SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the surest bets in the NFL is the Chicago Bears getting clowned in Candlestick Park. They don't just fly out and lose; the Bears, from all indications, head west completely unprepared and cowering, as if somewhere in the back of their minds they know they're going to be punked by the San Francisco 49ers. And they're right.
This Monday night was no different from all the others, eight games and counting to be exact, dating back to 1985. Once again, the Bears didn't show, didn't post. They left the visitors' locker room for the opening kickoff and went immediately into the fetal position.
It was 20-0 at halftime, by which point the 49ers had essentially beaten the Bears into submission. And while Mike Tice's offense was, well, offensive, uninspired and frighteningly amateurish, the defense, to great surprise, was just as bad in a 32-7 loss that was much more lopsided than the score might indicate.
A backup quarterback named Colin Kaepernick woke up Monday morning thinking he was Joe Montana and the Bears' defense sought to prove he wasn't dreaming. Kaepernick threw the ball to whomever he wanted, wherever on the field he wanted, daring any Bears defender to stop him. Poor Alex Smith can't be certain whether his biggest problem is the concussion he suffered last week or the extreme case of Wally Pipp-itis that came over him as he watched the game. Kaepernick completed nine of his first 10 passes and treated the Bears' defense, the second stingiest in the NFL coming into the game, like some homecoming doormat.
Frank Gore ran with the same disdain for the 49ers. Vernon Davis, Kyle Williams and Michael Crabtree frolicked uncovered all over the field. It was fair to wonder what Lovie Smith and his coaches did all week. They couldn't possibly have watched film or practiced, could they?
In Smith's tenure, his teams, even when not very good, have been as prepared as any in the NFL. Not this Monday night. The 49ers got angry and then resourceful after their hugely disappointing tie with St. Louis last week. The Bears apparently moped their way across the country after losing at home to the Houston Texans.
Tice trotted out a game plan that looked straight out of "Friday Night Lights." Handoff to Forte, Handoff to Forte, Jason Campbell sacked. Aldon Smith, the Niners' young beast of an outside linebacker, was the kid who looked like Lawrence Taylor Monday night, blasting through the Bears' joke of an offensive line for 5.5 sacks. Yes, five.
The most important acquisition, after Brandon Marshall, was signing Campbell so Jay Cutler's absence from the lineup wouldn't lead to complete offensive ineptitude the way it did last season when the team suffered through Caleb Hanie. Campbell, with 31 NFL victories, was going to enable the Bears to keep on keeping on if and when Cutler missed time. Campbell, we thought, could run an NFL offense; he did in Washington. Campbell could get the ball downfield with something on it. He has averaged essentially a touchdown per game during his time in the league. Monday night wasn't going to be a disaster because of the quarterback because the Bears had come up with the right guy to back up Cutler.
Instead, Campbell, operating behind an offensive line dangerous to its own quarterback's health, went into rope-a-dope early, like every other Bears quarterback who walks into Candlestick, going back to Jim McMahon. It's as sorry a chapter as you'll find in recent club history. After a 26-10 victory over the 49ers that officially launched the Bears' Super Bowl march in 1985, the 49ers have now gone 8-0 against the Bears in Candlestick. Three of those wins were in the playoffs. Three were shutouts. The average score of the first seven was 38-6. And included in the eight were games of 41-0, 26-0, 52-14, 44-15, 17-0 and 49-7.
There's no way to sugar coat it. You wonder how a team as talented as this Bears team is, with the ambitions it has, could continue along this path and just roll over for a Niners team playing without its starting quarterback, too. Jim Harbaugh went play-action pass with Kaepernick on two of San Francisco's first three passes, thinking the Bears would expect an offense with a backup quarterback to run, not throw, and the Bears' defense slurped the bait.
Asked what he liked about his backup quarterback, Harbaugh said, "His accuracy, poise in the pocket, running ability, playmaking ability, his understanding of the game plan and executing it."
The 49ers have, if not a quarterback controversy, then quarterback options. In the locker room afterward, when asked if they knew Kaepernick could run and throw and lead like this, several 49ers veterans said, "Ah, yeah."
Kaepernick's passer rating for the evening in his very first start: 133.1. "It rarely goes like this, I know," Harbaugh said, knowing first-hand how hard it's supposed to be to make a debut, on Monday Night no less, against supposedly a great defense.
The Bears, on the other hand, have not a quarterback controversy but an offense controversy. It stinks against any good defense. The Bears can talk about being tied with the Packers at the top of the NFC North all they want; if this line doesn't improve and if Tice's offense can't get receivers open and the ball down the field with some precision starting next week, the Bears will be run down by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and maybe the New Orleans Saints.
Campbell, bless his heart, demonstrated in the postgame news conference a sense of urgency that had better spread throughout the locker room when he said, "We've got to start improving and improving quickly. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got to use this as some form of wake-up-call, to go back to work and push each other. This is one of the toughest games I've been involved with in my career."
Of greater concern, actually, is what it means to lose back-to-back games like this to start the second half of the season. OK, 7-3 isn't a reason for panic, which Smith will resort to the way he used to repeat "Rex Grossman is our quarterback." But the fact is the Bears have played three heavyweight opponents this season -- the Green Bay Packers, Texans and 49ers -- and lost to all three.
Tice's offense in all three games is stuff that would embarrass any good college coach. So, by way of review, the Bears have pounded the likes of Jacksonville and Dallas and Tennessee but taken a foot full of sand in the face when confronted by somebody their own size.
The Minnesota Vikings, as they watch film of this calamity, ought to be feeling pretty confident about their chances at Soldier Field on Sunday.
As almost always over the past eight years, Smith's calm serves the Bears well in these situations. While most Chicagoans would prefer a Ditka-esque rant after a performance as smelly as this one, Smith made clear his disappointment, but he didn't compound matters by singling out any player or unit or trashing the team's effort.
Smith did go offline for a bit when he said, "We were lucky to be down only 20-0 at the half," and "We have to leave this game as quickly as we can," and "I can't make a case for any of us; I'm disappointed."
If the Bears have the ambition and resolve they profess, they'll spend the weak soul-searching. The NFL has become a crisis league. Good teams made uncomfortable by six days of wholesale disapproval, in and out of the locker room, tend to find their way quickly. Mediocre and bad teams remain lost.
Two weeks ago, at 7-1, the Bears were concerned about playing their way into peak form. Leaving San Francisco, as a wild-card team not the division leader, they should be concerned about scoring more than one touchdown in a game and about a defense that hasn't forced enough turnovers the past two games.
Oh yes, the Bears had better be in NFL crisis mode. They usually are when they leave San Francisco.