoff quarterbacks.
When Trubisky wins, the Windy City sighs in relief.
This might not always be true.
A half-hour before the 2017 NFL draft began, Bears general manager Ryan Pace shocked the league and traded two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move up from No. 3 to No. 2 and draft Trubisky, who had started just 13 games at North Carolina. Pace saw a franchise quarterback in Trubisky. The GM hired Matt Nagy, an Andy Reid-groomed quarterback whisperer, to coach this season.
It has not been seamless. The same Trubisky who threw six touchdown passes against the Buccaneers on Sept. 30 threw three interceptions against the Rams on Dec. 9. The natural comparisons can’t be easy to endure, either.
The Eagles moved up to draft Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in 2016, and Wentz was an MVP favorite when he wrecked his knee 13 games into his second season. The Chiefs, with Nagy as their offensive coordinator, drafted Patrick Mahomes eight picks after the Bears drafted Trubisky. Mahomes is the MVP favorite this season.
Perhaps, eventually, Trubisky will prove Pace right. Perhaps, that will begin Sunday. Perhaps, it’s already begun.
Since the Rams game, Trubisky has a 109.7 passer rating. That includes a 75.9 completion percentage, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and improved fundamentals.
“Just getting his eyes and feet right. Eyes and feet. Eyes and feet,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. "Throwing to guys in tight quarters. “Mid-range, shorter throws he’s gotten better at. Throwing to the [correct] armpit, or throwing to the [correct] shoulder. Those are nuanced things that are huge. It turns that 4-yard gain into a 7-yard gain.”
Granted, he threw just 83 passes for 644 yards in those three games — Eagles quarterbacks average 112 passes and 848 yards every three games — but when your team has the best defense in the league, as the Bears do, a quarterback can afford to learn at his own pace.
“He knows how to run this offense now," Nagy said. “He’s at a point right now where when he calls a play in the huddle, he can start looking at the defense rather than looking at the offense. I think he’s finally starting to really understand who we are becoming as an identity within this offense.”
Clearly, Nagy kept the faith, too.