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Mitchell Trubisky: A cautionary tale of quarterback development

What lessons can be imparted from how the Bears handled their young quarterback?

NFL: SEP 30 Buccaneers at Bears Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This weekend the New York Giants will play the Chicago Bears, and it naturally brings to mind the issue of how to handle young quarterbacks. With the Mitchell Trubisky Era perhaps drawing to a close in Chicago, how the organization and head coach Matt Nagy groomed their young passer can provide some lessons for the Giants and head coach Pat Shurmur.

As someone who covers Trubisky, here are some of the lessons to learn from his career so far in Chicago. Lessons to keep in mind as we watch the career of Daniel Jones unfold.

Play to his strengths ...

This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but the coaching staff needs to construct an offensive philosophy, especially at the outset, that caters to what the young quarterback does best as a player. Last draft season I wrote a piece for the Pro Football Weekly draft magazine on quarterback development, and got a chance to sit down with a few people across the football world to talk about bringing along young quarterbacks. One of the individuals who provided some insight was Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and current host of NFL Matchup on ESPN. He told me this: “If I am an offensive coordinator in the NFL with a young QB, I am making a visit to his college head coach to learn their playbook and the schemes that I can then use in the NFL to have the QB game ready as a rookie.”

With Trubisky, Nagy incorporated some designs into the Bears’ offense that played to some of his strengths, specifically his athleticism. Nagy would often call designed quarterback runs or zone read plays with Trubisky, to give him a chance to use his legs to create for his offense and also to get him into the flow of games. In addition, Nagy has often moved Trubisky around in the pocket, giving him opportunities to create on the edge or to throw on the move, which is an area the young quarterback handles rather well.

When it comes to Jones, it would follow that Shurmur should incorporate more from his play-calling past to get his young quarterback on some familiar footing. Remember, Jones ran an RPO-heavy offense at Duke University, that utilized a vast majority of 0/1 step drops. Not an NFL offense cannot rely on these designs along, but there is an opportunity for Shurmur to craft an offense tailored to this background and give his quarterback some defined reads and easy throws. Plus, an offense with these elements then incorporates Jones’s athleticism, allowing the Giants to tilt the numbers game in their favor over the defense.

... But don’t ignore development

The flip side to the coin, however, is that the offense still needs to provide the quarterback with an opportunity to grow as a player and a passer.

While I do not get to do it as much as I would like, especially during the season, I do enjoy finding time to read. The current book I am working through is a new release from Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.). Stavridis spent more than 30 years in the United States Navy, rising to the rank of a four-star admiral. He served as the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and also commanded the US Southern Command. Upon his retirement he served five years as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he obtained his PhD. His newest work is titled Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character and Stavridis examines 10 historical admirals, their leadership style and their character.

The second admiral that Stavridis puts under the microscope is Zheng He, who served China during the early Ming Dynasty. These passages from Stavridis, discussing Zheng He’s various sea voyages on behalf of China, struck me:

At every port of call, Zheng He was confronted by new and often dangerous situations, which required him to make a range of quick decisions weighing his mission, the safety of his ships and crew; and his perception of the scene on the ground. During his third voyage, Zheng He called in Sri Lanka in the midst of a three-way civil war between a Sinhalese Buddhist kingdom in the south, a Tamil Muslim kingdom in the north, and a rebel Sinhalese warrior who fought both. His instructions to establish relations with the people on the island were silent on this unforeseen and challenging situation, which must have taken the admiral himself some time to decipher. (By chance, Zheng He’s first contact was with the rebel leader, which could not have made things easier for him.) He was forced to adapt to the events on the ground without recourse to “instructions” from higher authority. He was able to establish trading relations with all three groups and kept Chinese neutrality - and opportunity for further trade - alive.

Even with the ubiquity and speed of modern communications, today’s leaders still frequently find themselves called to make similar decisions: on the scene, on the spur of the moment, and on limited situational understanding. In many cases, developing the ability to operate autonomously while remaining within the intent of one’s mission is an important part of a leader’s developmental process--and one that today’s leaders may have to develop on their own initiative. If a young leader comes to over-rely on constant and near-instant access to higher authority, he or she can miss out on this crucial maturation step. (Emphasis added)

While an offense needs to put its young quarterback on familiar footing to be successful early, it cannot coddle him. Consider for example Jared Goff and Sean McVay. Last year the Los Angeles Rams’ offense was the talk of the football world, and their young quarterback was playing at an extremely high level. Part of the reason? The communication between coach and QB. McVay would get his offense to the line of scrimmage early in the play clock so he could still communicate with him before the snap, through the helmet radio.

