A year ago, Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles were in similar situations as unquestioned starting quarterbacks in the NFL — Trubisky with the Bears and Foles with the Jaguars.
Nothing they did performance-wise in camp or the preseason was going to prevent them from starting Week 1. Trubisky, the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft, was backed up by Chase Daniel. Foles, who had just signed a four-year, $88 million contract with Jacksonville, was ahead of rookie Gardner Minshew, a fifth-round draft pick.
The stakes are quite a bit higher and the margin-for-error a little bit smaller for both as they enter training camp in 2020 with the Bears. In an open competition for the starting job, Bears coach Matt Nagy is less likely to rationalize a bad day or a series of mistakes. As Nagy put it, “If one of the quarterbacks is stinking it up and playing like crap, we’re going to tell you, ‘You’re playing like crap.’ They’re both gonna know when someone’s playing good … and someone’s playing bad.”
Quarterback competitions are inherently awkward on the face of it. The competitors are teammates, both trying to make the Bears better. But there’s only one winner — in the best possible world, one will play every down, the other won’t see the field. And it’s only the most important position in sports. So they almost have to defy human nature to pull for each other.
“I love competitions,” Foles said. “But sometimes competitions, if you approach them the wrong way become very toxic for a team and an organization because it becomes about ‘me’ and not about the team.
“So the hardest thing is, how do I make it about the team? And then enjoy it in the quarterback room when I’m competing with guys?”
For Trubisky, the battle with Foles is a step down — he’s now fighting for the job he once held uncontested. Still, he’s embraced the “open competition,” though acknowledging it has motivated him.
He sounds eager for the battle and seems more confident than ever. Trubisky has the benefit of incumbency — an even greater advantage after the limitations of the COVID-19 quarantine eliminated on-field work in the offseason. But Foles has previous experience with not only Nagy, but quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. He’s expecting a fair fight. It should be.
“Just transparency and honesty, which they have been the whole time,” Trubisky said. “And it might not be exactly what you want to hear. But that’s how you get through this thing. And I think that’s what creates good quarterback competition. And hopefully the competition just makes our whole quarterback room [including third-stringer Tyler Bray] and our whole offense better, which I think it will.
“You just want honest the entire time and make sure it’s fair and that everybody is getting an equal shot. Just the type of coaches and people we have in our building, I believe it will be. So that’s not really a big concern.”
While many have written off Trubisky as a bust, it still will be interesting to see how he responds to this new challenge. Trubisky has grown progressively edgier over his three seasons with the Bears. The criticism of his difficult 2019 season, the Bears declining the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and the demotion to an open competition for his job seems to have hardened that edge.
Will it make a difference? Competition is supposed to bring out the best in an athlete — it sharpens their focus, which makes them more efficient and productive. But quarterback is an odd position, where many of the best — even one-time long shots like Kurt Warner and Tom Brady — assume the starting job more than win it through competition.
The only time Trubisky has been in a true open competition for a starting quarterback job, he lost — as a redshirt freshman and sophomore at North Carolina in 2014 and 2015. But he was 20 and 21 then. He’s almost 26 now, with three years of NFL experience. He was the up-and-coming guy in college. Now he’s the disappointing first-round pick that many Bears fans believe is just standing in the way of progress.
“For me, it’s very motivating,” Trubisky said. “You’re always going to have people writing you off. It’s got to light a fire under you, which it has for me and I’m just trying to prove everybody wrong and prove my teammates right. … So I’m definitely fired up. [But] you’ve got to make it happen.”