The Chicago Bears’ eagerly anticipated quarterback competition might technically be on hold, but the manner in which incumbent starter Mitchell Trubisky and challenger Nick Foles navigate their way through Chicago’s virtual offseason program could determine the eventual winner.
“There’s no competition going on right now over Zoom, as you know,” Bears coach Matt Nagy conceded on Friday. “I think what those guys are doing right now is they’re all building up their mental capacity within this offense as to what they like.”
Offensive preferences aside, Foles’ presence in Chicago is directly correlated to Trubisky’s performance in 2019.
The former second overall pick finished 28th in total QBR (39.4), tied for 27th in touchdown passes (17), 21st in passing yards (3,138), 32nd in yards gained per pass attempt (6.1) and 28th in traditional quarterback rating (83.0) -- numbers that compelled the Bears to send a fourth-round compensatory draft choice to Jacksonville for Foles, whose restructured contract pays him $12 million in total cash in 2020 and can be voided (by Foles) in 2021.
Put it this way: Had Chicago been satisfied with Trubisky’s development after three NFL seasons, general manager Ryan Pace (the man who traded up to draft Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson) never acquires Foles -- the MVP of Super Bowl LII. However, Foles also has experienced plenty of ups and downs over the span of eight seasons with the Eagles (twice), Rams, Chiefs and Jaguars.
One thing Foles has going for him as the quarterbacks gear up to battle each other are his bonds with a bunch of Chicago's new offensive coaches, as well as Nagy himself.
But while Foles was exposed to Andy Reid's system in Philadelphia and Kansas City, the clear edge for the 25-year-old Trubisky is that he’s already spent two years with Nagy, calling plays in his own variation of Reid's system.
“I think obviously I have a foundation from when I was in Kansas City and we ran a different version of the offense,” Foles said last month. “And Philadelphia was different than this. But that’s the fun part is you get to bring that information that we did in Philly to Chicago and try to fine-tune it and develop that Bears offense DNA.
“It’s by no means starting over with no knowledge of the offense. Definitely starting out on my two feet --I’m excited to learn more about what they’re doing. It might mean a few different terminologies, a different run game and stuff like that, but I’ll be able to understand it decently well to begin with.”
Thus far, the league-mandated virtual offseason prevents players and coaches from congregating under the same roof, but teaching the playbook is fair game.
At 31 and coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season, Foles probably needs the classroom work more than the offseason on-field work. If Foles can report to training camp on equal footing with Trubisky in terms of knowing the offense, then any unfamiliarity between Foles and the receivers/tight ends can be ironed out quickly.
“We always talk about it [Foles learning the offense] like riding a bike,” Nagy said. “He’s been through some different offenses, even from the last time we were together in Kansas City. But what happens is once you present somebody like Nick the playbook and they start looking at it, all of a sudden it just clicks and you start remembering it and you just start retraining your brain from what you knew in the past year or couple years.
“But that doesn’t take much. Nick is a smart guy.”
Trubisky faces his own learning curve entering Year 4.
“In Mitch, I've seen a player in the previous two years who's learning how to play the quarterback position,” Nagy said. “That doesn't always mean on the field, that means off the field — watching tape, what notes do you take, what's your schedule going to be, right? How do you accept coaching? How do you give feedback? And all of that stuff has been going on right now, has been going on in different ways. So what we'll do, when we're allowed, we get together and we'll talk through some of the summary of what we just talked about -- with the details of plays, with his scheduling, etc. -- and I can see he's starting to create his own way, his own habits. And obviously the biggest thing is none of it matters unless we all go out there and do it on the field, and now that's going to be the next challenge, taking it onto the field and doing it through a competition.”
Chicago claims its decision to decline Trubisky’s fifth-year option ($24.8 million and guaranteed only against injury) will have no bearing on the upcoming quarterback competition. But with absolutely nothing tying Trubisky to the Bears beyond 2020, you can argue that the absence of a fifth-year option has leveled the playing field. Foles would earn $4 million in 2021 if he opts not to void the restructured deal.
“We’re all very open and honest in the discussions we have and then we just let things play out,” Nagy said. “In the end, what we want is for both those quarterbacks to be the best possible quarterbacks they can be individually and making it hard on us making the decision as to who the starter is, and that makes the Bears a better football team.
“When you have two good people like we do in Mitchell and Nick, it makes these types of decisions and conversations a lot easier to have because they’re competitive as hell, they want the best for the Bears, and they’re going to fight their tails off to do that. I think that’s the beauty of it.”