Back-to-back games vs. the Houston Texans and at the San Francisco 49ers were long thought to serve as a perfect mid-season barometer for the Chicago Bears. Like the Bears, both teams have been a staple in the top five of power rankings all season, both boast a bone-crushing defense and both were surely also eager to prove themselves against a talented opponent. The Texans made their first playoff appearance in franchise history last season, but had to settle for a fifth round rookie at quarterback once there because of Matt Schaub's Lisfranc injury. The 49ers, of course, couldn't overcome miscues in the NFC Championship and saw the New York Giants celebrate a Super Bowl trip on their home field. These games were supposed to mean something. Now, with one purported marquee matchup behind the Bears and another one looming, much of the glitz associated with the primetime affairs seems to have dissipated.
In the modern NFL, concussions have a way of sobering everyone up.
This isn't to say there won't be excitement surrounding the Monday night meeting between the Bears and 49ers, a game likely to be helmed by a pair of backup quarterbacks after starters Jay Cutler and Alex Smith each received concussions last week. There will still be plenty of emotion for both parties, and the game continues to carry a substantial amount of meaning: the winner assumes the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and poll position for a first round bye in the playoffs.
It's just that, like the contest vs. the Texans, it'll be impossible to draw larger conclusions about the Bears from the game. That's unfortunate, because this city didn't want to sit still until a Week 15 meeting with the Packers provides the final opportunity for a pre-postseason litmus test. The Bears have one side of the ball locked down. It was the offense that needed to gradually improve, and that could only happen with Cutler on the field.
Instead of a week's worth of hype centered around two of the NFC's best teams going head-to-head in front of a national audience, we're left against talking about concussions. Michael Vick got one as well last Sunday, making it three quarterbacks for three marquee franchises sustaining what's quickly becoming the most frightful injury in sports. For Cutler, it's reportedly his sixth, a troubling sign for his post-playing days, to be sure. Cutler sat one game after suffering his last concussion in 2010 -- you remember, when the Giants sacked him nine times in the first half before forcing Todd Collins into mop-up duty.
Cutler is almost certain to sit, but Smith's status remains up in the air after the San Francisco quarterback reportedly sought a second opinion on his condition. Smith has made 28 consecutive starts after an embattled start to his career, and his motivations for wanting to play are easy to spot. While the Bears invested big money in Jason Campbell this offseason to backup Cutler, even a great performance against the 49ers wouldn't cause a quarterback controversy in Chicago. The same can't be said about the 49ers.
Collin Kaepernick is Smith's backup, and he's surely one of the most popular people in San Francisco. The second round pick in 2011 is a dynamic athlete and fascinating developmental prospect for the 49ers. He's looked good in spot duty for San Francisco this year, running for three touchdowns and showing an improvement with his pocket presence and accuracy. After Smith was TKO'd last week, Kaepernick led a scoring drive to tie the game vs. the Rams -- which is exactly how it would end. If the 49ers found a way to win that game, would San Francisco already have a quarterback controversy brewing?
It's certainly possible. Wally Pipp serves as a cautionary tale in pro sports, and no athlete with overflowing competitive juices wants to lose his job to injury -- especially not on a Super Bowl contender like the 49ers. Perhaps that's why Smith stayed in the game long enough last week to throw a touchdown pass with blurred vision. As much as the NFL talks about wanting to change its warrior culture, the league is still miles away from that becoming a reality.
Strides have been made, though, at least in some circles. When Cutler went down in the NFC Championship against the Packers two years ago, some fans wanted him run out of town and openly questioned his toughness. You'd be hard-pressed to find such machoism this time around, as heightened awareness about head trauma has infiltrated all but the sport's most clueless fans.
Monday's "Concussion Bowl" might still be a great football game, but it'll be hard not to wonder what would happen if both teams were truly healthy. It's a good thing we'll likely have a pair of backup quarterbacks facing each other, though -- you can never be too careful with concussions, a fact of life the league is slowly starting to realize.