But McMahon also came to impart wisdom, reminding the current Bears starter to play with passion and fire, to balance his competitiveness with patience and to always have fun.
His most resounding advice is still echoing as Trubisky beams in a private atrium of the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center.
“This is a hard-working town,” McMahon told him. “And these fans appreciate hard-working players. ... If you play hard for Chicago, they’ll love you. And if you play hard and win, they’ll love you forever.”
Trubisky sees this entire June weekend as a can of Red Bull for his already high-energy existence. The Bears and their fans have united to celebrate 99 years of rich history with a shared belief that Season No. 100 will be among the greatest of all. But the unspoken reminder also seems to be lurking, pumping through the convention center ventilation system and seemingly confirmed by the nodding of the oversized George Halas bobblehead at the entrance.
It’s Trubisky who is the linchpin of everything, the growing young quarterback with star potential yet so much more to prove. It’s his performance that may well be the most pivotal in determining how the Bears’ 2019 script ends.
If Trubisky is everything the front office and coaching staff has advertised, there’s reason to believe he can lead his team to the Super Bowl — this winter. But if his development becomes overly bumpy, if his performances are consistently middle of the road? God, it’s hard to know if this football city can survive another such tease.
Trubisky knows these are the stakes, that these conversations continue to be had in a city that has seen too many quarterback experiments go haywire. But frankly, he also doesn’t really care.
The pressure of trying to lead one of the NFL’s charter franchises back to the sport’s grandest glory? “Honestly,” Trubisky says, “the simplest way I can put it is, ‘Let’s go.’ When your chance comes, you try to make the most of it.”
So here we are, with the curtain of the 2019 season about to be raised when the Bears face the Packers on Thursday night at Soldier Field. Yet somewhat ironically, the Bears begin this, their 100th season, still dealing with a level of quarterback uncertainty. No organization has been at this whole football thing longer. Yet no team has had nearly as much difficulty creating stability at the sport’s most important position.
In the Super Bowl era alone — that’s 53 seasons in all — the Bears have sent 49 quarterbacks out to start at least one game. The merry-go-round has spun fast enough at times to give an entire city vertigo.
Through that lens, Trubisky understands what Bears fans desperately want him to be — the drought breaker, the at-long-last savior, the long-term fix to the cog in the machine that has so often been broken.
Yet Chicago will continue keeping tabs on his development with a combination of hope and trepidation.
As warm as the hugs often are at events like the Bears100 Celebration, Trubisky has also been bombarded with harsh criticism over his first two seasons and 26 starts. Some of it has been justified. Some of the knocks, he has come to realize, stem from a fan base’s deeper scars, frustrations that are older than him.
“I had to realize those feelings might sometimes be displaced,” Trubisky says. “This anger and this frustration these fans have had in the past with losing teams and losing quarterbacks gets taken out on me.
“And I’m still unproven. Which is obvious — to them and to me. So I put myself in their shoes and look at myself and say, ‘OK, I understand where they’re coming from.’ But at the same time that won’t define who I am as a person and what I’m able to do throughout my career.”
To some extent, the Bears’ lengthy track record of mediocrity at quarterback creates a low bar for the 25-year-old quarterback to clear. The organization’s record book is Trubisky’s to rewrite. With the headband and sunglasses, McMahon also should have given Trubisky a red pen.
By passing yards alone, the Bears’ single-season record is a modest total of 3,838 set by Erik Kramer during a 9-7 season in 1995, when Trubisky was still in diapers. (No other franchise’s single-season record is so low.)
The Bears’ record for passer rating in a season? That’s held by journeyman Josh McCown — who turned five starts and three relief appearances in 2013 into a 109.0 mark.
It’s also staggering to note that no Bears quarterback has ever thrown 30 touchdown passes in a season. In the 21st century alone, 26 quarterbacks have reached that milestone at least once, a fraternity that includes the obvious names — Favre, Brady, Manning, Brees — but also run-of-the-mill dudes such as Jeff Garcia, Andy Dalton, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr.
Last season, Chiefs quarterback and league MVP Patrick Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes in his first full years as a starter. Eight others joined him in the 30-TD club.
In 99 years, the Bears have had only three quarterbacks (Jay Cutler, Kramer and Sid Luckman) who have topped 25 TDs.
