When Jay Cutler got hurt last November, the Chicago Bears’ promising season fell apart fast, with no capable backup behind him.
The Bears went from 7-3 and looking toward the playoffs to losing five of their final six to finish 8-8 and with no postseason berth.
Chicago acquired an insurance policy during the offseason, and now the Bears (7-2) will see if that move pays off. Jason Campbell is set to make his first NFL start in more than a year in place of the concussed Cutler in a key NFC showdown with the 49ers (6-2-1) tonight at Candlestick Park.
It’s not like Campbell hasn’t been in big games before. He has 70 career starts to his name in eight NFL seasons.
“It’s a tough opponent we have Monday night. No one said it was going to be easy,” Campbell said. “So, we’ve got to go there, we’ve got to fight and play together as a unit.”
That was something Chicago couldn’t do when Cutler broke his right thumb last fall, with Caleb Hanie playing in his place.
The Bears can’t afford a repeat of their late-season demise, and that’s why they brought in Campbell.
“We didn’t handle last year well,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Of course, it’s documented we didn’t. That’s why we went out and we felt like we’ve upgraded the position.”
Campbell went 10-5 over his last 15 starts with the Raiders, completing 60.3 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns, eight interceptions and an 89.6 passer rating. He missed the final 10 games with a broken collarbone, then became a free agent and joined the Bears.
San Francisco is fully aware of his resume, and the Niners’ defense doesn’t expect many new looks with Campbell under center.
“We’re going to take it as he’s the starter, and we’re going to go out there and do what we’re supposed to do,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. For San Francisco, all signs point to quarterback Alex Smith starting after he also sustained a concussion last week in a 24-24 tie with St. Louis. He was still listed as questionable in Saturday’s formal practice report, and spent the week practicing in a non-contact black jersey. The decision on Smith’s status might not be made until today, within hours of kickoff.
And Lovie Smith insists all Chicago can do is prepare for the position, not one quarterback or another. Colin Kaepernick is Smith’s backup.
This week, 49ers running back Frank Gore was rooting for both starting quarterbacks to get healthy in a hurry.
“We want their best, like they want our best,” Gore said. “I know they will want Alex Smith to play. We want Cutler to play.”
San Francisco got another scare when coach Jim Harbaugh missed most of Thursday to undergo a minor procedure for an irregular heartbeat. He returned Friday, energized and eager to get back to work.