LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The San Francisco 49ers qualified for the NFC Championship Game last season, and they believe they have the playmakers to make another big playoff run.
The Chicago Bears are starting over with a new general manager and coach.
Although the two teams are in very different places, they have something in common. Both rely on sophomore quarterbacks, and all eyes are on Trey Lance and Justin Fields when the 49ers and Bears meet in Sunday’s opener at Soldier Field.
“Trey is as good as I am,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s confident, had a good camp, got as many reps as he’s ever had before. Got thrown into a ton of tough spots, a few good ones and now it’s time to go play.
The 49ers have been building for that since trading three first-round picks to draft Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in 2021 from North Dakota State’s FCS school.
He spent most of his rookie season supporting Jimmy Garoppolo. The Niners decided to hand him the keys this season, hoping his athleticism and ability to play big would open up the offense.
There could be calls to return to Garoppolo, who took a big pay cut to stay in San Francisco, if Lance struggles. But if he delivers as the 49ers hope, that won’t be a problem.
“I just got into my routine,” Lance said. “It’s been great this week and a bit of last week just to kind of nail it for this week.”
Fields, meanwhile, needs to step up and show new Bears general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus that he’s the one who can stabilize the position.
The former Ohio State star struggled as a rookie last year after Chicago traded to nab him with the No. 11 overall pick. He finished with more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (seven), along with an unimpressive 73.2 rating.
The Bears went 6-11 and missed the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years. The Poles made no flashy additions to an offense that ranked among the worst in the NFL last season.
“If we get the ball off, we’re all doing our job and executing well, then our offense is really good,” Fields said.
The beginnings of Eberflus
Eberflus is getting good reviews so far from Poles, as well as gamers. But it remains to be seen how he will fare once the games start.
Eberflus, 52, is in his first head coaching job after three decades as an NFL and college assistant. He’s been Indianapolis’ defensive coordinator for the past four seasons.
“Someone once said these situations are like snowflakes, they’re all different,” Eberflus said. “The time, the time-outs, the score, all that stuff, the position on the pitch, I think it’s important that we keep educating ourselves so that we do a good job on game day.”
The biggest offensive question for the 49ers is inside the offensive line, where they are expected to start three players with three career starts. Center Jake Brendel, who entered the league in 2016, started his only three games in 2018 in Miami. Left guard Aaron Banks barely played as a rookie and right guard Spencer Burford won the job after being drafted in the fourth round from Texas-San Antonio.
The Niners are in better shape at tackle, with All-Pro Trent Williams anchoring the left side and Mike McGlinchey back on the right side after missing the second half of last season with a quadriceps injury.
Chicago’s Roquan Smith is ready to start the season for ‘The Monsters of the Midway’ after a hectic training camp.
The star linebacker opted to “hold” initially and asked for a trade with contract extension negotiations going nowhere. He trained for the first time on August 20 and did not play in the pre-season.
After spending the offseason training and honing his passing skills rather than recovering from knee surgery, Niners star rusher Nick Bosa looks set for a big season.
Bosa rebounded from missing nearly the entire 2020 season by recording 15½ sacks last season. He looked even better at camp this summer after a long offseason working at his home in Florida with his brother Joey.
“They understand training and nutrition and all that kind of stuff better than anyone I’ve ever rubbed shoulders with,” McGlinchey said. “You see it in his work. You see it in the way he looks, you see it in the way he plays.
The Bears and Niners will play on new turf after installing Bermuda grass this week instead of the usual Kentucky bluegrass.
A switch like that probably wouldn’t attract much attention elsewhere. But in Chicago, where choppy conditions at Soldier Field have frustrated the Bears and opposing teams for years, it’s a different story.
The new grass figures to be tested with rain forecast for Sunday.