Monday Night Football yesterday was supposed to be a tiresome thump-fest between two teams with great defenses, each playing without its concussed starting quarterbacks. It was a night for slimming down the playbook and taping up ankles—like the prior evening's Ravens-Steelers game, with even more incomplete passes and stuffed runs.
Except only the Bears got that message. The Niners decided to have a coming-out party for Colin Kaepernick, their second-year second-round second-string QB.
Kaepernick—the former Nevada quarterback picked No. 36 overall in 2011—had made his way into a few games over the course of the year: a few rushes out of a special package here, a few pass attempts there. His speed and sharpness would always surprise. (How could we not be surprised? The nation's only previous exposure to Kaepernick came during a few why-am-I-watching-this depressing WAC games.) Last week, in relief of Alex Smith, Kaepernick played his first extended action and did fine: 11 of 17 for 117 yards, 66 yards rushing and a touchdown, while being sacked three times, as the Niners tied the Rams.
But those were the Rams. What would he do against the Bears? He would shred them.
Chicago spent all of last night swarming the line, expecting Jim Harbaugh to task his first-time starter with lots of handoffs. But the Niners let Kaepernick pass. In the first quarter, he hit Vernon Davis on a corner route, he struck Kyle Williams down the sideline for 57 yards, and he found an open Randy Moss for a first down—pretty throws, right on target. Against the Bears' pressure, Kaepernick called multiple audibles, keeping things under control at the line.
When the Niners did run, they did so with formations so wacky they stunned even Jon Gruden (who, recall, watches game tape in his office from 3:45 a.m. onward five days a week). They ran one play with a tailback and two fullbacks lined up staircase-style. They ran others with seven or eight offensive linemen. Frank Gore averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and Kendall Hunter averaged 5.4.
All told, the Niners called 24 pass plays and 29 runs. The Bears—the league's best defense, per Football Outsiders, by a wide margin—couldn't stop any of it.
The Bears entered last night 7-2; the Niners entered 6-2-1. These were, and still are, two of the NFL's top teams. Chicago dealt with its quarterback's absence conservatively, trying to maintain the status quo by calling a lot of run plays. When Jason Campbell did pass, he threw the same passes Jay Cutler threw, just with less precision and inferior timing. No, they didn't work this time around, but it's almost always safe to have Campbell as a backup. He won't make too many mistakes.
But the Niners' backup is electrifying. He can run, he can throw, and he's six-foot-four. And the Niners weren't afraid to take risks with him. This is why San Francisco so terrifies the rest of the league. They haven't even dipped into their rookie class. "Next man up" isn't a bad thing over there. Change the playbook? Sure, why not? Alex Smith should be healthy by next week; Harbaugh won't yet tell us if he's starting. But it doesn't matter so much either way. Colin Kaepernick won't go away, and neither will the Niners.