Jeff Joniak pushes his left hand into his temple, rubs it from one eyebrow to the other, then down over his mouth and chin. He closes both eyes tightly, looking as if he has just been given a $2,500 mechanic’s estimate for what he thought would be a routine oil change.
In a leather-bound journal in front of him, Joniak has scribbled the names of the quarterbacks who have started for the Bears since he became the team’s radio play-by-play announcer in 2001. His list, though, is incomplete.
Shane Matthews: check.
Kyle Orton and Brian Griese: check.
Rex Grossman, Cutler and Trubisky: check.
“Was he really during my time?” Joniak asks. “Really?”
“Forgot about him too.”
That initial anguish on Joniak’s face is understandable. Over 18 seasons, he has had an at-the-mic view for eight Week 1 starters and 22 starting quarterbacks overall.
“That’s a lot,” he says. “That’s really a lot. Oh, man. The trial and error. It’s just been the endless look for ‘the guy.’”
Still, it doesn’t take Joniak long to identify the highest of emotional highs in that time period and the lowest of lows. He was on spring break in Boca Raton, Fla., playing softball with his daughters on April 3, 2009, when general manager Jerry Angelo pulled off the blockbuster trade to acquire Cutler from the Broncos. Joniak’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing.
Bears fans seemed to believe they had finally received their Super Bowl golden key. At the airport the next day, a stranger accosted Joniak and went in for a hug.
“This guy comes up to me wearing Bears sneakers and he’s crying,” Joniak says. “Literally. He’s yelling, ‘We got our quarterback!’ And I hadn’t even gotten out of the Ft. Lauderdale airport yet.”
If only the next eight seasons had produced more of that Cutler euphoria …
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Joniak will always remember the look on Angelo’s face in August 2005 when Rex Grossman — promising first-round pick in 2003 and injured for the final 13 games of 2004 — broke his left ankle in a preseason game in St. Louis.
“I can still feel the absolute anger that Jerry felt knowing he had lost his guy,” Joniak says. “Again.”
In so many ways, this is a Cliff’s Notes summary of Bears quarterback history in the new millennium.
So many untimely injuries. So much pronounced inconsistency. So many unfulfilled promises and quarterback journeys that crashed through the guard rails.
This is why Bears fans have post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to forget their greatest heartbreaks and wanting so badly to unsee some of the team’s most embarrassing quarterback moments.
Joniak has certainly called some patience-testing performances.
Whatever that was on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 when Jonathan Quinn and Craig Krenzel combined for a 33.3 passer rating in Dallas and the Bears’ only touchdown came from cornerback R.W. McQuarters.
The trial and error. It’s just been the endless look for ‘the guy.’
That ‘04 season may have been the most dizzying. Grossman’s ACL tear in Week 4 led to three atrocious Quinn starts, which then thrust Krenzel, a hard-working but overmatched fifth-round pick into action earlier than he should have been.
Eventually, the Bears’ desperation reached such a level that they turned to a 27-year-old backup whom they had to call in off a surfboard in California.
“I thought Chad Hutchinson was the answer!” Joniak confesses.
Indeed, Hutchinson fired three touchdown passes in his first start, sparking a 24-14 win over the Vikings at Soldier Field in Week 13. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God! We got three touchdown passes! He completed 60 percent of his passes!’” Joniak says.
Desperate optimism overpowered common sense. But only temporarily.
Hutchinson lost his next four starts and was out of the league for good by the following Labor Day.
The Bears’ QB carousel kept spinning.
Why, over 99 seasons with 28 members in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, have the Bears floundered so frequently in their quest to find a reliable quarterback?
“I like to think I’m a genius,” former Bears center Olin Kreutz says. “But I’ve got nothing for you.”
Kreutz should have sharp perspective. In the history of the franchise, no offensive player has played more games than Kreutz’s 191. His first regular-season appearance came in Week 7 of 1998 — as a reserve offensive lineman with Kramer playing quarterback. His final snap as a Bear went to Caleb Hanie in the final minute of the 2010 NFC championship game.
In all, 16 quarterbacks made at least one start during Kreutz’s 13 seasons in Chicago. In seven of his first 10 years, the Bears used at least three starters. So as the six-time Pro Bowl center scrolls through the roll call — McNown, Miller, Chandler, Grossman — he finds his vision getting blurrier.
“My head is spinning,” Kreutz admits. “I feel like I’m staring at one of those Magic Eyes and I can’t see the picture. Holy (expletive)!”
