By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – For all the big wins that now define a lasting Steelers legacy, Ben Roethlisberger had to first beat the learning curve. A highly touted first-round pick, he was thrust into action back in 2004 when starter Tommy Maddox suffered an injury, and Roethlisberger led his team to 14 straight wins and the AFC Championship game.
A year later, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a Super Bowl championship by using a simple formula: Don’t try to do too much. He handled the ball off to Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker and let his defense do the rest. While carefully guiding, he was learning along the way – how to read defenses, identify disguised blitzes and make adjustments as coordinators try to create stress.
Roethlisberger evolved into a future Hall of Fame quarterback because of how he handled the learning curve his first few seasons. It’s why he’s skeptical when the hype machine builds around a young quarterback like the Bears’ heralded rookie, Mitchell Trubisky.
“I’m always slow to send too much praise or anoint the next great quarterback after Year 1,” Roethlisberger said recently by teleconference. “People in the media and the ‘professionals’ in some of these big sports networks are so quick to anoint the next great one or say that they’re going to be great — this, that and the other.
“Let’s wait and see what happens after two to three years. After defenses understand what you’re bringing, you’re not a surprise anymore. I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks. In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”
On Monday night at Soldier Field, Trubisky will be introduced to a primetime television audience and a home crowd anxious for results and hope. Chicago has long waited for its own Aaron Rodgers, the elite quarterback who gives a team the chance each time it takes the field. Expectations are high for Trubisky, drafted second overall after the Bears gave up a haul to move up one spot in April’s draft.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace believes in what Trubisky can be, taking him over the likes of Deshaun Watson, Jamal Adams and Solomon Thomas. Trubisky’s time arrived sooner than the Bears had planned, after veteran Mike Glennon faltered with his opportunity in a 1-3 start marked by turnovers.
Mitch-a-palooza arrives in Chicago with those high hopes needing to be tempered. Bears coach John Fox reminded that Trubisky doesn’t have fairy dust. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains had similar words Thursday at Halas Hall.
“Mitch Trubisky is a very good young player, but he is not a magic wand,” Loggains said. “We needed to play better around him, that’s start with me and goes to every position group.”
Those honest words from Trubisky’s play-caller remind that he’s just a rookie making his first NFL start. Rodgers and Tom Brady often do work like a magic wand for their teams with annual Super Bowl hopes. No matter who’s on the field with Rodgers or Brady, they always seem to make it work out. Expecting that of Trubisky as a rookie isn’t fair or realistic.
What can Trubisky bring for the Bears this season? There are comparisons that could provide the answer before he leads the Bears against the Vikings (2-2) on Monday night at Soldier Field.
In 2015, No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota stepped to the field with the Titans in Week 1 and led his team to victory over top overall pick Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers. Mariota finished 13-of-15 for 209 yards, four touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 rating. Mariota would struggle from there, with Tennessee and its poor supporting cast finishing 3-9 in his 12 starts.
Viewed as one of the most accurate passers in the game, Mariota threw 10 interceptions as a rookie and nine last season as defenses forced him into mistakes. But the Titans jumped from three wins in his first season to eight in 2016 and are now viewed as a playoff contender as Mariota has grown.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in 2016, led a serviceable cast to 7-9 in his rookie season. A standout at North Dakota State, Wentz managed the major jump in competition to with an aggressive mindset, completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 3,782 yards in 16 games. The Eagles allowed thim to learn on the fly and put plenty of faith in his abilities.
Trubisky is considered a terrific student of the game by the accounts of his coaches and teammates. He spends countless hours in his playbook, studying film on the iPad and watching for looks in virtual reality. Flashes were on display during the preseason, when Trubisky first showed his readiness for NFL action.
But the blitz of of someone like Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen is hard to simulate, and he wasn’t out there rushing in that fourth preseason game against the Browns. Monday will be the greatest test Trubisky has faced to this point in his football career and the next step in his development.
“Mentally, it takes a while to learn the offense,” Rodgers said last week by teleconference. “And more importantly, start to learn defenses and put together fronts with pressures and coverages and start to see some different things on film. Obviously, the game is a little different preseason to regular season.”
The spotlight will be follow Trubisky’s every throw beginning Monday. He will be tasked of bringing the Bears greater function on offense – beginning with opening up the box for running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen – and giving his team the chance that Glennon couldn’t.
Pace and the Bears’ brass originally planned for Trubisky to spend the 2017 season preparing in practice and on the sidelines for his moment while Glennon leads. Instead, Trubisky proved he was ready earlier than expected while Glennon was the leading reason for two of three losses to start the season.
Trubisky is going to see disguised blitzes and unique coverages as a rookie, as defensive coordinators try to force him into mistakes. It’s something every rookie quarterback sees – Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Mariota and more. Mistakes are bound to happen, but they’re simply part of the process. There are countless examples of quarterbacks who failed to grow from the early challenges.
The ones who become great learn and adjust from their experiences as a young quarterback. The ones who can’t meet the hype fail to adjust and become broken by the failures. These early years will signal what Trubisky will become.
“I don’t think the so-called quarterback busts exist,” Loggains said. “If you drafted the right guy, made of the right stuff, they battle through.
“We drafted the right guy, and he’s going to play well.”