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Should The Bears Look For A New Quarterback?

The only thing worse in the NFL than being sure that you don’t have a franchise quarterback is being in the purgatory of not being sure that your quarterback is actually “the dude.”

That the Bears are facing this question in year No. 3 of Mitchell Trubisky’s career is perhaps an answer in itself. In other words, if you don’t know 31 games into a career whether your signal-caller is that coveted difference-maker who is worthy of being paid like one, he probably isn’t.

It’s not as if the Bears have much longer to decide whether to fully commit to Trubisky and offer him a lucrative second contract. After all, this summer, the Eagles and Rams each signed their 2016 top picks — Carson Wentz (second overall) and Jared Goff (first overall) — to nine-figure deals. If that’s the new standard, the Bears would have to make the call on their second-overall 2017 draft pick after this season.

Trubisky has started five games for the Bears this season, including one he left early with an injury, and the team failed to generate 300 yards of total offense in any of them. The Bears also failed to reach that relatively modest yardage mark (teams are averaging 351.2 yards this year) in the game started by Trubisky’s backup, Chase Daniel. Only one other Bears team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the 1975 squad, had this long a streak of offensive ineptitude to start the season.

Trubisky is missing open throws. His downfield passing has declined appreciably from last year, measured by average depth of target (6.7 yards from scrimmage compared with 8.8 in 2018) and air yards per completion (4.0 versus 6.3). He’s no longer presenting a viable running threat (just 21 yards all season, down from more than 400 in 2018).1

The Bears passed on both 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes and 2019 MVP candidate Deshaun Watson to select Trubisky in the 2017 draft. So it’s not surprising that fans are frustrated by his lack of progress, especially after his performance in Sunday’s 36-25 loss to the Saints, when his stats were boosted by two meaningless scoring drives long after the game was decided. Head coach Matt Nagy said he understands that there are no more excuses for either him or his quarterback nearly a season and a half into their tenure together.

But Trubisky’s performance was one game against one of the league’s leading defenses. To more fairly assess Trubisky, let’s look at the other first-round quarterbacks selected this century and see where they were in cumulative passer rating through their 31st game. We also note the NFL-wide passer rating in the season in which these QBs played their 31st game.

Trubisky’s passer rating looks decent among first-round QBs

NFL quarterbacks drafted in the first round by player passer rating through their first 31 games, 2000-17

Through 31 games
Player Draft year Season Avg. rtg. that year Player Passer rtg.
Chad Pennington 2000 2004 82.8 96.0
Jared Goff 2016 2018 92.9 95.7
Aaron Rodgers 2005 2009 83.0 95.3
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 2006 80.4 93.5
Marcus Mariota 2015 2017 86.9 92.1
Robert Griffin 2012 2014 88.9 91.8
Carson Palmer 2004 2006 80.4 89.9
Jay Cutler 2006 2008 83.2 89.1
Carson Wentz 2016 2018 92.9 89.1
Mitchell Trubisky 2017 2019 91.4 86.8
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 2018 92.9 86.3
Cam Newton 2011 2012 85.6 86.2
Jameis Winston 2015 2016 89.3 85.6
Philip Rivers 2004 2007 82.6 85.2
Joe Flacco 2008 2009 83.0 85.2
Matthew Stafford 2009 2012 85.6 83.9
Matt Ryan 2008 2010 84.1 83.5
Jason Campbell 2006 2008 83.2 81.8
Andrew Luck 2012 2013 86.0 80.9
Josh Freeman 2009 2011 84.3 80.6
Ryan Tannehill 2012 2013 86.0 80.6
Blake Bortles 2014 2016 89.3 80.2
Byron Leftwich 2003 2005 80.1 78.6
EJ Manuel 2013 2017 86.9 77.1
J.P. Losman 2004 2007 82.6 76.8
Michael Vick 2001 2004 82.8 76.7
Christian Ponder 2011 2013 86.0 76.0
Tim Tebow 2010 2012 85.6 75.3
Brandon Weeden 2012 2015 90.2 74.9
Eli Manning 2004 2006 80.4 74.8
Sam Bradford 2010 2012 85.6 74.8
Patrick Ramsey 2002 2005 80.1 74.1
Matt Leinart 2006 2011 84.3 71.6
Rex Grossman 2003 2007 82.6 71.1
Mark Sanchez 2009 2010 84.1 70.2
Vince Young 2006 2008 83.2 68.3
Blaine Gabbert 2011 2015 90.2 68.3
David Carr 2002 2004 82.8 67.7
Kyle Boller 2003 2005 80.1 66.9
JaMarcus Russell 2007 2009 83.0 65.2
Alex Smith 2005 2007 82.6 63.9
Joey Harrington 2002 2004 82.8 62.5

