Like a well-meaning student, Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton listened carefully to the question and tried his best to come up with an informed response.
More than 27 years have passed since the last time the Bears traveled to San Francisco and won a game. Why?
“Maybe the length of the flight?” Melton, 26, said with a smile and a shrug. “I don’t know.”
Melton and his teammates can silence the question with a win today.
For the first time in more than two months, the Bears (7-2) will be the underdog today when they face the 49ers (6-2-1) at Candlestick Park near the shores of San Francisco Bay. The Bears have lost seven consecutive road games against the 49ers, with their last win in San Francisco coming Oct. 13, 1985, as part of a Super Bowl championship season.
Many players on the Bears’ 53-man roster were not alive when the Bears won that game. Yet they probably remember the Bears’ most recent visit to Candlestick Park in 2009, when Jay Cutler threw five interceptions and the Bears lost, 10-6, in prime time.
Cutler will have to wait to avenge that performance, which was one of the worst games of his nearly four-year tenure with the Bears. He is out today because of a concussion, which means that Jason Campbell will make his first start since signing a one-year deal in March.
Campbell, 30, is an experienced veteran with 70 career starts with the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders. His likely counterpart will be veteran 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who is expected to start despite sustaining a concussion a week ago. If Smith cannot start, the 49ers will turn to athletic second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
After a full week of practice with the starters, Campbell said, he was ready to lead the Bears’ offense. He said he and Cutler shared several similar attributes as former first-round picks.
“We both have big arms,” Campbell said. “We both move around a little bit. For me, it’s just getting out there and just getting comfortable, trying to get my rhythm and go from there.”
The Bears haven’t gone much of anywhere on offense for much of the season. Mike Tice’s group is No. 28 in total offense with 316.8 yards a game, and it will be facing a 49ers’ defense that has allowed the fewest points per game (14.1) of any team in the NFL.
Tice said the only number that he could afford to worry about was how many wins the Bears compiled. The Bears need a victory to stay in first place in the NFC North ahead of the Green Bay Packers (7-3), who rallied to beat the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.
“We’re in the second half of the season,” Tice said. “It’s not the time now for even me, a Brian Billick stat guy, to be staring at stats or lack of stats. What we have to do is win football games any way we can win them.
“We have to get the run game going. We have to take some pressure off of Jason. It all starts with that. It’s going to be tough sledding, though. These guys are pretty doggone good.”
That goes for both sides of the ball.
Led by Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, the 49ers have the league’s best ground game with 170.2 rushing yards per game. But the Bears defense has been historically good this season with seven touchdowns and a plus-14 turnover ratio through nine games.
“The Niners have a great running game,” Melton said. “Gore comes downhill.”
Melton’s choice of words was appropriate. Because today’s game could be an uphill battle.