CHICAGO (AP)—What the heck? Nathan Vasher caught the missed field goal deep in the end zone on the final play of the first half and decided to bring it out.
Seconds later, he was in the NFL record books with the longest play in league history—an almost unimaginable rambling 108-yard TD return that stunned the San Francisco 49ers and propelled the Chicago Bears to a blustery 17-9 win Sunday.
“I’ve never really seen it work, but we always feel like we can get big plays like that,” Vasher said. “I’m still speechless.”
When Joe Nedney’s 52-yard attempt was short and wide, Vasher caught the ball over his shoulder, then after his brief hesitation sprinted to the 15, reversed his field with a spin move and picked up a convoy of blockers.
“All the guys start out left. If there’s nothing to the left, we always have a lot of field to the right. I just felt like I could outrun a lot of guys at that angle,” Vasher said.
“With the field goal team out there, there were no defensive backs or wide receivers,” Vasher said. “You’re out there with the big boys. I picked up some great blocks from everybody out there.”
The previous longest play was Baltimore’s Chris McAlister’s 107-yarder with a missed field goal in 2002.
Leading 3-0 on a day when wind gusts reaching 47 mph made every flight of the football problematic, why even try a 52-yarder?
“Joe is the strength of our football team. I have a tremendous amount of confidence in him,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. “Joe felt he had the distance, but that time it came a little short.”
Vasher returned an interception 71 yards for a TD last season to seal a victory over the 49ers. This one he had trouble believing.
“I was feeling like I was running the 400 meters out there. I just fell into the end zone,” Vasher said. “The NFL has been around a long time. For my name to be at the top of that is truly an honor.”
Nedney was in no position to make the tackle as a swarm of Bears jerseys— they wore orange Sunday—were rolling down the sideline.
“I saw six orange jerseys in front of him and there is not much I can do in that situation,” Nedney said.
The Bears (6-3) have their longest winning streak in a single season since 2001, when they won six in a row en route to a division title.
First-round pick Cedric Benson, making his first NFL start in place of Thomas Jones (ribs), was wheeled off the field in the second quarter with a sprained right knee. He was hit by Isaac Sopoaga and his right knee was twisted grotesquely as he went down.
Benson was standing after the game, wearing a brace and awaiting an MRI on Monday.
That left the Bears with one tailback, and Adrian Peterson responded with 120 yards on 24 carries. Peterson’s 34-yard run and two penalties on the 49ers — for pass interference and roughing the passer—set up Peterson’s 7-yard TD run early in the fourth period that made it 14-6.
When Bobby Wade fumbled a punt for the third time on the day, the 49ers recovered at Chicago’s 2.
But once again San Francisco’s offense showed why it is last in the NFL in yardage. After two runs, the 49ers (2-7) were called for having 12 men in the huddle, then for delay of game before Nedney hit a 29-yarder to make it 14-9.
With wind gusts shaking the goalposts, roaring through the referees’ on-field microphone, blowing off their caps and sending hot dog wrappers all over Soldier Field, neither team could muster much offense and stuck mainly with the run.
“It was wild. I don’t know how fast it was going. For both teams it made it really tough to field the ball,” Vasher said.
“It was strong. It was tough throwing the ball,” Pickett said. “It changed. It wasn’t blowing in one direction at any time.”
Pickett did hit a 28-yarder to Brandon Lloyd in the third quarter and a personal foul call on the Bears helped set up Nedney’s 34-yard field goal that made it 7-6.
Earlier, Gould attempted a 39-yard field goal and the ball appeared headed straight to the goalposts, got caught in a gust, then almost comically ended up about 20 yards wide right. Nedney hit a 30-yarder in the second quarter.
Notes: 49ers safety Tony Parrish broke his left leg. He’d started 121 straight games over his seven-plus seasons, including his first four years with the Bears. … Benson gained 50 yards on 12 carries before leaving. … The 49ers had 10 penalties. Frank Gore gained 60 yards on 15 carries and Kevan Barlow added 58 on 24.