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

By this measure, Trubisky ranks 10th among the 48 first-round quarterbacks. Those he has so far exceeded in passer rating through the same career point include Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Eli Manning.

But passer rating has risen steadily this century. When you compare each passer to the benchmark of the league average rating in the season in which they played their 31st game, Trubisky drops to 19th — and is then ahead of only Luck and Manning from that list.

By yards per attempt, Trubisky’s 6.8 career mark would rank 20th, leaving him ahead of only Manning in that group. But if Manning was viewed as a franchise quarterback — and, of course, he did win two Super Bowl MVPs after his 31st career game — it’s hard to say that Trubisky definitely will not be one.

But it’s clearly not out of bounds for Bears fans to question Trubisky’s long-term viability. He does rank behind a number of first-round busts who never saw a sixth season with the clubs that drafted them in the first round, including Jason Campbell, Byron Leftwich and Josh Freeman.

Trubisky’s passer rating, as indicated by his garbage-time-inflated number of 86.3 on Sunday, may not be the best measure of his quality of play. ESPN’s Total QBR looks at the success or failure of every play and the points that play is expected to generate. Measured this way, Trubisky ranks 30th on the season at just 34.2 (100 is the highest possible number), quite a distance from the QBR average of 54.2. Trubisky’s QBR is suffering this year partly because of his lack of running. Last year, Trubisky raced for 29 first downs, second on the team. This year, he’s gained just one.

So instead of contending for a Super Bowl after last year’s 12-4 season, Chicago is mired at 3-3 and in third place in the NFC North heading into a Week 8 home matchup with the 2-5 Chargers.

Trubisky will try to find some way to spark the offense. But right now, he seems lost. “I mean, right now we have no identity,” Trubisky said after the Saints game. “We’re just searching.”

If his team keeps searching like this, it might be searching next for a new quarterback.

Looking Ahead: Week 8

Best matchup:2 No. 14 Philadelphia at No. 13 Buffalo (-2.5), 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Packers-Chiefs — a rematch of Super Bowl I — was looking like the week’s marquee matchup, but Patrick Mahomes’s injury spoiled those plans. Instead, the top game of Week 8 features the Bills and Eagles, two teams that are right next to each other in our Elo power rankings despite having wildly different records. Buffalo has tallied a 5-1 mark so far, making it one of only five teams with one loss or fewer this season, but the Bills have done it against a ridiculously weak schedule. Their opposing slate rates as the NFL’s second-easiest in Football Outsiders’ rankings and third-easiest according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System. So Philly is actually much tougher than the Bills’ typical opponent, even though its Elo rating is barely better than average. And from the Eagles’ perspective, that’s a pretty disappointing status. They went into the season with Super Bowl aspirations but have gone 3-4 thus far, as QB Carson Wentz has been up and down and the team’s defense has not impressed. After a humiliating loss to Dallas on Sunday Night Football, Philadelphia needs a strong showing on the road in Orchard Park just to stabilize its flagging playoff odds. But there is good news: That’s hardly an impossible task, even after such a mediocre start to the season. We give the Eagles a 42 percent shot at the upset, which is the highest of any underdog this week.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 8

