It usually ruffles my feathers when narratives take over that don’t seem fair, for good or ill. The narrative of the 2022 offseason that has gotten me most bent out of shape concerns Mitchell Trubisky: “draft bust,” “disappointment,” and at best “bridge quarterback, until the Steelers get a real passer.”
I don’t have a lot invested in Trubisky’s career — he was entirely off my radar until this winter. But the basic profile on Trubisky is actually pretty impressive: four years starting in Chicago with two playoff berths, a Pro Bowl selection, a 1.7 to 1.0 TD/INT ratio, and a 29-21 record as a starter. Further adding to the luster is the fact that he played three of those four years under a coach who didn’t draft him, famously didn’t like him, and was so disliked that he was himself subsequently fired. And all that in Chicago, notoriously a quarterback graveyard.
I’m of the opinion that Trubisky’s draft status — second overall and ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, none of which he had any say over — has driven the conversation. That is, I think his career would look successful and promising if he’d been drafted at #20 or #30 instead of #2.
But that’s the easy part of the argument: of course he’s better than the loudmouth critics are saying. A better question might be what his career really looks like, and what it might portend about the future.
Another BTSC member recently posted a clip from Colin Cowherd, where Cowherd ran a blind comparison of stats between Trubisky and some other QBs — continually surprising himself by how favorably Mitch lined up against Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, and others. I loathe Cowherd, so I’m not reposting it, but it’s an interesting project. And, particularly as we obsess about “draft comps,” I thought it would be worth running a deeper dive of that type.
What’s below is a comparison of Trubisky to nine other quarterbacks who became starters early in their careers, and who amassed similar numbers in their first four years at the helm. I actually ran numbers for a much larger group — some were much stronger, some were much weaker. I whittled the list down to these nine because these guys created the best comps (and to create a round number of 10). I wound up with (in order of recency):
Josh Allen — Buffalo Bills (2018-21)
Mitchell Trubisky — Chicago Bears (2017-20)
Jameis Winston — Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2015-19)
Derek Carr — Oakland Raiders (2014-17)
Andy Dalton — Cincinnati Bengals (2011-14)
Joe Flacco — Baltimore Ravens (2008-11)
Ben Roethlisberger — Pittsburgh Steelers (2004-07)
Drew Brees — San Diego Chargers (2002-05)
Tom Brady — New England Patriots (2001-04)
I’ll look at them as passers, as runners, and in terms of turnovers; then I’ll add a little context for how good their teams were (i.e. how much pressure was on the QB to carry the team).
This isn’t a prediction project. Roethlisberger, Brady, and Brees are Hall of Famers and champions; Winston, meanwhile has never impressed me a whole lot. But all are legit starters, and I think when we look at Trubisky in this context, it will be hard to not consider him, at the very least, a legit NFL starter as well.
I’m only looking at each player’s first four years as primary starter, so Drew Brees’ numbers (for example) begin in 2002, rather than his rookie year of 2000. That said, I’ll use percentages and per-game averages to compare, since each of these guys started a different number of total games. Alright, let’s do it.
Here are the overall passing stats. I’m only going to zoom in on a couple of categories, but I wanted to present the raw numbers, just in case anyone feels like there’s something valuable that I haven’t highlighted. Let’s start with completion percentage:
Closest Comp: Ben Roethlisberger
Completion percentage is not necessarily the final word on accuracy (wide receiver drops matter, as does depth of the pass), but it is a meaningful number. And Trubisky is above some pretty big players. A quick reminder is in order as well: Mitch played his ball in windy, frigid Chicago.
His closest comp here is Big Ben, who’s actually slightly behind. We can talk about how the rules have changed since Ben entered the league, but it’s worth acknowledging that Trubisky is comfortably ahead of contemporaries like Josh Allen, Jameis Winston, and Derek Carr in this category.
Per per game numbers
Closest Comp: Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees
I’ve included these numbers just to get a snapshot of the average game. While Trubisky lands at the bottom of the list, he’s within striking distance of Roethlisberger, Brees, Flacco, and Brady in terms of yardage, and he’s in the middle of this pack in all other categories (attempts, completions, yards per attempt, and first downs passing per game).
My assessment: he looks like the quarterback of a team focused on defense and rushing — just like Ben, Brees, Flacco, and Brady (not-coincidentally the players to whom he looks most similar on a per-game average).
Closest Comp: Joe Flacco
Trubisky is again on the low end of this chart (and goodness, Ben was impressive in this area). It’s hard to know what to draw from this. It’s possible Mitch has been a cautious passer, which may not be a great thing (his yards-per-attempt are also mediocre). Then again, it’s also possible that he wasn’t asked to pass much within the red zone. Given his supposedly rocky relationship with Coach Matt Nagy, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was a bit handcuffed at times.
(On that last note: the word on Trubisky is that he is extremely well-liked by teammates. The alleged tension between he and Nagy seems to be understood as Nagy’s problem. No one in Chicago or Buffalo appears to have a bad thing to say about Mitch as a person or a teammate.)
Closest Comp: Josh Allen, Joe Flacco
Trubisky represents much better in this category. I didn’t realize Derek Carr was this careful with the ball early in his career, but Mitch matches up very well with Josh Allen – his teammate last season in Buffalo. (That ought to be a promising fact, since Allen was developed by the same coaching staff that groomed Trubisky in 2021.)
