The penultimate completion of Mitch Trubisky's second season was an absolute dart. Corner route. Between two defenders. Just as he was being hit. Fired into Allen Robinson's mitts with conviction. Twenty-five-yard gain.
This was the throw that pushed the Bears into field-goal range in the closing seconds of a playoff game. This was the completion Chicago could have spent this past week celebrating and lionizing. This was the pass coach Matt Nagy would have pointed to as evidence of what he'd emphasized three days before the game -- that a quarterback's legacy is ultimately defined by his performance in the postseason.
"I don't think it's a stat thing as much," Nagy had said. "What people remember are the comebacks, making big plays at the right time."
If only Cody Parkey had been able to squeeze a 43-yard field goal into the 18 1/2 -foot space between the north end-zone uprights at Soldier Field.
Still don't minimize the importance of that final Bears drive, of that clutch Trubisky completion to Robinson with 44 seconds left. Had last Sunday's season-ending one-point loss to the Eagles ended with a discombobulated four-and-out or an ill-advised sack or a brutal Trubisky interception, the young quarterback would have been blasted for the next six months, stalked through the offseason by questions about his ability and composure.
Instead? Trubisky offered evidence in a pressure-packed point of a huge game that he could rise to meet the moment. And late Sunday night and into Monday, it was evident in his teammates' eyes just how important that was.
"It was fun to be out there with him," Robinson said. "To see him handle his first playoff game was cool. This is what we all prepared for and this is what we're all here for. ... So for him to be able to make plays when we needed it was fun and exciting."
Added guard Kyle Long: "If we've got the ball and we've got a chance to win, I know we're going to go down the field and handle our business. And that starts with No. 10. ... He's a leader and he's a heck of a football player. He's the guy you want in your huddle in that situation."
Nagy was in full agreement.
"Those are the moments you live for," the coach said. "He did everything that we asked him to do. He made big throws with the big-time opportunities that he had."
'I've come a long way'
Still, as Trubisky trudged off Soldier Field, he left with the stadium scoreboard giving him plenty to file away for the offseason. Specifically, the Bears quarterback should have made sure the glowing "15" hovering above him was burned into his psyche. As in 15 points. As in not nearly enough. Not in a playoff game certainly. But not in most NFL games played in this pinball era either.
Only 15 times in 256 regular-season games this season did a team win when scoring 16 points or fewer. Trubisky and the Bears did it three times.
Relying on a defense so heavily, as the Bears did all season, can be dangerous. Borderline reckless really.
Eventually, there will be games like last Sunday's when the defensive life raft doesn't inflate. Eddie Jackson was on the sideline with a sprained ankle and couldn't save the Bears the way he had in Detroit on Thanksgiving or against the Vikings four nights earlier.
Khalil Mack didn't get a sack or force a turnover against the Eagles.
Kyle Fuller failed to add to the seven-interception total he posted during the regular season.
The two takeaways the Bears did force with picks by Roquan Smith and Adrian Amos? The offense converted those into only three points.
Not nearly enough.
Maybe those are the three words that should be bolded and underlined in the comments section of Trubisky's 2018 report card, reminders that the quarterback's growth in Year 2, while encouraging, couldn't break the Bears' long, long drought without a playoff victory.
"I feel like I've come a long way," Trubisky said. "But I also feel like I'm just getting started. There's a lot I can improve on. ... I'm hungrier than ever."
In need of more
Trubisky must understand he is still the linchpin of the Bears' Super Bowl hopes. A trip to Atlanta next month is off the table. And if the Bears have serious aspirations of participating in Super Bowl LIV next winter in Miami Gardens, Fla., their offense will need to make a major leap forward in 2019. Which means the starting quarterback will need to make monumental leaps forward too.
For as brilliant as that final-drive throw to Robinson was last Sunday, for as special as the back-to-back completions of 34 and 22 yards on a touchdown drive two possessions earlier were, it's hard to shake the visions of Trubisky's playoff struggles.
Remember the throw to Robinson in the second quarter that Avonte Maddox cut in front of and caught? Sure, a replay review showed Maddox bobbled the ball and never got his left foot down in bounds. Thus a potentially costly Trubisky turnover became a relatively harmless incompletion. Still, it was an errant throw that just can't happen.
And what about the Cutler-esque force into the end zone on first down later in the first half? Just because Eagles safety Tre Sullivan handled that sure pick as if it were a catfish covered in Crisco shouldn't let Trubisky off the hook for an inexcusable decision.
Through three quarters of a playoff game, the Bears offense had 241 total yards and six points. Their quarterback had failed to provide a spark.
"That's how it was with our offense," Trubisky acknowledged. "Sometimes we were rolling and in rhythm. And other times we weren't."
Trubisky deserves credit for persevering past a rough start, for showing an ability to work through his struggles enough to turn an ugly performance into something more pleasant. That's not something many Bears quarterbacks have been able to do consistently. But eventually a higher standard must be set.
Seven times in Trubisky's 15 starts this season, the Bears offense failed to reach 20 points. That won't cut it. Much more is needed if the rest of the league is to see the Bears as a complete team and not just a feisty opponent with a scary defense.
Overall, Trubisky's strong finish against the Eagles meant something. His aplomb throughout the fourth quarter left a lasting impression on teammates.
"When you go back and see the progress he made throughout the whole season, he's done an unbelievable job for a young quarterback," center Cody Whitehair said. "We see that his ceiling is really high."
Throughout the Bears locker room, such sentiments are prevalent. There's a belief that Trubisky has all the tools to become a star -- the talent, the work ethic, the confidence, the humility, the aura.
When training camp began, before anyone had any clue the 2018 season would turn into a rocket ship to the playoffs, the conversation centered around whether Trubisky could be a decidedly better quarterback in late December than he was in mid-July. That bar, for most objective observers, was cleared. Easily.
Trubisky posted a 66.6 completion percentage and a 95.4 rating. He had four 300-yard passing games and showed he could be a significant threat as a runner.
Little by little, he grew more comfortable in a new system. Trubisky sharpened his timing and rapport with a large cast of pass catchers. He grew to better understand the wide array of looks from opposing defenses.
Nagy also praised the quarterback's improvement with his next-play mentality and overall vision.
As an inconsistent quarterback in a major media market, Trubisky rode a roller coaster with impressive equanimity.
The cacophony of criticism and praise never affected him much. He remained immersed in the grind and obsessed with his pursuit of improvement.
Still, Chicago heads for Trubisky's third season still divided on what carries more weight. Should Trubisky's second-season successes be held up as proof that he's ascending into a star? Or were his occasional struggles, sometimes quite pronounced, a warning that his inconsistency might be permanent?
This trial was always going to take longer than a frustrated football city wanted it to. For now, it's a hung jury.
Trubisky, meanwhile, heads into this offseason with two realities to balance. His fourth-quarter contributions against the Eagles were reassuring and clutch.
Said Nagy: "In big-time situations, how did you respond? I know this: I want him on my side."
But the Bears are left as spectators for the second weekend of the NFL playoffs and beyond. So those late contributions must also file back into that important three-word review: Not nearly enough.
Trubisky understands that as well as anyone.
"I'm going to do a lot of self-reflecting and make sure I get better from this," he promised.
The demands in 2019 will only become greater.