In 2017, we wondered if John Fox was on board with the drafting of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. A Chicago Tribune report seems to confirm he wasn't.
At the time, the Bears were still basking in the afterglow of their most daring draft move in many years, trading up to the No. 2 pick to select North Carolina’s Trubisky. Their social media team posted a behind-the-scenes look at the Bears’ front-office reaction the following morning that April.
It’s the kind of content fans (and media) crave, and it told a fascinating story of how the Bears viewed their future starting quarterback.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace led the convocation in the team’s draft room, rallying his scouting apostles on the franchise-altering move they had just pulled off the night before.
“Number one quarterback for me,” Pace said. “Number one quarterback for Josh. Number one quarterback for Mark. Dowell’s number one quarterback. Over-the-top scout’s number one quarterback. Area scout’s number one quarterback.
“That’s conviction. On a quarterback.”
Josh was Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas. Mark was director of college scouting Mark Sadowski. Dowell was former Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.
The Bears’ area scout at the time was Chris Prescott, who in 2018 was promoted to the role of national scout. An over-the-top scout is usually a higher-ranking scout who cross-checks schools at various pre-draft processes; Pace did not name which member of the staff this was.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) April 28, 2017
One big name missing from Pace’s list: then-head coach John Fox.
It struck us as quite telling at the time that Pace did not appear to single out Fox in that speech. Did he forget? Was the video edited in such a way that Fox’s name was omitted? Or, did Fox have another QB he preferred?
Those were the questions we had at the time. Fox’s second season as Bears head coach saw a regression, from 6-10 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016. That losing season put the Bears in a position to more readily move up one slot for Trubisky, and it also put Fox on the proverbial hot seat entering 2017.
By year’s end, he would be out as coach in a year where nominal starter Mike Glennon was benched after four games and the rookie Trubisky was inserted into the lineup in Week 5, perhaps sooner than the Bears hoped or expected.
We’ve since learned who Fox preferred as his QB choice — and it appears he might have been more on the right track than many in the Bears’ front office.
Who John Fox wanted in the 2017 NFL draft
In researching a story about Trubisky last week, we reached out to Fox — now serving as an analyst for ESPN — to see if he might be willing to contribute to Yahoo Sports’ story. ESPN, on behalf of Fox, “respectfully declined” to be interviewed.
We wanted to know who Fox had as his QB1 in that draft class and it’s understandable that Fox might not want to make some of his former coworkers and his former QB look bad by touting someone other prospect he preferred.
On the night the Bears took Trubisky, Pace met with the media and said: “John and I are arm in arm in all these decisions. So we talked about this thoroughly, and we’re connected on this. John is just as excited as I am.”
But the Tribune ran a long feature this week on Trubisky, the 2017 draft and the effect it has had on the Bears’ franchise, and there was a stark revelation.
Fox wanted Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
Many in league circles suspected this was the case, but Fox is not believed to have said this previously on the record. The Tribune story did not quote Fox directly, and it’s unclear if the writers spoke with him for this story. But the way the story was written, you can pretty much accept it as fact: Watson was Fox’s first choice.
“In fact, coach John Fox rated the Clemson star as his top quarterback in the 2017 class. So did [Bears] quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone.”
It’s entirely possible that Fox or someone close to him had revisionist history here. After all, Watson — and Patrick Mahomes — both have outperformed Trubisky, statistically or otherwise. But the inclusion of Ragone’s name makes us believe that it can be taken as pretty solid and accurate information.
What made Fox want Watson ahead of Trubisky
Fox was involved in the pre-draft scouting process for the Bears’ QB search, and he attended Watson’s pro day at Clemson. There, Fox planted himself next to Tigers coach Dabo Swinney while Watson conducted his throwing session.
As college QB careers go, it’s not easy to top what Watson accomplished there, winning the national championship on Watson’s final pass — a 2-yard TD to Hunter Renfrow as time expired against Alabama. And Swinney was unabashed in his support of Watson, saying proudly that passing on him would be like passing on Michael Jordan.
Fox and Swinney spoke, and the Tribune shared details of that conversation, quoting Swinney from 2017 in the piece.
