It’s ridiculously difficult to understand how well a quarterback is playing simply by scouting the boxscore. Is an interception from a bad read, a tipped ball, or a defensive back functionally forcing and securing a fumble before the catch is secured? Is a high completion percentage generated from garbage time as a team gets blown out or is it symbolic of an efficient passer?
Even beyond those limitations, though, there are other factors to keep in mind.
This season gave unto football fans the remarkable turnaround of Jared Goff, a more or less living and breathing rebuttal to the idea that a player can be called a bust after a single season, and an almost awe-inspiring demonstration of the importance of coaching and game-planning. However, with all of the usual caveats aside, it is interesting to look for any trends in how rookie quarterbacks have played in recent years.
After the “year of the quarterback” in 2012, five additional drafts have passed, and nearly five “rookie classes” have competed in their first season. Not all quarterbacks drafted started games in their first seasons. AJ McCarron didn’t, and neither did Matt Barkley. Jimmy Garoppolo did not start during his first year, and Christian Hackenberg still hasn’t started.
However, to date, 21 different quarterbacks taken post-2012 have had at least one start during their rookie season after being drafted. The rookie season to be spoken of in whispered awe or with jealousy and bitterness is of course Dak Prescott’s 104.9-passer rating, 7.86 ANY/A-achieving campaign last year. By contrast, Nathan Peterman (38.4) and Johnny Manziel (42) race to the bottom for passer ratings hovering around the level of the single incomplete pass (39.6).
For those who are curious, here is a link to a lot of raw numbers, with all stats garnered from the incomparable Pro Football Reference.
In the midst of all of this chaos, Mitchell Trubisky currently sits 10th of 21 in his first-season passer rating of 80. That’s a couple of spots ahead of Paxton Lynch, but it’s also behind Zach Mettenberger. He does a hair better (9th) when compared using ANY/A (5.24), or adjusted net yards per attempt. Are there mitigating factors explaining Trubisky’s struggles? The answer is a resounding yes.
However, it’s tough to argue that 3rd-round selection Cody Kessler (92.3 passer rating and and 5.88 ANY/A) walked into the perfect situation in Cleveland. At this point, it might be worth pointing out that Trubisky holds about the same relative position even when the field is narrowed just to first-round picks (5th of 11 for both metrics).
No matter how the numbers themselves are worked, they offer a view of a player who is unremarkable. Talented but not about to set the world on fire.
What does this mean? By itself, it means nothing. Playing with replacement wide receivers and for a head coach mired in the past, Trubisky is almost perfectly in the middle of the pack for rookie quarterbacks. The Jeff Fisher principle would seem to suggest that the wrong head coach can reduce nearly anyone to mediocrity, and so the right head coach next season could potentially open the door for improvement.
Likewise, it seems more reasonable than usual to point out that quarterbacks rarely elevate their entire team--their stats are typically the result of the coaching staff and the ten players on the field with them (for that matter, of the situation that they are in because of the defense or special teams, as well).
It seems fair to say that neither 2013 nor 2014 were good years, overall, for rookie quarterbacks. It also seems fair to admit that Deshaun Watson far outplayed any reasonable bar critics might have set for him. If not for his unfortunate injury, his improvement arc made it possible he would have eclipsed the statistic prowess of Prescott (with a passer rating of 103 and a 7.19 ANY/A, he came close to catching the Cowboy star anyway).
As for Trubisky, the fan in me sees games like the matchup against the Bengals and hopes for someone to come along and put Trubisky into the right system. The eye test tells me that this kid has all of the talent he’s going to need to get the Bears into contention, so long as he gets the chance.
This is an unfortunately familiar feeling, as the Bears fan in me remembers (from very recently) a quarterback who always seemed one piece away from being able to put it all together. I want this time to be different. If it is, however, it will not be because #10 suddenly explodes in a burst of ability. Instead, Trubisky will likely progress gradually.
He will improve, but he will need a solid team around him in order to triumph. He will need a competent coaching staff to put him in a position to succeed. That’s okay.
Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t have to elevate an entire team all by himself.
Fans should not really expect him to lift the team by himself.
Very few quarterbacks ever win big without some help.
P.S. I hope he can do it on his own, anyway.