Two quick side notes:
1: You might be surprised to see Brady in the middle of the pack. I’ve long maintained that his performance wasn’t that impressive until the Pats brought Randy Moss (and then Rob Gronkowski) to town. New England won three Super Bowls in these four years, but it really wasn’t Brady’s greatness that drove them.
2: You might also be surprised to see Big Ben at the bottom of the list, but don’t forget, this period includes his wretched 2006 season, where he played with multiple concussions and lost his appendix on the eve of the season. He probably suffers for one bad year more than the rest of these guys.
Closest Comp: Jameis Winston, Tom Brady, Derek Carr
I find this one really fascinating. Trubisky appears in the second half of the list, but the differences are negligible for those immediately ahead of him. He’s essentially tied with Winston, Brady, and Carr. Quite a list. And remember, this is a composite, collected over four years.
Does Trubisky have the potential to suddenly leap forward, like Brady or Brees would do in a couple years? Sure, I guess, but it’s hard to tell how likely that would be. That said, he certainly has the capacity to improve like Carr (career rating: 92.4).
One more quick note: Ben was really really good. Even with his ugly 2006, he’s still #1 in this category.
Trubisky’s mobility is also considered an asset, so it might be interesting to see how he has fared in that realm:
Rush yards per game
Closest Comp: Andrew Luck
Trubisky has a good reputation as an athletic quarterback. He’s never been used in the same volume as Josh Allen (who is far and away the best runner of this set), but he looks like someone who could run a bootleg, a roll-out, and the occasional QB draw.
Rush yards per attempt
Closest Comp: Josh Allen
This is a pretty impressive category for Mitch. Essentially tied with Allen (slightly ahead of him, actually). Could he maintain that rate if you doubled his carries, like the Bills passer had? Hard to say, but Trubisky is on the high end for total carries already, so it’s not like he just scrambled a couple times a year.
Closest Comp: Josh Allen, Derek Carr
Longest run doesn’t necessarily illuminate much — it could just be one freak play that broke away, when every other scramble was for two yards. However, it does indicate that the man has some speed. That Trubisky has the longest run of the group suggests his elusiveness, fearlessness, and jets.
Turnovers are another stat that young quarterbacks often struggle with — and they represent the kind of carelessness that can bury a talented team. Let’s see how Trubisky (and company) look in these categories.
Fumbles per game
Closest Comp: Derek Carr, Andrew Luck
Trubisky is relatively average in this realm. That’s helpful to know. With a defense like the Steelers have, the worst thing a QB could be is a turnover machine. (I’m mostly fascinated to see how good Ben was in those years — especially given how much he was sacked in those years — and how easily Brady put the ball on the ground, while his team kept winning.)
Interceptions per game
Closest Comp: Derek Carr, Joe Flacco, Josh Allen
Again, there’s Mitch, not turning the ball over at a high rate. Good. Remember that Trubisky was also good in interception percentage. This stuff could mean that he doesn’t take chances – that’s worth watching. But he certainly doesn’t seem like a nightmare that will constantly kill drives with dumb play.
Total turnovers per game
Closest Comp: Drew Brees, Andy Dalton
It’s crazy to think that most quarterbacks are generally worth at least one turnover per game. I guess that makes sense, but it’s bizarre to see it in writing. In any case, Mitchell is again near the head of the class.
CONTEXT & HELP
One more way to gauge how a young passer is doing is to notice whether the team gathered around him is strong. There’s no way to really make a definitive claim about this, but we can still check in on the “before” and “after” and see if the player was a part (perhaps a meaningful part) of his team’s upswing. It also gives us an insight into what this player was working with as he posted all the numbers we just looked at.
Before & After
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|Year||Tm||years||GS||prev W||prev L||%||QB-W||QB-L||%||Improv.||Playoffs|
Closest Comp: Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco
This stat is mixed in terms of what it can teach us. For example, most of us remember how Andrew Luck’s Colts were a powerhouse for a decade, before one disastrous season allowed them to draft Luck. That makes his success look more like the team bouncing back, rather than him lifting the guys. Then again, we saw what that very team looked like with bad quarterback play in the one year between Luck and Peyton Manning. It’s not entirely coincidence that Luck’s rookie year WAS a bounce-back.
In any case, when looking at Trubisky, keep in mind that the Bears were not a good offense already; then they traded up from #3 to #2 to select him. That means they drafted fewer blue-chip players to develop around and with him.
As I said initially, this isn’t meant to project that Trubisky WILL become Drew Brees or Derek Carr, or that he’ll have a similar career to his closest statistical match (who wound up being Joe Flacco, believe it or not). Rather, my interest is in deconstructing the narrative of Mitch-the-Bust. He played very comparable football to each of the men on this list, none of whom are considered busts (with the possible exception of Winston — though Winston fed his own skeptics by throwing an absurd 30 interceptions in 2019 alone — barely fewer than Trubisky threw in four years).
If Trubisky fits the Matt Canada offense of roll-outs, RPOs, and motion (and signs suggest he might be perfect for such a system), we could see the Steelers looking remarkably clean and efficient this season. If he develops on a trajectory similar to some of these other players, who really began to explode as they approached 30 (Brady, Brees, Big Ben, Carr), we could be in for a fun few years.
Time will tell. Go Steelers.