Then Bill Belichick stepped in, and crafted a defensive game plan in Super Bowl LIII that used two different play calls in the huddle. One to show McVay and Goff, a second to audible into after the radio cut out in Goff’s helmet. Goff’s over-reliance on the “constant and near-instant access to higher authority” left him unprepared to respond, and the Rams scored only three points.

A similar case could be made for how Nagy handled Trubisky. Rather than push him to develop, it seems that Nagy’s only ways to get more out of his passer was to come up with more creative ways to run a mirrored curl/flat concept. Trubisky came into the league with just one year of experience as a starter and needed some development, but now in his third season you are still seeing mistakes of his on film that he was making back during his days at UNC.

So while it might require a delicate balance, Shurmur needs to give Jones designs that put him on familiar footing, but still find ways to challenge him and force him to develop parts of the game that are requisites for playing the position well. With Trubisky, you will still see plays where he is failing to look off defenders, or locking onto targets immediately after the snap and never moving his eyes. The little things that matter have never been refined. The Giants need to avoid that fate with Jones.

Boost his confidence …

Generating — and keeping — confidence in your young quarterback’s mind is also a critical step towards developing them into a complete passer. This was one area where I thought Nagy did a great job with his young passer.

As a former failed quarterback, I know what it is like when the head coach or offensive coordinator loses confidence in you. It is a shattering experience, made worse by the fact that you can also see that failure in the other sets of eyes staring back at you in the huddle. When the draw play is called on third-and-8 and everyone in the huddle knows it is because the coaching staff does not trust you, the quarterback, you can feel it.

That is why last year I loved seeing this from Nagy. In Chicago’s early season game against the Miami Dolphins, Trubisky missed badly on this third-down throw:

Later in that same game, the Bears faced a critical third down in the fourth quarter. What did Nagy call? The same exact play:

This is a way to show your confidence in the young passer, and in turn to boost his own self-image. Returning to failure and giving him another chance. Nothing crushes the spirit of a young QB more than the feeling that a play that you missed on is now out of the playbook. That ... that is a confidence killer.

Jones is going to make mistakes. But the best way to keep that confidence level up is to take a page from Nagy, and keep getting the young QB on the horse anew.

... But step in when needed

So far there are aspects to Nagy’s handling of Trubisky to be emulated, but one in particular to avoid.

The biggest item to put in the avoidance column might have just taken place, and it might be a fatal one.

Often when I am thinking about young passer development my mind inevitably wanders to this piece from Matt Waldman, who has forgotten more about quarterback development than I will ever know. Titled “Ruining QBs,” Matt relays how during his own development Drew Brees was handled by Marty Schottenheimer. As stated by Brees himself on an NFL Network special about his former coach:

“I give Marty so much credit as far as my maturation as a quarterback in this league and he benched me three times,” says Brees on NFL Networks’ Marty Schottenheimer: A Football Life. “But there were times where I needed that. It was part of my growth. [During this interview segment with Brees, the director runs a sideline shot of Schottenheimer telling Brees during a game, “Listen to me, if it’s a one-score game your ass will be out there, but I’m not putting you at risk in this situation. You hear me?”] I was still his guy and I felt that all the way through so I love him for that. That carried over to 2004 where we had one of our better seasons.”

Now fast forward to this past week, with Nagy sitting Trubisky down in a 10-point game.

The stated reason was a “hip pointer,” but the image of Nagy holding his quarterback close and talking into his ear will be debated and discussed over the course of the season. For all we know, Nagy was trying to tell him something along the lines of what Schottenheimer told Brees, but perhaps not. But this was not a three-score game, where Trubisky was clearly in over his head. It was actually in a contest where he had been playing well, but his coach stepped in.

Again, there will be times that Jones struggles. It might even be this week against the Bears. But Shurmur needs to know when to sit him down to protect him, and when to ride with him. In a close game, the team needs to see that the coaches are behind Jones. However, if games get out of hand and there is nothing to be learned by Jones, sometimes protecting him is the best thing you can do for a young QB.

Sitting Trubisky down on that night might have sent the wrong message to everyone involved.

Everything about the quarterback position is difficult. Playing the position, evaluating the position, coaching the position and yes handling the quarterback himself. Nagy did some smart things with Trubisky, but in the end it might not have been enough. The lessons that can be learned from that relationship can be beneficial to the budding relationship between Shurmur and Jones.