NFL matchups for Week 8, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
13 Bills vs 14 Eagles 58.4% 4 1 3 4
4 Packers at 15 Chiefs 58.4 2 2 4 7
9 Texans vs 22 Raiders 73.5 5 8 1 2
11 Seahawks at 28 Falcons 67.3 11 6 7 1
12 Bears vs 18 Chargers 66.7 6 5 8 3
5 49ers vs 16 Panthers 70.7 3 7 2 14
1 Patriots vs 20 Browns 83.8 1 13 10 8
23 Jaguars vs 26 Jets 59.9 12 3 5 15
17 Titans vs 25 Buccaneers 62.8 10 4 9 12
10 Colts vs 24 Broncos 74.2 8 9 6 10
21 Steelers vs 31 Dolphins 78.0 15 11 13 13
3 Vikings vs 30 Redskins 88.5 9 15 12 6
7 Rams at 32 Bengals 83.7 13 12 11 9
2 Saints vs 27 Cardinals 85.6 7 14 15 5
19 Lions vs 29 Giants 75.7 14 10 14 11

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 22 Oakland at No. 9 Houston (-7), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 23.9 total percentage points

Last week, we wrote that Houston had the chance to really solidify its status as AFC South front-runners with a win at Indianapolis. That didn’t happen, though. Now, Deshaun Watson and the Texans find themselves in the most crucial game of Week 8, against a Raiders team with a surprising .500 record and a lot to gain from an upset here. Our model thinks Oakland’s postseason chances would go up from 27 percent to 48 percent if Derek Carr and Co. can engineer the win — something we say has a respectable 26 percent chance of happening. (With Mahomes out and K.C. only a game and a half up on the Raiders in the AFC West, Oakland fans at least have something to dream about, right?) At the same time, the pressure is on the Texans to avoid any further slippage in their playoff odds. We give them a solid 64 percent chance right now — sixth-highest in the AFC — but that number would fall to 40 percent with a loss to Oakland, and their division odds would drop to just 23 percent. Watson is the better QB, and Houston is the better team, so they should hold serve at home. But if not, this matchup has the potential to shake up the AFC playoff picture.

Best QB duels: No. 2 Matt Ryan* (ATL) vs. No. 5 Russell Wilson (SEA); No. 4 Deshaun Watson (HOU) vs. No. 13 Derek Carr (OAK); No. 10 Philip Rivers (LAC) vs. No. 17 Mitchell Trubisky (CHI)

* Ryan may not play because of injury.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 835th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 7

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 7 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
LAR 54% LAR 62% LAR 37, ATL 10 +4.9
JAX 54 JAX 61 JAX 27, CIN 17 +4.4
CHI 54 NO 52 NO 36, CHI 25 +4.2
NYG 58 NYG 54 ARI 27, NYG 21 +2.8
SEA 65 SEA 62 BAL 30, SEA 16 +2.2
SF 75 SF 84 SF 9, WSH 0 +1.9
KC 64 KC 68 KC 30, DEN 6 +0.8
NE 75 NE 82 NE 33, NYJ 0 +0.8
BUF 83 BUF 87 BUF 31, MIA 21 -0.2
GB 75 GB 71 GB 42, OAK 24 -4.3
HOU 52 HOU 55 IND 30, HOU 23 -5.0
DAL 55 DAL 51 DAL 37, PHI 10 -5.9
MIN 57 MIN 52 MIN 42, DET 30 -6.1
TEN 55 LAC 52 TEN 23, LAC 20 -8.6

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

After a batch of picks undone by one disastrous outcome in Week 6, FiveThirtyEight readers did better in Week 7 — though they still lost to Elo overall. They were more bullish on the Rams and Jaguars than the algorithm and were rewarded for it, and they rightly picked New Orleans to beat the Bears at Soldier Field. But the readers also bet on the Chargers and lost, lacked faith in the Vikings and perhaps overcorrected after the Cowboys’ loss to the Jets, undervaluing Dallas against Philadelphia. Adding it up, the average reader lost to Elo by a margin of 8.1 points in Week 7 — a third straight loss (and fifth of the season) for the field after picking up back-to-back wins in Weeks 3 and 4.

Even so, congratulations are in order for Carl Kuhl, who led all readers in Week 7 with 219.3 points, and for John Ahlfield, who pulled into the full-season contest lead with 527.6 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 7.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. He’s likely to continue to run less in light of a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder.

  2. Based on a combination of matchup evenness, or how close to 50-50 odds the game has; matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings; playoff impact; and the quality of the opposing starting QBs.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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