Bears do a little goodwill hunting

Tribune staff reporter

They were not specifically trying to save their coach's job. Nor were they trying to prove anyone wrong, shut anyone up or lay anyone out. They were certainly not attempting to move down in the draft order, but they did not particularly care if they failed to move up.

Dave Wannstedt dared his players to be different Sunday. That's all. And for the Bears, different is winning.

"It's not earth-shattering or anything that we won, but it's good for us, it's good for our psyche, good for our spirits, our mindset, everything," said defensive tackle Mike Wells. "It makes for a good Christmas."

Only the Bears can manage to win--a 24-3 pasting of the struggling Baltimore Ravens at Soldier Field in which they led 24-0 at the half--and still be perceived as blowing it.

Just like the end of last season, when the Bears won two of their last three games and three of their last five to fall out of the Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf quarterback derby, there are once again those of the opinion that the team is somehow sabotaging its future.

Not only do victories drop them in the draft--a loss Sunday would have guaranteed them picking no lower than seventh; the win means they could pick as low as 10th--but the reasoning goes that they also make it tougher for team President Michael McCaskey to fire Wannstedt. That's the thinking, anyway.

"How do I answer that?" Wannstedt said of the draft logic. "We try to win every game we play."

If anyone cares--a season-low 40,853 saw it in person--the Bears pounded the Ravens in improving their record to 4-11 and accomplished several goals in the process.

For starters, they finally got to see practice great James Allen, a former taxi-squader and undrafted free agent who made his first NFL start and gained 163 yards on 23 carries.

Allen, who broke the game open in the second quarter with runs of 57 and 54 yards on basic off-tackle plays that entailed cutting against the grain and making at least a half-dozen would-be tacklers look foolish, also scored a touchdown from 1 yard out.

"It's amazing what happens when you can run the football," cracked Wannstedt.

Yes, that will soften up a defense already mushy by the loss of run-stopping tackle Tony Siragusa. All the better for Steve Stenstrom to finally connect with Curtis Conway, who was so low after last week's two key drops and a disappointing season that his swagger had shrunk to a slink.

"It was kind of shocking every week that (offensive coordinator) Matt (Cavanaugh) would include me in the game plan no matter how bad I did the last game," said Conway. "I felt like `Man, at some point, they're going to stop trying to get me the ball,' but Matt never stopped. They've stuck with me."

As a thank-you, Conway nabbed five catches for 83 yards, including a 16-yarder for a touchdown with Rod Woodson draped on his back in the 21-point second quarter.

The Bears actually piled it on. Not just offensively but on defense, where they held the Ravens to just 22 yards rushing and generally made Jim Harbaugh's return to Soldier Field a forgettable experience.

"We stunk it up," said the former Bear, joining the discussion in the Ravens' postgame that suggested strongly that some of their players were not quite giving it their all.

It did not help that Baltimore, which dropped to 5-10, was missing three starters on the offensive line. But the Bears' front line took advantage with two sacks and plenty of pressure, including an interception by John Thierry after a tip by Terry Cousin. And give the Bears' secondary, playing without Walt Harris, credit for solid coverage and some vicious hitting.

When James Williams blocked a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Matt Stover in the second quarter, it rubbed it in further as the Bears snapped their six-game losing streak.

"The tendency is to be just like everybody else and do what everybody else is expecting and that's to come out and be flat, with nothing to play for, blah, blah, blah," said Andy Heck. "But Dave challenged us to be different than that--not to do what people expect."

If that's what McCaskey is searching for in determining Wannstedt's fate, no one but McCaskey knows for sure. Wannstedt's players insist that was not and is not what they have in mind as they look to their season finale next week at home against Green Bay.

"It's not my job to stand up and campaign for the coaching staff," said veteran defensive tackle Jim Flanigan. "But the fact that we've hung together as a team and played hard throughout the season when other teams in similar situations have kind of packed it in shows we still believe in what he's doing."

If nothing else, it simply feels better to win.

"It's nice having some sunshine over this locker room," said rookie Alonzo Mayes. "There have been a lot of dark clouds lately."

Of course, it's more than that. And it is what Wannstedt had in mind last week when he urged his team not to succumb to others' expectations.

"The easy thing is to give up," said fullback Ty Hallock. "The easy thing is to say, `Aw, the season's over with.' Well, bull. Now it's Green Bay week all over again.

"What's possible now? We can win five games, that's what."

And forget the draft.

"I really think you gain more by winning than by picking earlier in the draft," said Bears vice president of personnel Mark Hatley. "You've got to get your team in the right mind and you've got to win football games. That's something that we've been fighting.

"We played hard for six games and didn't get any wins. Today was our time, we put everything together and played pretty well. That will be a big plus for us going into the Green Bay game and then in the off-season as far as setting the tempo we want for next year."

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