There’s no point in Kreutz offering a deep dive on Henry Burris’ abysmal start against the Buccaneers in 2002. There’s little to gain in him studying that December 2000 afternoon in San Francisco when Cade McNown couldn’t even lead the Bears across midfield. “I was hurt that day,” Kreutz says. “Thank God.”
But Kreutz also thinks it’s important to understand the quarterback frustration Chicago feels isn’t always just about the quarterback himself. At times, Kreutz says, Bears quarterbacks haven’t had nearly enough help around them. Not enough big-play receivers. Not enough connection or continuity within the coaching staff. Not enough protection.
In Cutler’s first season, for example, Kreutz watched the quarterback get sacked 35 times and throw 26 interceptions. There were many contributing factors.
“Our offense was struggling. Our offensive line was terrible,” Kreutz says. “Even I was like, ‘We need some offensive line help. We can’t block anybody.’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got you, Olin.’ Then they went and gave Julius Peppers close to $100 million in free agency.”
That next season Cutler was sacked 52 times, most in the league. With a dominant defense, the Bears won the NFC North and were a win away from the Super Bowl. But Cutler left the conference championship game with a knee injury and the Bears haven’t won a playoff game since.
“A lot of times, what they’re doing here is building the defense,” Kreutz says.
That, of course, can often be a plus. As it should be for Trubisky this fall with Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson happily taking pressure off his shoulders.
Grossman, after all, helped the Bears reach the Super Bowl 13 years ago with a top-tier defense. And while Grossman will always be justifiably defined by his ball-security issues and the brutal pick-six he threw in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Kreutz thinks the quarterback’s verve that year can be a compass for Trubisky.
Grossman had a competitive fire and think-big mentality that rubbed off on teammates. He played well and made clutch throws in playoff victories against the Seahawks and Saints.
“There was an electricity Rex brought to the huddle,” Kreutz says. “You can’t take that for granted. He always seemed like he wanted to make the big play. And he enjoyed himself out there.
“As a teammate, you love that. His personality and his belief just resonates through the whole huddle. When your quarterback is excited like that, that’s the one position on the team that affects everyone.”
For six seasons as a receiver, Tom Waddle lived through some of the Bears’ unsettling quarterback turbulence. He was a rookie in 1989 when the team finally gave up on the oft-injured McMahon, trading him to the Chargers 22 days before the season opener.
From there, Waddle spent his career catching passes from a half-dozen quarterbacks. Mike Tomczak, Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer, Steve Walsh, Kramer.
Waddle will never forget the day at Soldier Field when he was running toward the huddle and star pass rusher Richard Dent stopped him as the defense left the field.
“Rich looked at me and screamed, ‘Just hold ‘em here! We’ll be back out to score!’” Waddle says. “I remember being confused. ‘Wait. Wait. We’re the offense. What does he mean?’ But that pretty much summarized what it was.”
This was toward the end of the era when the final few inches of the Bears’ Super Bowl window slammed shut, when a once-dominant defense aged away and stared at its lone Lombardi Trophy with an “If we had only had a quarterback” lament.
“The best word to describe it all is ‘unsettled,’” Waddle says. “It was just a weird time where nothing quite fell into place.”
Only it wasn’t just those six years.
Unsettled is an apt way to describe the past half-century really, retracing the steps of Bobby Douglass and Gary Huff, of Bob Avellini, Mike Phipps and Vince Evans.
The 1985 Bears are eternal legends for their unforgettable conquests on the way to winning Super Bowl XX. But the ’86 Bears fatefully lost McMahon for the season after a cheap shot hit by the Packers’ Charles Martin in late November. The Bears eventually started Doug Flutie in their home playoff game against the Redskins, less than three months after they’d acquired him.
Flutie, in just his second start with the team, completed only 11 of 31 passes, threw for 134 yards and chucked two interceptions. The 14-2 Bears scored one touchdown on 13 possessions and lost 27-13.
For the past two-plus decades as a sports talk radio host, Waddle has been a facilitator of Chicago’s quarterback conversation/argument/therapy session, a rational voice trying to pull the city’s extremists into the middle. Waddle understands this city’s vision is clouded by the trials and tribulations it has lived through. And he knows the polarizing nature of the Trubisky conversation is only going to intensify in the months ahead.
