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All eyes on Mitchell Trubisky

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The Tar Heel alum has a lot of pressure before him this season...and a tremendous opportunity.

NFL: Preseason-Chicago Bears at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Pro football returns tonight, when the Packers and Bears celebrate the league’s centennial by opening the NFL season at Soldier Field. Last year’s Week 1 matchup between these two was a classic and this game might even have MORE hype behind it. A certain quarterback named Aaron Rodgers will lead the Pack into battle, but the chief object of curiosity will be his counterpart on the opposite sideline: Bears QB and Tar Heel alum Mitchell Trubisky.

As with any NFL season, there are many question marks coming in, but Trubisky’s development and resulting play may be the biggest question mark of all. However, this is nothing new for Mitch: his entire career, from Chapel Hill to Chicago, has been surprising and hard to get a handle on.

As has now become legend among both collegiate fans and NFL analysts (professional or otherwise), Trubisky only started a total of 13 games for the Tar Heels after playing behind Marquise Williams his first two seasons. Trubisky showed more flashes than your average backup would: He completed 40 of his 47 attempts, had 555 yards, 6 touchdowns, and no picks his sophomore campaign. His junior year, with Williams lost to graduation, Trubisky had a breakout season, throwing for 30 touchdowns, just six interceptions, and 3,748 yards. In doing so, he surpassed the expectations of many: Most simply didn’t realize just how good he was until the job was his. Regardless, Trubisky had done enough to enter the NFL draft, forgoing his senior season.

As you might have heard, he was taken #2 overall, ahead of Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. It was a surprising move at the time (Watson, that is) and it has only looked tougher as the last two years have played out. This isn’t really Mitch’s fault: Watson has become a star and Mahomes might actually be an alien, but his play over the last two seasons relative to theirs has Bears fans wondering what could have been. Having an utterly uninterested John Fox for his rookie campaign didn’t help matters. but the arrival of new coach Matt Nagy breathed new life into Mitch’s career and has many asking: just how good can he be this season, and what will that mean for the Bears?

Last year, Trubisky seemed to take big steps forward: he finished with a 95.4 passer rating, threw for 24 touchdowns, over 3,200 yards, and was named a Pro Bowl substitute. The Bears won 12 games and made it back to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, but the criticism and doubt still lingers. Mitch had 12 interceptions on the season, but had 16 expected interceptions, which is to say he got away with more bad throws than he should have, which would have given him the highest INT rate in the NFL by far. His off-target rate was 20% in 2017 his rookie year, and only crept down to 19% his next campaign. He was very inconsistent at times, having some brilliant performances but also real low points against the Rams and in the first three quarters of his Wild Card game against the Eagles. There is a widespread perception that his improvement is due almost entirely to Nagy’s playcalling and scheming, not Mitch’s improved ability.

But there are also many who are bullish on Mitch: in ESPN’s NFL Honors Poll, one of its experts picked Trubisky to win MVP, while five others had him ranked 5th on their ballots. He finished in the top-10, ahead of players like Matt Ryan, Aaron Donald, and Saquon Barkley. The Bears themselves have total confidence in him: Ryan Pace, the GM, has talked about how their biggest goal in the offseason was “incremental improvement” and that Trubisky showed it, just as he had done last season. Nagy and the coaching staff have expressed consistently their optimism as well. You won’t find a player in the National Football League with more varied prognostications than Mitch.

It didn’t help anyone’s prediction making ability that Mitch was barely used in preseason, taking just three snaps and handing the ball off on each of them. In fairness, fewer and fewer starters are seeing significant workloads in preseason games, and when you see the injuries that strike key players before Week 1, who can blame them? But the lack of visibility has only fueled wild speculation and the simple truth is that no one knows how good Mitchell Trubisky will be this year, maybe not even the Bears and Mitch himself.

This much is certain: If Trubisky makes the leap to star, there may be no stopping the Bears. They had one of the league’s two best defenses last year and will surely have one again this year. They have a brilliant offensive-minded head coach who can drive opposing defenses to distraction. They have a capable receiving corps, supplemented by a versatile pass-catching running back in Tarik Cohen, and a promising rookie backup in David Montgomery. All they need is a quarterback who can run the show at a high level. If they get that, they have championship written all over them.

And boy does “championship-winning UNC quarterback” have a nice ring to it.