The NFL has no stat category for fewest passes in a game before getting yanked, but Colin Kaepernick likely would be in the running for the top spot if there were.
The 49ers quarterback, on an upswing entering Sunday’s game, attempted five passes at snowy and slick Soldier Field before being sent to the sideline at the start of the fourth quarter in favor of Blaine Gabbert.
Gabbert connected on his first attempt, gaining 18 yards. But he ended up being nearly as ineffective as Kaepernick and ultimately was sacked for a safety, the final lump the hapless 49ers took in their 26-6 defeat to the Bears.
The day began with news that Kaepernick would exercise his right to get out of next year’s contract with the 49ers and test free agency in March. And why not? Over the previous four contests he had thrown eight touchdown passes against two interceptions and, especially with his running game, seemed to have recaptured the early-career form that vanished last season.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
But he was not nearly as effective against a Vic Fangio-led Bears defense that cut off the outside runs Kaepernick had exploited in previous games. The quarterback rushed six times for 20 yards and his only completion through the first three quarters was a 4-yard pass to tight end Vance McDonald.
When Kaepernick badly overshot McDonald late in the third quarter, coach Chip Kelly had seen enough. At that point, the 49ers were down 18 points and needed a spark.
“I was just watching how the ball was coming off (Kaepernick’s) hands and what our chances were of completing it,” Kelly said. “Maybe I was too cautious, but we didn’t look like we were doing much in the passing game, and when we had some plays called we needed to get them out quicker.”
Kelly said no decision has been made about who will start next week against the Jets.
When Gabbert entered the game, the yardage Kaepernick and the 49ers had lost from five sacks far surpassed what they gained through the air, and their net passing yards were minus-21. The franchise’s lowest net passing game came in a 1963 loss to the Lions when Bob Waters and Lamar McHan combined for 63 yards through the air but lost 73 yards on sacks, a minus-10 total. Gabbert’s efforts at the end of the game left the 49ers with 6 net passing yards.
Kaepernick said he was surprised he was benched after just five attempts but not indignant.
“It’s not my place to really argue on the sideline,” he said. “I want to make sure I do what I can to help this team win, and that was the decision that was made. I’m going to support my teammates.”
Sunday’s game was played in 33-degree temperatures and under a steady, wet snowfall. However, there was little or no wind, and the conditions didn’t seem to have a dramatic effect on the Bears. Once Chicago’s Matt Barkley, who was making just his second-ever start, began throwing in earnest late in the second quarter, he and his receiving crew got on a roll. Barkley was 11 for 18 for 192 yards.
Asked what specifically made it difficult to pass, Kelly said, “Good question.”
“I think they did a good job,” Kelly said. “You look at Matt. He threw for (192). And threw some deep balls and completed some deep balls and seemed like he had pretty good connection, and we couldn’t handle the weather very well from the passing-game standpoint.”
The 49ers were true to their 2016 form. They were the aggressors early, blocking a Bears punt, recovering a fumbled kickoff and moving the ball well on the ground. But they only converted that first-half energy into six points.
And once the momentum shifted – with an 81-yard Bears drive to close the first half – their energy evaporated.
“We start off hot and we get cold,” linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “We’ve just got to find a way to win and keep our momentum going. When things get tough, not bow down to what is going on.”
A week earlier the 49ers lost a close contest to a good Dolphins team. Against an injury-ravaged Bears squad with a neophyte quarterback who had no notable offensive weapons, a 49ers’ win seemed possible if not likely.
Instead they dropped their 11th straight in a game so one sided, most fans were off seeking a warm, dry refuge by the two-minute warning. Kelly didn’t blame the elements.
“Both teams played in the same weather,” he said. “… Both teams had to deal with it, and I think they handled it better.”