By Morris Phillips
CHICAGO–It was so-goes-Kap, so-goes-the-49ers in Chicago on Sunday.
With the clock running out in the Bears’ 26-6, snow-covered victory over the 49ers, and the Soldier Field house announcer bellowing “Barkley takes a knee,” cheering could be heard in the half-empty, remodeled stadium. Behind the south goalpost stood Staley Da Bear, the teams’ mascot within ear shot of dozens of fans still lingering in the stands, one of whom couldn’t resist the moment to shout, “take a knee, just like Kaepernick.”
Ever a jokester, Staley turned to acknowledge the fan, and did his exaggerated, double-over in approval of the humor.
Across the field stood Colin Kaepernick himself, in no mood to be a punchline, after being benched in the fourth quarter, after the first three quarters added up to a first-ever for an NFL quarterback. On a dreadful afternoon for offensive football, the 49ers ran 55 plays to accumulate 147 yards in total offense, and Kaepernick became the first to get sacked at least five times, while throwing for fewer than five yards (4).
Four yards passing, five sacks. Once again, not your typical NFL Sunday afternoon. Not when the two teams are a combined 3-19, and a pair of quarterbacks who started the season as backups are trying to fling the ball around in a steady, snowstorm. Even Coach Chip Kelly struggled with how to deal with it all, before benching Kaepernick.
“I was just watching how the ball was coming off his hands and what our chances were of completing it,” Kelly said when asked how his starting quarterback threw so few passes. “Maybe I was too cautious but we didn’t look like we were doing much in the passing game and when we had some called, we needed to get it out quicker.”
Of the 10 pass plays executed while Kaepernick was on the field, five ended with sacks.
Even more challenging was the flow of the game. With the 49ers’ defense bottling up the Bears, and doing one of the few things they’ve done well all year—frustrate opposing run attacks by bringing extra people around the line of scrimmage—the Bears started slow. How slow?
Barkley didn’t complete a pass until late in the second quarter. In fact, neither Barkley or Kaepernick completed a pass in the first quarter, marking the first time no passes had been completed in an opening quarter of an NFL game in more than 28 years. The Bears sat seemingly stuck on 45 yards total offense with one, successful third down conversion until their final drive of the half, trailing the 49ers 6-0.
Then the tenor of the game changed… in a hurry.
After starting 0 for 3, Barkley would complete eight of his next 10 passes, as the Bears exploded with touchdowns on three, consecutive drives. That allowed the Bears to take the lead at the half, 7-6, then put the game away with their first, two possessions of the second half.
“Yeah, it took me a quarter or so to get used to throwing the ball with those conditions,” Barkley, the USC product and California prep, said. “I really had to adjust my arm angle and almost push the ball out instead of flinging it, because my thumb would slip out. But once we got used to that, we were still calling plays and we didn’t really hold back on anything in the game plan. Plays were open, and guys were getting open. I think the conditions gave us an advantage on offense, given that the DB’s didn’t have traction when they were trying to cover breaking routes.”
While the Bears started slower, the 49ers started slow as well. In a scoreless game in the second quarter, the 49ers received breaks on consecutive Bears’ possessions, first Shaun Draughn blocked Patrick O’Donnell’s punt, then Jimmie Ward recovered a fumble. Both Chicago gaffes set the 49ers up deep in Bears’ territory, but they yielded just two field goals and a 6-0 lead that evaporated quicker than it was realized.
After Draughn’s punt block, Dontae Johnson scooped up the ball and raced into the end zone for an apparent touchdown. But that didn’t stand; the refs concluded that Johnson stepped out of bounds, then flagged safety Rashard Robinson for overzealously celebrating what he thought was the game’s initial touchdown.
One a day of firsts and skewed numbers, this grouping stood out when it was all over. The 49ers, who had cleaned up their act in recent weeks, drew 11 penalties for 106 yards, many of those in the first half. The second half? Not as many yellow flags, but the team’s offense accumulated just two first downs and 39 yards.
Blaine Gabbert came on, and accomplished one thing: the 49ers’ passing yards sat at -29 when Kap departed, but Gabbert turned that into a positive. Still, the 49ers’ six yards passing ranks as the second fewest yards in a game in the history of the franchise.
NOTES: Carlos Hyde initially gave the 49ers an edge in what appeared to be trending toward a 49ers’ victory. Hyde had 43 yards rushing in the first quarter, but finished with just 92.
Kaepernick was the subject of intense protest prior to the game, as a group of Chicagoans demanded that he discontinue his pre-game protests in deference to the game’s location, Soldiers Field. When asked about his stance after the game, Kaepernick remained resolute.
“Yeah, I will continue to do it. This is something, there are a lot of issues that still need to be addressed. There is significance being here today, seeing it’s the anniversary of the assassination of chairman Fred Hampton. Being in Chicago, being able to acknowledge a black figure, a black leader like him is very important and his role as a leader in this community and bringing this community together is something that needs to be acknowledged.”
The 49ers return to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday in a matchup with AFC East opponent, the New York Jets (4-6). The 49ers have an additional day of preparation for the game as the Jets are home Monday night for a game with the Colts. The 49ers are 0-3 against AFC East opponents this season with losses to the Dolphins, Bills and Patriots.