“I don’t know how to articulate the type of greatness that’s inside of [Watson],” Swinney said. “And for me, that’s what Michael Jordan represents. I’m sure when Michael Jordan was coming out of North Carolina, he probably had some flaws. But it’s about who he was. It’s that will, that drive. You can’t coach that. And that’s what I want to make sure that I articulate [about Watson]. This guy is brilliant between the ears. And he’s special in his heart.”
Another Watson advocate was Jordan Palmer, the brother of Carson Palmer and an NFL quarterback himself. In fact, he spent two years as the Bears’ backup to Jay Cutler in 2013 and 2014 before moving on to being a private QB coach.
Watson was one of Palmer’s clients, so naturally he was biased. But the Bears had a player who was in their locker room for two years who likely had a unique perspective on what separated Watson from other prospects. The Tribune story indicates that Palmer shared his unwavering support for Watson with Bears officials.
And Palmer felt Chicago might have been the best place for Watson to land.
“I want him to go to Chicago,” Palmer said prior to the 2017 draft. “It’s the perfect fit.”
He also implored NFL teams “not to overthink it” when it came to Watson, who had thrown 32 interceptions in his 38 college games, including 17 picks in his final season. The Bears didn’t listen.
Ryan Pace actually had a different QB2
Had Trubisky not ended up in Chicago, it would have been fascinating to see how they handled their business. Would they have traded down from the No. 3 pick? Might they not have taken a quarterback at all? Stay put and take their consolation prize? Looked for another quarterback later in the draft?
There was a lot of pre-draft chatter in league circles that year that the Bears had LSU safety Jamal Adams very high on their board and that he might have been the choice had Trubisky gone second to the San Francisco 49ers, who originally owned the pick, or to another team that might have leapfrogged the Bears.
The Tribune story indicated that Adams was among a short list of prospects who found themselves in the team’s top “cloud,” or a higher grading tier of prospects on their draft board. They included: Trubisky, Adams, Stanford DL Solomon Thomas, LSU RB Leonard Fournette and Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey. That group has been something of a mixed bag in the NFL in the midst of their third NFL seasons.
But there was another name included in that top group: Mahomes.
This is obviously fascinating on many levels, one being that Fox’s eventual replacement — Matt Nagy — helped groomed the rookie Mahomes for future stardom in 2017 as Alex Smith’s backup with the Kansas City Chiefs, where Nagy was the team’s offensive coordinator that year. The following winter Pace hired Nagy to became the 16th head coach in Bears history.
The obvious takeaway, though, is that Mahomes became the league’s youngest MVP last season since Dan Marino, leading the Chiefs to the AFC championship game with a brilliant first season as a starter. Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns last season alone. In Trubisky’s 34 starts with the Bears over parts of three seasons, he has thrown 38 TD passes.
According to the report, the Bears were more fascinated by Mahomes than they were Watson, even if Trubisky ended up tickling their fancy just a bit more than either of them.
Pace and his staff liked so much about Mahomes and admired his Ben Roethlisberger-like ability to make strong downfield throws with defenders hanging on him. On the Bears’ final draft board, Mahomes was their No. 2 quarterback.
None of this is likely to make Bears fans feel any better about how things played out. Mahomes is considered a transcendent player, perhaps the best young quarterback to take the league by storm since Cam Newton. Watson, meanwhile, has been nearly as terrific, throwing for 63 TDs and running for 12 more scores in his 32 NFL games (31 starts).
Meanwhile, Trubisky — even after Sunday’s narrow victory over the Detroit Lions in which he threw for three TD passes — is roundly considered a bust, even as he has started only 48 games since high school. Mahomes entered the NFL with 32 college starts, and Watson had 38 at Clemson. Trubisky reached the 38-start mark (college plus NFL) in Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers last season.
Could Trubisky be a late bloomer, a la Smith (who started to reach his prime with the 49ers in his sixth NFL season) or Drew Brees (who was benched in San Diego before blooming in New Orleans in his Year 6)? Sure, and that’s why the Bears appear to be preaching patience with Trubisky, first as a way to boost his confidence, but perhaps also in fearing he could perhaps end up elsewhere and flourish.
For now, the Bears appear to have little choice this season. It’s either Trubisky or career backup Chase Daniel, the fan favorite who has five career starts in his 11 NFL seasons.
But until Trubisky pulls off some magical career revival, it’s hard not to think that Fox’s first choice or Pace’s second choice would have been better options at the time. Hindsight is not only 20-20, but it also can sear the eyes a bit in some cases.
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