CHARLOTTE—Greg Olsen remained on the ground in disbelief, trying to comprehend how the second of two fumbles squirted through his usually sure hands.
There were plenty of reasons to explain how the Bears squandered a 17-3 lead and ended up losing 20-17 to Carolina on Sunday afternoon. But Olsen held himself accountable.
The Bears (1-1) had a tough time coping with the loss, period. They dominated the first half on defense, playing the same harassing style that helped them subdue the Colts a week earlier.
They rode the legs of rookie Matt Forte, who followed last week's 123-yard debut with 92 yards on 23 carries.
And they moved forward without Devin Hester, who was carted off the field in the third quarter with bruised ribs and didn't return.
Yet the Bears couldn't sustain their effort the entire game, and couldn't come up with a critical yard when they needed it most.
With two minutes remaining, quarterback Kyle Orton lined the offense up for a fourth-and-1 play from midfield.
He handed the ball to fullback Jason McKie, but Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson stopped him cold for no gain.
The replay challenge confirmed what was obvious: The Bears came up short.
Why not opt for Forte? The original formation included Forte as a single back before the Panthers called a timeout. The Bears inserted McKie after the stoppage.
"I want the ball every play,"' Forte said. "I want the ball in tight situations when it's fourth-and-1, or when it's first-and-10."
The consensus inside the Bears' locker room: Too many plays were left on the field. Orton would point to the time he missed a streaking Marty Booker when Booker had three strides on cornerback Ken Lucas. Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said he should not have allowed Panthers tight end Jeff King to break loose for a 23-yard reception in the fourth quarter, a play that set up rookie Jonathan Stewart's 1-yard, go-ahead touchdown.
The momentum changed after Olsen's second fumble. The Bears led 17-6 when Olsen caught a short pass from Orton on the right side and turned up the field, only to have ex-Bear safety Chris Harris punch the ball loose. Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble recovered the fumble and returned it 10 yards to the Bears' 26-yard line.
"We put a big emphasis on ball security and not turning the ball over," Olsen said, "and I didn't hold up my end of it."
Five plays after Olsen's second fumble, Stewart burst through the middle of the defense for a 4-yard touchdown. The drive was one of four the Panthers started either inside Bears territory or at midfield.
Stewart rushed for 1 yard in the first half but finished with 77 yards on 14 attempts. Quarterback Jake Delhomme had a mere 24 yards passing before halftime and finished with 128, completing 12 of 21 passes.
His fire seemed to be lit after Lance Briggs hit him high as Delhomme was a little late sliding at the conclusion of a scramble.
"The second half we gave up some plays," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "We just didn't tackle at times, and they took advantage. We've got to make plays late in the game. Any time you give up yards it [ticks] you off."
From the outset it appeared the Bears were destined to start the season 2-0. After Carolina went three-and-out on its first possession, Darrell McClover blocked the Panthers' punt and Brandon Lloyd returned it nine yards for a touchdown after catching the ball in mid-air.
After Robbie Gould's 26-yard field goal put the Bears up 10-0, the Bears answered John Kasay's 37-field goal with McKie's 1-yard plunge in the third quarter.
Cornerback Charles Tillman set up McKie's score, intercepting a Delhomme pass intended for King and returning it to the Panthers' 23.
The game was marred by penalties, with the teams combining for 22. The Bears couldn't manage a fourth-quarter score and had three penalties for 25 yards in the final 15 minutes.
Orton, after starting 6-for-6, finished 19 of 32 for 149 yards and was sacked just once, but his second-half misfires—particularly the one intended for Booker—proved costly.
"I was mad because I made a great read on it, we had the protection, and Marty ran a great route," Orton said. "We just missed it."