With Sunday night’s disappointing loss to the Houston Texans mostly behind them, the Bears will prepare to take to the road and play the rugged 49ers out in San Francisco before another prime time audience this Monday night. Usually, teams can put a bad loss behind them quickly, but in the Bears’ case there were repercussions, specifically, of course, quarterback Jay Cutler’s concussion suffered late in the first half of that loss. It appears likely that Cutler will have to miss Monday night’s game and back-up QB, Jason Campbell, will get the start.
So, if you thought that the miserable rainy weather literally put a damper on the highly anticipated match-up with Houston, get ready for another taffy pull on Monday night. The 49ers will probably help even up the odds as their starting QB, Alex Smith, also suffered a concussion last Sunday and he might have to be benched in favor of his back-up, second year man Colin Kaepernick. Given that Campbell is a veteran with over 70 NFL starts to his credit, maybe a slight advantage to the Bears here.
Or maybe not, because playing out in San Francisco has been a veritable house of horrors for the NFL’s most storied franchise of late. The last time Lovie Smith brought his team to the Bay Area, Cutler threw five interceptions in an embarrassing loss to the then Mike Singletary-led 49ers. Now, another ex-Bear from the Ditka era, Jim Harbaugh, stands in the big shoes of George Seifert and the late, great Bill Walsh.
You have to go all the way back to1985, the year that makes phrases like “the Ditka Era” pertinent at all, to find a Bears win against the 49ers on the road. That was the year of the Super Bowl Bears, of course, and the debut of Ditka using William “Refrigerator” Perry as a running back. Ditka did it late in the game as payback against Walsh’s defending champs, who used their similar “Angus Formation” featuring guard Guy McIntyre the previous January in the 49ers 23-0 NFC Championship win over the Bears.
The revenge was sweet, but short-lived as for the rest of the 80’s and beyond, the Niners regularly beat-up the Bears on the West Coast by scores such as 41-0, 26-0, 52-14, 44-15, 49-7, with a few of these debacles taking place before national prime-time TV audiences. Harbaugh and Singletary played on several of those losing teams, as well, so their future tenures as coaches for San Francisco appear both ironic and miscast, with their Ditka-esque, screaming Type A personalities, a far cry from the West Coast offense sophistication of Walsh’s teams led by Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Singletary was quickly fired and after almost getting to the Super Bowl last season, the Niners are already beginning to show signs of coach fatigue from all of Harbaugh’s intensity. It takes a championship, whether it be Ditka’s ’85 Bears or the Ozzie Guillen ’05 White Sox World Series, to stomach such outsized egos, and the 49ers haven’t lifted a Super Bowl trophy in a long time.
The same can be said of the Bears, but Lovie Smith and his calm exterior and mature public persona, have lasted nearly 10 years and he appears likely to have his contract as head coach extended after this season. Like Cowboys’ legend, Tom Landry proved, a coach doesn’t have to act crazy to motivate his players to a championship level.
Ditka did have one last gasp at redemption against the 49ers. After the Fog Bowl win against his old nemesis, Buddy Ryan and the Eagles on New Year’s Eve 1988, the Bears and their fans were all ready to stomp on the supposedly soft West Coast team coming into Chicago to play the NFC Championship game in frigid temps at Soldier Field. But a 28-3 shellacking by Montana and Jerry Rice finally dispelled that myth and signaled the beginning of the end for ‘Da Coach as an NFL winner.
So, while the Niners and Bears are not what one would call storied NFL rivals, they do have an interesting history. It was against San Francisco, after all, that Bears’ legendary running back, Gale Sayers, had his greatest triumph and tragedy. The triumph was his incredible five touchdown game at Wrigley Field in December, 1965 when it seemed only Sayers could navigate the mud-soaked field, appearing to walk on water as he ran past flailing defenders. Three years later, 49ers defensive back, Kermit Alexander, laid a terrible hit on Sayers knee, destroying what was once thought to be a football player’s most vulnerable body part and essentially, ending his career.
Now we know that concussions make the head of a player his most valuable personal property. Quarterbacks Cutler and Smith should be held out of this next Bears/49ers game regardless of any test results. As the Walsh vs. Ditka games proved over and over, it’s not the heart which makes a true champion, but what’s in a player’s and coach’s head, which really counts.