The 2019 Bears have a legitimate chance to play into late January and even February and Trubisky is at the steering wheel of the tour bus. But for whatever reason, that has caused the quarterback’s biggest supporters and harshest critics to adopt extreme and concrete takes.
Depending on which way your ear is turned or how your Twitter feed is organized, you might be led to believe that the third-year quarterback is a certain bust, that it’s just a matter of time before his inevitable flameout. Just like so many of his Bears predecessors.
Or you might hear those arguing he’s destined to earn a bust — in that Canton, Ohio, football museum just 65 miles from where he grew up.
“It’s that whole hate-or-hump mentality,” Waddle says. “You’re either hating a guy or humping his leg. Why can’t we find a happy medium?”
That, of course, is the equivalent of wondering why the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake get jumpy whenever they see a hockey mask. The quarterback history in this town has just been too torturous to ever count on reasoned reaction.
For more than 60 years, Hall of Famer Sid Luckman held most of the Bears’ career passing records, the exploits of a star quarterback who helped the organization win four NFL championships. He is, by almost any measure, the Bears’ gold standard at the position.
Yet in a twist of irony, most of Luckman’s records were eventually broken by Cutler, Mr. Unfulfilled Promise himself whose arm talent and statistical production never trumped his lack of high-level success. Only one playoff appearance in eight years. Never named to a Pro Bowl. A 52-52 record as the Bears starter.
“The optimism and potential never really materialized into the results we all expected,” Waddle says. “The lows were just ‘Boom goes the dynamite’ low.”
Trubisky became a Bear 48 days after Cutler was released. He now has the opportunity to clear the many hurdles Cutler never could.
His 2019 season begins with great anticipation and many important questions. Kreutz, for one, wants to know if Trubisky has the DNA to win big games. Plural. Over and over again.
“When the game is on the line, can he make the play?” Kreutz says.
To that end, the former Bears center points to Trubisky’s fourth-quarter performance in his last meaningful game — against the Eagles in the playoffs. Bears fans should rewatch Trubisky’s 22-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Allen Robinson in the fourth quarter. They should recall Trubisky’s last-minute 33-yard march to set up a potential game-winning field goal.
“He made big-time throws in the toughest situation he’s been in in his career,” Kreutz says. “That right there gives you some excitement about where Mitch Trubisky can take the Chicago Bears.”
Joniak understands the biggest Trubisky doubters still have to be won over.
“Fans here have been conditioned to fear the worst,” he says. “And that’s a fair thing. But it’s not fair to Mitch.”
Over Trubisky’s first two seasons, Joniak believes he has “seen enough to be tantalized,” enamored with Trubisky’s upbeat nature and his magnetic belief that the Bears will win the Super Bowl while he’s around. Joniak feels that aura from the young quarterback.
“It’s like, ‘Guys, we’re going to conquer this,’” Joniak says. “Your quarterback has to be that guy. And they’re not all wired that way. But Mitch is.
“Nothing is too big for him. He has this look in his eye. His competitiveness is on a different level. This guy is the guy you want to lead you into battle.”
While it’s important for Trubisky to understand the big-picture goals the Bears are working toward, there’s nothing in it for him to live anywhere but in the present. Feeling the weight of the franchise’s 99-season quarterback scavenger hunt is counterproductive. Imagining a confetti celebration at Super Bowl LIV or LV or LVI is also premature.
This spring and summer, receiver Taylor Gabriel peppered Trubisky with repeated advice about how to attack the 2019 season. Gabriel’s guidance: Live in the moment.
That’s what the 2018 Bears were so damn good at. Maximizing each day. Dialing in on each drill and every practice period. Enjoying the preparation, then letting it all loose on game days.
This season has to carry a similar approach, with all of the Bears and especially Trubisky mixing a grinder’s mentality with a kid’s enthusiasm.
Says Trubisky: “We have to live in the moment and really enjoy it. Because we’ve got something special — some really good people we’re around, some great friends, great brothers.”
Gabriel has been impressed with Trubisky’s work ethic and approachable manner. He loves that the young quarterback openly takes accountability for his errors. Those are all things that create a bond, that push teammates to push harder for their quarterback.
“You want to take some of that weight, some of that heavy off him,” Gabriel says.
On May 31, Trubisky happily showed off his purpose and ebullience at Guaranteed Rate Field. A media-relations representative alerted Bears players in attendance for that Friday night White Sox game that they would soon be shown on the video board. So Trubisky did what great quarterbacks do. He huddled his teammates and took charge.
