Haugh: With Nick Foles under center, Bears can think big again

Foles' ability to attack downfield changes raises the Bears' ceiling.

(670 The Score) With about 10 minutes left in the third quarter Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the 2020 season unofficially started for the Bears.

Forget what the calendar and schedule say. This signaled a new beginning. This sounded like the announcement the rest of the NFC North perhaps hoped it wouldn’t hear.

This looked like progress.

Nick Foles replaced Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback and reminded everyone why he was here. Chicago’s best reliever registered his first save as a Bear, dramatically turning a 26-10 deficit into a 30-26 victory with the kind of aggressive, intelligent approach that makes him a better fit for this offense.

“He just let me be me,’’ Foles said of coach Matt Nagy postgame.

Foles and Nagy being themselves together changes the complexion of the Bears offense. Think of Nagy’s scheme as a smart phone. With Trubisky, the Bears only felt comfortable calling and texting. With Foles, so many more fun and exciting possibilities exist because of his understanding of the applications. This immediately makes Nagy a smarter play-caller and the Bears offense more dangerous.

If you doubt that, you missed the final 25 minutes of the game Sunday.

Foles threatened the Falcons downfield and attacked the defense like a quarterback chasing touchdowns instead of just first downs. In just under two quarters, Foles completed 16 of 29 passes for 188 yards with a 95.2 passer rating and five touchdowns – even though only three of them counted. Replay reviews overturned the other two touchdown catches.

The first came when top receiver Allen Robinson lost a battle for a 50-50 ball with Falcons cornerback Darqueze Denard in the corner of the end zone to end Foles’ first drive. The second came when receiver Anthony Miller – who would later redeem himself – let a fourth-and-17 dart from Foles slither through his grip as he rolled just over the goal line.

Both decisions by the replay official gave the ball back to the Falcons without the Bears scoring points, but both plays also underscored what Foles offers that Trubisky doesn’t.

Foles simply takes bigger risks capable of producing bigger rewards, more in line with the way Nagy calls plays. Trubisky too often painted by the numbers, carefully following directions and checking down to make safe throws to secondary receivers designed to limit his inaccuracy. In contrast, Foles takes more bold strokes against the canvas, guided by instinct and experience, and the finished product often can be something to behold. As it was when Foles was the MVP of Super Bowl LII for the Eagles. As it was against the Falcons on Sunday.

This is the kind of quarterback the Bears need without an abundance of playmakers, especially after running back Tarik Cohen suffered a right knee injury on a punt return and is feared to have torn his ACL. This is the kind of passer Robinson deserves as a bona fide No. 1 receiver.

This is the dynamic difference-maker Foles typically has been off the bench and a player whom Nagy, who has known him at two previous stops, still trusts. This is the faith Trubisky always struggled to inspire and, if he has yet to do so after 44 NFL starts, what makes anybody believe he ever will with the Bears?

Trubisky nudged Nagy closer to making the change early in the third quarter when he misread a defense and threw a bad interception. All of a sudden, it looked like Trubisky’s rookie 2017 season again. Trying to force a pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, Trubisky never saw Falcons defensive back Blidi Wreh-Wilson playing zone and threw the ball right to him. Wreh-Wilson returned the ball to the Bears’ 19-yard line, but the defense came up with a big stop to limit the Falcons to a field goal.

That interception provided the last straw for Nagy, who had watched Trubisky too often struggle with overthrows and the offense stall in the red zone.

“Sometimes, there’s a gut feeling when to do it and that seemed like the right time,’’ Nagy said.

There’s never a wrong time to make the right call.

It was a move that seemed inevitable since the Bears traded for Foles last March and guaranteed him $21 million. To Trubisky’s credit, he reported to training camp with a positive attitude that makes him popular with teammates. But he also returned with the same limited skill set. An NFL quarterback’s greatest strengths can’t be the ability to improvise and use his legs to complement his arm.

Ironically, postgame interviews revealed that the play Trubisky badly missed Miller on in the first half was the same one Foles and Miller connected on for the 28-yard game-winning touchdown pass with 1:53 left.

Against a defense giving up an average of 39 points per game, Trubisky completed 13 of 22 passes for 128 yards with a touchdown and interception for a 71.8 passer rating. His best play was a 45-yard run. Most significantly, up to the point he was benched, the Bears had only scored 10 points one week after managing 17.

For his part, Trubisky publicly accepted the demotion surprisingly well for an individual in his fourth season as a starter. There were no clipped answers, no dismissive replies, no evidence of immaturity from somebody who needs to stay engaged because of the realities of the NFL and Foles’ career when it comes to injuries. The most professional Trubisky appeared all day was during his Zoom interview.

“It all falls back on me for not playing better,’’ Trubisky said. “It was tough.’’

The decision to start Foles against the Colts next Sunday should be easy, regardless of how coy Nagy will play it. The Bears can think big again, unimpeded by a quarterback with limitations incompatible for Nagy’s offense. Perhaps they sacrifice continuity for credibility, but it appears a worthwhile exchange. They immediately become less mechanical or methodical, blending explosiveness without abandoning efficiency. Consider that all three of Foles’ touchdown passes came in a span of 4 minutes, 27 seconds.

OK, we also must consider this all happened against the Falcons, who are the southern equivalent of the Lions. No team in the league gives away leads like the Falcons. Under coach Dan Quinn, they have been charitable enough to establish a 501 (c) (3), and they handed out opportunities again that the Bears gladly accepted.

The Bears defense needs to tighten up too before it emerges as the team’s biggest problem. Too many big plays from Matt Ryan, who torched the Bears early. Too many gaping holes for Brian Hill and Todd Gurley as the Falcons amassed 144 rushing yards. Too many missed tackles and assignments. Committing 10 penalties also gave Nagy a point of emphasis at practice – even though a critical roughing-the-passer penalty on Akiem Hicks proved how ridiculous it is to expect a 324-pound lineman to prevent his weight from falling on the quarterback.

But the Bears should've returned home Sunday night thrilled to participate in the weeklong debate about whether they're the NFL’s worst 3-0 team.

Because it sure beats being the league’s best 2-1 team.

“There’s something special about this group,’’ Nagy said.

With one bold move Sunday, Nagy suddenly made that harder to argue.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-9 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.