If the Bears can turn a 17-10 comeback victory over the Minnesota Vikings into the foundation for a season, one 12-minute stretch Sunday will loom as the turning point.
It was not on the field. It was in the locker room at halftime, when the Bears made an adjustment, not in their game plan, but in their minds.
Usually reserved coach Dick Jauron was animated to the point of near agitation. Coordinator John Shoop told his offense that if it got into any more third-and-20 situations, "You guys can call your own plays."
Said guard Chris Villarrial: "We came in and said, `Enough already.' We were killing ourselves with penalties and doing things we normally don't do. We just went back out and played Bears football."
That version of Bears football, played with Jim Miller taking over for an injured Shane Matthews at quarterback, was good enough to make the Bears a .500 football team (1-1) for the first time since October 1999 and only the third time since 1995.
The win, before a crowd of 51,000, was only the second over the Vikings (0-2) since 1996 and sent the Bears into their week off on an emotional up. And if history is any indicator, that mood may continue. With Sunday's victory, the Bears are 11-3 in games after a week off since 1987.
By the time the Bears face the Falcons on Oct. 7 in Atlanta, Miller is expected to be named the starting quarterback. Jauron said he will wait until later this week before making an announcement, but the combination of Matthews' injury--he left the game with bruised ribs early in the second quarter--and the Bears' play under Miller would appear to make the announcement simply a formality.
Miller's touchdown passes of 15 yards to Marty Booker and 24 yards to Marcus Robinson accounted for 14 unanswered points in less than 6 minutes, more than the Bears had scored in the previous six quarters. Four different receivers each caught at least one pass of 10 yards or longer from Miller.
Tackle James Williams refused to endorse a quarterback, except to declare that the spark generated by Miller "is something we need. But I'm not a coach. I don't make that decision."
The Bears changed more than their quarterback Sunday. They muddled through a dismal first half in which their run-based offense produced only 7 rushing yards and degenerated in the second quarter into a rudderless mess--the Bears passed on 12 of their 13 last first-half plays despite a big edge in size and muscle over the Vikings' front.
"We were stinking up the place in the first half," tackle Blake Brockermeyer said. "We tried to run it early and just got stuffed every time. It was like they knew every play we were running."
What the Vikings didn't do to them, the Bears did to themselves. Booker and Robinson each had costly drops of easy passes and the Bears drew five penalties in the first half.
That changed after the intermission self-examination. Minnesota, which led 3-0 at halftime on a 20-yard Gary Anderson field goal in the first quarter, drove easily for a score on its first possession of the second half, quarterback Daunte Culpepper finishing a 61-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Andrew Jordan.
But the Bears, who so often in recent seasons have collapsed at these points of games, did the opposite, evidenced by the fact that punter Brad Maynard had been called on seven times in the first half and never went on the field in the second.
The defense continued its throttling of the Minnesota offense, holding Cris Carter to one catch, sacking Culpepper three times and limiting the Vikings, who live by the big play, to one play longer than 13 yards in the second half.
"Our thing was not to give up a big play," said defensive backs coach Vance Bedford. "Greg (Blache, defensive coordinator) came up with a great game plan to keep everything underneath and in front [of the secondary], and our goal was to make the ball come out [from Culpepper] quick. He actually had a couple of guys who were open, but the pressure made the ball come out and they had to play faster."
With Miller settling into the rhythm of the offense, the Bears began to attack. On their four possessions of the second half they reached Minnesota's 27, 18, 15 and 24, netting a field goal and two touchdowns.
Miller threw too high to Robinson from the 18 on the second possession and was intercepted in the end zone.
But the defense forced a three-and-out and Miller drove the offense back to the Minnesota 15. From there he found Booker cutting across the middle at the 11, and Booker vaulted Vikings tacklers at the goal line for the tying touchdown.
Minnesota faked a punt on fourth down from its 46 on the ensuing possession, but linebacker Bobbie Howard broke up punter Mitch Berger's pass. Five plays later, Miller hit Robinson for the winning touchdown.
The win gave the Bears more than a win. It gave them a model.
"This is the way we have to play the rest of the 14 weeks," Villarrial said.