Bears 1st-and-10: What’s not to like about Matt Eberflus’ debut?

Two wide receivers open on the same play in the fourth quarter of a close game? This must be the dawn of a new era at Halas Hall.

Justin Fields’ 18-yard touchdown pass to Equanimeous St. Brown that gave the Bears the lead with 12:45 to play in a 19-10 victory over the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field was an embarrassment of riches to Bears fans who have suffered through a generation of disappointing, frustrating and often discombobulatedoffenses.

Byron Pringle was so wide open crossing over the middle on the third-and-two play that fans in the stands and reporters in the press box were pointing it out in real time. But as they were doing that, Fields was pulling the trigger to hit an open St. Brown in the end zone.

In Green Bay, that’s called Sunday. But in Chicago, it’s a revelation — a play that works even better than designed. The euphoria was reminiscent of Matt Nagy’s coaching debut in 2018, when Mitch Trubisky drove the Bears 86 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown against the Packers at Lambeau Field — a moment that seemed to signal an offensive renaissance.

But that was on the first drive of the game. The Bears scored just three field goals after that initial burst, lost 24-23, and the Nagy era became one big, teeth-pulling struggle on offense.

This time, the brightest moments came at the end instead of the beginning. The Bears outscored the 49ers 19-3 in the second half Sunday. In Nagy’s debut, they were outscored 24-6 by the Packers in the second half.

It’s too early to celebrate the dawn of a new era, but even skeptics have to admit that Eberflus’ season-opening upset was notable for two things: there was no fluke factor, and there were minimal red flags.

The Bears made adjustments on offense and defense that worked. They were disciplined — only three penalties and none on offense. They handled inclement conditions. The Bears were efficient on both sides of the ball.

Almost every facet the Bears controlled that contributed to the victory is repeatable. They got some breaks, but made the most of them. And while they can’t count on an opponent imploding with penalties like the 49ers did, the Bears’ imperfect performance — there was very little that was above average — left room for growth.

Let the record show that Bears fans were feeling pretty good after Nagy’s debut and a little giddy after Marc Trestman’s debut in 2013 — a 24-21 victory over the Bengals on Jay Cutler’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass. This is still a rebuilding year until further notice.

But even fate seems to be moving its huge hands for Eberflus’ Bears. In that 2018 opener, Kyle Fuller dropped a sure interception in the fourth quarter that would have all but clinched the game against the Packers. This time, 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson — a Nagy-era Bear — dropped a pick in the third quarter with the 49ers leading 10-0, and the Bears scored a touchdown two plays later.

And Mother Nature smiled on them for a change. The Bears have had some of their worst moments in bad weather at Soldier Field — the 33-6 loss to the Packers in the wind and slop on Halloween in 1994; a blowout loss to the Patriots in the snow in 2010; losing Cutler and a showdown with the Texans in the rain and mud in 2012. This time, a fourth-quarter deluge that turned Soldier Field into a quagmire in the final five minutes couldn’t have been better timed.

Is it possible that somebody up there likes the Bears? There’s no better time and place to find out than in prime time, at Lambeau Field and against Aaron Rodgers.

2. The Packers are coming off a dreadful performance in a 23-7 loss to the Vikings in their opener. For what it’s worth, Rodgers is 8-0 with 22 touchdown passes and no interceptions (a 120.0 passer rating) following a loss in the past three seasons, so …

3. After an impressive debut marked by discipline and effective adjustments on both sides of the ball, Eberflus’ star rose even more Monday night when Broncos first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett had a game-management meltdown in his debut against the Seahawks.

With the Broncos trailing 17-16 with 4:02 to play and Russell Wilson at quarterback, Hackett used none of his three timeouts as the Broncos ended up running the clock down for a 64-yard field goal attempt with 20 seconds left instead of giving Wilson a chance to convert a fourth-and-5.

It’s only Week 1, and Eberflus figures to have his own challenging moments — it literally happens to the best of them. But while Eberflus’ success still is most dependent on getting the quarterback right, Hackett’s failure in a moment of extreme decision was a reminder of how difficult and valuable game management is, and highlighted Eberflus’ encouraging early handle on that critical part of the job.

4. That said … the last time the Bears won their season opener at Soldier Field was Trestman’s debut in 2013 — the 24-21 victory over the Bengals. The Bears’ renewed focus and discipline was being heralded then, too.

The Bears, in fact, had the sixth-fewest penalties in the NFL that season, including just one false start in the first nine games. But they had seven false starts in the last seven games — a sign of fatigue or diminishing focus — and it was all downhill under Trestman in 2014.

5. Never underestimate the mediocrity of the NFL.

6. The Bears looked like a well-coached team on multiple fronts against the 49ers. Their defense held the 49ers to 4.0 yards per play in the second half (38 plays, 152 yards), after allowing 6.2 in the first (29-179).

“We changed things up on the back end, tried to give them a little different thing to look at and try to have more vision on the quarterback,”linebacker Nick Morrow said. “You could tell they were chasing certain things that we were doing. So we had to get out of it and gives ourselves a little more of a chance on some of the perimeter runs.”

7. Red Flag Dept.: The Bears averaged just 2.7 yards per carry (37-99) against the 49ers. David Montgomery gained 26 yards on 17 carries. His 1.5-yard average was the lowest of his career (46 games).

8. Trivial-but-not-trivial: The Bears converted a third-and-6 play for the first time since the 2020 season when Justin Fields, avoiding a sack, flipped the ball to David Montgomery for a 16-yard gain in the first quarter. The Bears were 0-for-15 on third-and-6 last season.

Overall, the Bears converted 5-of-14 third-down plays (35.7%), but their average distance was 7.1 yards. First down was the culprit — the Bears averaged 2.9 yards on 22 first-down plays (31st in the league in Week 1).

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack had three sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble and six tackles in a 24-19 victory over the Raiders. The 31-year-old Mack had six sacks in seven games with the Bears last season before missing the final 10 games with a foot injury.

The Chargers’ defense under former Bears linebackers coach Brandon Staley already suits him.

“The coverage guys were doing an excellent job. It has been a while since I got coverage sacks,” Mack told reporters after the game.

10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 –at Packers (L); vs. Texans (W); at NY Giants (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Commanders (W); at Patriots (L); at Cowboys (L); vs. Dolphins (L); vs. Lions (W); at Falcons (W); at NY Jets (W); vs. Packers (L); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (W); vs. Vikings (W).

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