BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Inside the jacket of "The Captain Class" -- a book that identifies the 16 greatest teams in sports history and examines what makes their leaders’ tick -- is an endorsement from Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace.
“'The Captain Class' really resonated with me,” Pace wrote. “It will absolutely be part of my thought process as we continue to build our roster.”
The GM’s praise is more than just hallowed words. Pace bought a copy for several of his players. And in October 2017, he flew the author, Sam Walker, out to Chicago to meet with the entire Bears offense. Walker, a Wall Street Journal enterprise editor by day, stood in front the meeting room. As he spoke about his years-long research into sports’ greatest captains, one Bears player was more attentive than the rest, taking copious notes. It was then-rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
Shortly after the visit, Trubisky asked Pace for Walker’s contact information. Over the course of the season -- and over this past summer -- Trubisky peppered Walker with follow-up questions such as: “What should I know about body language?” or “How should I communicate differently in a group setting versus with individuals?” Walker has visited Trubisky and the Bears several times over the past year, including last Tuesday at training camp.
If the relationship between a budding, 23-year-old, franchise quarterback and an established, Manhattan-based, newspaper editor seems odd, consider the larger context: It’s just one of the many steps Trubisky is taking to assert himself as a leader.
Across the NFL, many are expecting Trubisky to take the same jump in Year 2 that Carson Wentz took with the Philadelphia Eagles or Jared Goff with the Los Angeles Rams. Trubisky, publicly, is veering away from the parallel. On the eve of training camp, when a reporter uttered Wentz's and Goff’s names, Trubisky lamented: "I'm tired of it all. All the doubts, all the comparisons.”
Internally, Trubisky understands the burden of expectation. As Trubisky goes, so do the Bears -- and the men above the quarterback’s pay grade. Pace mortgaged Chicago’s future to trade up and select the North Carolina quarterback No. 2 overall in 2017. He then brought in head coach Matt Nagy specifically to jell with Trubisky and revive the offense. Of course, there’s a rabid fan base that has weathered four straight bottom-dwelling seasons; it can latch onto nostalgia or hope for only so long.
The NFL doesn’t afford the luxury of time. For Trubisky, who ranked 33rd in touchdown percentage among players with 200 passes and whose QBR was better than only Trevor Siemian's, the transition to dependable leader needs to be accelerated. And he has done everything he can to put the pedal to the metal.
“When you see Mitch this season, he’s more vocal, he’s more confident and more assured of things,” wide receiver Kevin White said. “He has a certain swag to him that’s hard to ignore.”
'In Mitch we trust'
For the fans who line the grass fields on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University to watch the Bears practice in July, there’s no question which player generates the most excitement. On the first day of training camp, Trubisky walked onto the field through a tunnel of fans, and soon after, chants of, “In Mitch we trust!” echoed behind him. After nearly every practice, Trubisky has signed autographs. His process can take upward of 30 minutes to appease everyone. “Rookie move,” one Bears staffer mused as he watched Trubisky one July day. “He’s going to be out there forever.” Even still, Trubisky lingers by the group clustered around the locker room to take selfies and sign a few more balls before he’s done for the day.
On a recent Monday, Trubisky was riding in a golf cart on his way to the dormitory with tight end Adam Shaheen. In the parking lot, Trubisky spotted a man in a military uniform. The quarterback asked the driver of the cart to make a U-turn. He hopped out and walked over to the man, signing a football and thanking him for his service.
“He’s just a guy who gets it,” said wide receiver Allen Robinson, the free agent acquired to become Trubisky’s top target. “He understands what it means to be a leader.”
Public appearances are one thing. Galvanizing a locker room is another. The Bears have a young roster, with only three players age 30 or older (linebacker Sam Acho, offensive lineman Kyle Long and long snapper Patrick Scales) projected to get regular playing time.
That makes it easier for Trubisky, who just three years ago was still a backup at UNC, to command respect. But it’s not just the young players who are following. Long is the second-longest-tenured player on Chicago’s roster. He never has been afraid to speak his mind -- to the media or on social media. But through training camp, Long has been strangely quiet. That’s because Trubisky quit Twitter cold turkey, saying he went “zero dark 10” on social media (the 10 a reference to his jersey number), and the 30-year-old Long suddenly felt the urge to be a follower.
“In years past, I’ve had fun on Twitter during the season, and that’s well-documented,” Long said. “But I’ll follow the lead of our captain and do what he wants to do.”
A more confident Trubisky began emerging toward the end of last season, teammates say. Several players point to the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, when things just weren’t clicking. By the third quarter, the Bears were down 23-7. Chicago’s only score came on a 59-yard punt return. Staring down Minnesota defensive tackle Linval Joseph in the end zone, Trubisky panicked and flicked the ball. He was called for intentional grounding, resulting in two points for the Vikings. Shortly after, Trubisky gathered the wide receivers together on the sideline and said: “OK, we got this. We can’t beat ourselves, we’ve put in all this work.” The Bears lost but finished with a scoring drive.
Since then, Trubisky has been doing and saying all the right things. When Trubisky found out White, whose three-year career with the Bears has been defined by injuries, also was training in Southern California this summer, he made sure the two could arrange a handful of throwing sessions together. And those group-inspiration huddles? Trubisky is comfortable calling them whenever.
“He just did it again today,” White said at an early training camp practice. “We had a slow start, and Mitch pulled us aside and said, ‘Let’s go. Don’t make the same mistake twice. Lock into the details and just play ball. Have fun.’”
Trubisky is 'not the norm'
When Trubisky arrived last season, he was second on the depth chart to Mike Glennon. Well-traveled veteran Mark Sanchez also was in the quarterback room to help Trubisky adjust to the NFL. In 2018, Trubisky is the unquestioned starter, though the Bears signed two backups (Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray) with experience in Nagy’s offense to help him acclimate to the new playbook. Daniel, who has now cycled through six teams entering his 10th NFL season, didn’t know what to expect upon meeting Trubisky. Now he can’t stop gushing.
"He's one of the smarter young guys I've ever been around,” Daniel said. “You tell him something one time, he gets it and understands it and goes out and does it on the field. That's pretty cool to see. It's not the norm.”
And then Daniel went further.
"Alex [Smith] and Drew [Brees] were some of the smarter guys I've been around, but Mitch is right up there with them in terms of regurgitating the offense," Daniel said. "Coach will quiz him all the time during meetings and he won't miss a beat. He's focused on it. He knows exactly what to say, what to answer, and guys see that in the room. It's not just the quarterback room, it's the whole room. Guys see that and are very impressed. That's how it should be with the quarterback."
Though he has fans on the team, the truth is Trubisky hasn’t mastered the complex, new offense just yet. Two weeks into practices and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich admitted “we’re nowhere, nowhere near where we need to be. But we’re trending in the right direction.” Trubisky had been intercepted at least once in each of the first eight full-speed practices, a stat Nagy vigorously defended.
“I love the fact that he’s trying to learn this offense and make throws,” Nagy said. “I’d rather him do that than take the 5-yard checkdown. I need him to test it right now.”