Like most Bears fans, I spent the first preseason game torn between awe and dread. Awe at the display put on by the #2 overall pick in the draft and dread because, as a Bears fan, I was sure something was going to go wrong. A sort of superstitious conviction that the franchise I love would not be allowed to have nice things, and so something had to happen. When the “bad” never materialized, I sat back in stunned disbelief. Then reason started to kick in. Exactly how good was the display I just saw?
I felt compelled to put Mitchell Trubisky’s performance into a bit of context, but there were also limits to what I could do. For example, Pro Football Reference was silent on the preseason, and ESPN only recorded stats back to 2014. However, that was enough that I felt comfortable getting my head around what I was seeing. I only looked at the first two games of each preseason, because Game 3 was more or less the “starters” game by tradition and I wanted to compare apples to apples (even if I was dealing with Red Delicious and Granny Smith, at least a mango wound not suddenly intrude). Game 4 was likewise off-limits for the opposite reason. This was not a thorough scientific analysis of all starts going back 20 years. However, patterns showed up that stood out to me.
2017 is a bad year for quarterbacks?
The maligned quarterback class of 2017 acquitted itself nicely. The first five quarterbacks off the board in 2017 put up passer ratings ranging from 126.4 (Patrick Mahomes benefiting from an obscenely shortened field) to 77.4 (Nathan Peterman’s steady performance). Add in Iowa alum C.J. Beathard’s 133.0 and the Class of ’17 was good for 71 completions on 113 attempts for 791 yards, with 6 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and only 9 sacks with 61 lost yards. That gives the class a 101.3 passer rating to date.
Here’s some context. Using just numbers from the first game of preseason—with all of the usual “it barely counts” disclaimers—the Class of ’16, even with Dak Prescott sneaking in to bolster the numbers, offered optimistic fans a combined 75.3. That was an improvement over 2015, when the aspiring passers (led by Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, at least in draft priority) put up a 65.2. Back in 2014, the cohort containing Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, and Jimmy Garoppolo turned in a composite 81.5.
Here’s the punchline, even if it probably doesn’t mean anything (especially when you consider the performances of Beathard and Prescott), even if it is fun to chew on. 2017’s class includes four first-round picks and has the highest net passer rating. 2014’s class includes three first-rounders and a pair of 2s. The lowest net rating? The class with just a pair of first-rounders (2015’s Winston and Mariota). There’s a lot of false correlation going on there, but it’s also fair to say that nothing in the box scores (or the tape itself) suggests that 2017 deserved the scorn it got.
As a side note, while Deshaun Watson made a solid first impression, and justifiably so, he actually did little more than signal that the entire draft class was underrated. He was passed in most categories (except, per Pro Football Focus, passer rating under pressure) by one if not most of his peers. That is not to denigrate his performance, which was solid. It’s to point out that this entire group might have been underestimated. The GMs who drafted QBs heavily maybe, just maybe, knew something that scouts and fans didn’t.
Mitchell Trubisky really did have a good night!
Next up, Trubisky’s performance itself. If you’re reading this article and have not watched it, go back and do that right now. This article will be here later. Go enjoy the precision, the poise, and the command of an offense against overmatched preseason opponents. Once you get back, though, remember that lots of rookie quarterbacks have had that kind of opportunity recently. Forget Hackenburg (no passes in the first two preseason games of his rookie year) and the second preseason “game” for Wentz, who also sat. There are still 35 preseason games to consider by top rookie quarterbacks since 2014. #10’s performance ranks 13th in raw passer rating.
Only one early preseason game saw a rookie with more pass attempts that Trubisky, and that Paxton Lynch’s second performance (where he went 15/26 wih a 77.9 passer rating). Interestingly three of the five other 20+ pass attempt games came in 2017—Trubisky (103.1), Watson (81.9) and Peterman (77.4). Carson Wentz and Teddy Bridgewater were the other passers given at least twenty chances to make an impression with their arms.
In other words, Trubisky’s solid performance compares well against other rookies in the same situation. He had more pass attempts than almost all of his peers and he acquitted himself well on those attempts. If I set the bar at 15 attempts (mostly so I can include Dak Prescott’s second game where he earned a perfect passer rating), Trubisky’s game is 5th out of 15. He suffered no sacks, manged a touchdown, and threw no interceptions. That doesn’t include the total number of scoring drives led. No matter how I try to manipulate the stat sheet, Trubisky’s performance is steadily in the top third, even if it’s never exactly at the top.
I was also struck by how much playing time Trubisky received compared to his peers. Some of this was from the fact that he kept converting first downs and earning more snaps, but some of it was obviously also by design.
If Trubisky’s second preseason game sees him with another 15 attempts, he would be only the third quarterback in this group to have two such games in the first two games of the preseason (Derek Carr and Bryce Petty being the other two). If any of the top group from 2017 turns in another performance at least as good as Deshaun Watson’s (81.9), that player would be only the fourth quarterback in recent classes to have back-to-back preseason games with 80+ passer ratings (Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Blake Bortles being the previous ones).
In other words, even a modest performance by Trubisky in the second game puts him in fairly rare company. Preseason doesn’t mean anything, and it’s hard to draw major conclusions. However, there is nothing about the broader context of preseason that tells us that what Trubisky managed was easy. There is little that suggests his accomplishments should be dismissed. Add together what was visible on the field instead of the box score, and it’s easy to get excited about what lies ahead.