And then, naturally, he helped wrangle up the necessary supply of Miller Lite.
“Just started cracking them open,” he says, “and pouring it into cups.”
Packers rival Aaron Rodgers had been notably, um, wimpy in chugging a beer at a Bucks-Raptors playoff game in Milwaukee a week earlier. And that viral humiliation had suddenly given the rest of the NFL’s quarterback fraternity chances to respond.
Trubisky knew he had his moment and directed his offensive linemen to be ready. He even gave them a cadence. And when they all appeared on the video board, they delivered as one.
Says Kyle Long: “As soon as the camera came on us, Mitch gave us the cadence. ‘Down! Set! Hut!’ And we hit it.’”
Trubisky couldn’t beat Long to the bottom of his beer. But the Bears quarterback posted a sub-4.4-second chug time and punctuated the moment by triumphantly launching his plastic cup over his head.
“It looked like he had done that before,” offensive tackle Bobby Massie says.
The place went nuts.
“It was really loud,” Trubisky says with a big grin. “Chicago loves that stuff. For some reason.”
It was a far different reaction from the quarterback’s first Chicago video-board cameo when, on the night after he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2017, the crowd at the Bulls-Celtics playoff game at the United Center booed footage of the pick being announced. Trubisky was in attendance, he says, “just shriveling in my seat with my family.”
So, yes, the approving roar of Chicago fans appreciating his beer guzzling felt gratifying. Trubisky, after all, has always believed he is a perfect fit for this city.
“I have that intense love and passion for this game. And that’s exactly what the fans in Chicago have for football and the Bears,” he says. “It’s a unique situation. It just heightens everything and makes everything more exciting.”
Obviously, Trubisky’s ability to read defenses, to deliver on third downs, to make his incremental daily improvements add up to something really big will be far more significant than his ability to pound a brewski. But his magnetic personality, his competitive edge, his hard-working approach and have-fun attitude have created a buy-in at Halas Hall that has resonated.
Says Long: “He embraces his teammates. He embraces the fans. He embraces his workload. He embraces the responsibilities of being the quarterback of the Chicago Bears. I don’t have a crystal ball. But if I was a betting man, I’m betting on Mitch Trubisky.”
Keep in mind, last season when Trubisky was still riding down the block with training wheels on, he wasn’t shy about repeatedly squeezing the horn on the handlebars. Just for fun.
The young quarterback showed up to the Bears’ Oct. 29 game against the Jets wearing a Mike Ditka costume. Seven weeks later, he rolled into Soldier Field in an ugly Christmas sweater, Bears orange accessorized with blinking lights.
Had the Bears lost either of those games — they didn’t — Trubisky likely would have been bashed for his costume parties. But he never thought of it like that.
“You’ve got to be a risk taker, man,” he says. “The fans loved that. It blew up and created a lot of positive energy for our team. Why not, right? That’s the stuff that makes this all a lot more fun.”
It’s the same reason that, after his on-stage chat with McMahon in June, Trubisky spent an additional 15 minutes mingling with fans, leaning over the edge of the platform to shake hands, to pose for selfies, to sign a few autographs.
“These people came out, carved out their entire day or their weekend for this and then stood in a line down the block for an hour or more just to get in,” Trubisky says. “It’s the least I can do to spend 10 minutes walking around and giving high-fives.
“When you give out positive energy it will come back to you.”
Sure, this 2019 season may carry more pressure than any Trubisky has ever been a part of. But in the quarterback’s mind, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be the most invigorating.
“Life is short, you know? I would be doing myself a disservice if I wasn’t having fun with this and making the most of it,” Trubisky says. “For me it’s all about keeping perspective and showing my personality. If you’re too serious with this all the time, you can get overwhelmed easily and start putting too much pressure and stress on yourself. You have to take that step back and say, ‘Wow, what an amazing opportunity I have to play this game in Chicago.’ Look, I’m just a kid from Mentor, Ohio, who dreamed to be in this position. And now I am.”
The Packers come to town Thursday night. A season with great expectations begins. That gleam in Trubisky’s smile remains bright. His directive remains straightforward: Let’s go.
The Bears hope to snap their four-game losing streak Sunday when they face the Lions. The Bear Download podcast breaks down the matchup, including whether Mitch Trubisky should start at quarterback for the Bears.
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