It takes more than talent and schemes to be in the elite in the NFL — in all sports, really. There’s a certain body language, too. You have to try to take something. You have to reach out.
You have to lean forward.
Otherwise, you’re just covering up and asking to be hit. Or you’re the guy driving 45 mph down the middle lane, not trying to get anywhere so much as just trying not to crash.
Well, San Francisco took something Monday night — and Chicago crashed.
The Niners won 32-7 in the Concussion Bowl, with both starting quarterbacks out. You don’t expect to learn a lot with the two most important players off the field. But we did.
The Niners are Super Bowl contenders. The Bears are no longer an elite team.
“You have to take everything into consideration,’’ Bears coach Lovie Smith said, trying to convince someone. “We have to take 7-3 (the Bears’ record) into it. And I’m not disappointed in us being at the top of our division with the best record, tied for the best record. That’s the football team that we are.’’
Smith’s right in that you have to look at the big picture. But that just makes things worse for the Bears and better for the Niners. In the small picture, Smith could write this game off as a bad night with a backup quarterback. In the big picture?
The Bears didn’t just look outplayed, they looked outdated. The defense that was supposed to be the best in the NFL? It looked old and slow. It spent the game running backward.
A season is about direction and momentum. The deeper you get, the more things find their shape.
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh outsmarted Smith from the start, and embarrassed him.
People will talk about the great play of young 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in his first start against a top defense. He made the Bears look silly. It’s true that Kaepernick was great in place of Alex Smith. But part of that was because the Niners’ offensive line kept pushing the Bears back.
And part, too, was Harbaugh’s aggressiveness.
“We thought maybe they wouldn’t expect that, think we were going to run, with the backup quarterback,’’ Harbaugh said. “That was part of the plan.’’
The NFL needs guys like Harbaugh, irritating all the other coaches. On Thursday he had a health scare, undergoing a non-surgical procedure to deal with an irregular heartbeat. Later that same day he showed up at his office. Team doctors insisted that he go home for one day, at least.
Anyway, Harbaugh was looking, which is the only way to find something.
And he now has a new piece in Kaepernick to make the 49ers contenders. The Bears, meanwhile, are now down to relying entirely on Jay Cutler.
While the Bears’ defense prepared for the Niners to run all night, Harbaugh had Kaepernick throw play-action passes on two of the first three plays, including one for 22 yards. Several times the Niners ran two tackles-eligible at the same time. And on their second possession, Kaepernick already was throwing deep, 57 yards to Kyle Williams.
“His first start,’’ Lovie Smith said, “to play like that on the national stage, normally it doesn’t work like that.’’
The Bears were confused and off balance, ready only for smashmouth.
Meanwhile, Smith took his $3.5 million backup quarterback, Jason Campbell, and assigned him to not give the ball away. That’s it. The same assignment coaches have given backups for decades.
It was all just a reminder of why Harbaugh is one of the young, up-and-coming star coaches while Smith, after all these years with the Bears, still almost never wins big games.
Now to be honest, this is probably a little overstated. Campbell simply cannot be as good as Kaepernick was Monday night. Cannot. He’s had a long career proving it. So Smith figured his defense could score some points, and maybe Devin Hester could return one for a touchdown while the offense didn’t flub up.
It makes some sense. And in any one game, things can look worse than they are. But it just looked all wrong, not only by execution, but also by attitude, body language, posture. It looked as if the Niners were proactively trying to be a Super Bowl team while the Bears were hoping everyone else would get out of their way.
And the Bears now have played three top teams — Green Bay, Houston and San Francisco — and are 0-3 against them.
If their defense were anything like its reputation, it would have scared a young quarterback in his first start. Bullied him. Pressure him. Intimidated him.
“It just felt good to be back out on the football field, playing,’’ Kaepernick said after passing for 243 yards and two TDs. “I felt very comfortable.’’
The Niners are 7-2-1, but weren’t impressive last week in tying St. Louis at home. But there is no dominant team in the NFC, and Atlanta, Green Bay, the Niners, New York Giants and Bears now need to find momentum in the final six games of the regular season. This game was the beginning of that.
And it was just impressive to see Harbaugh look for an advantage, and take chances, when Alex Smith was out.
Meanwhile, Lovie Smith tried to win on one side of the ball. And the defense couldn’t get anywhere near Kaepernick. Brian Urlacher has been living on smarts this year, but just looked slow Monday. And while Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs are still stars, where were they?
In the middle lane, 45 mph, while the Niners were flying past.