CHARLOTTE—The biggest stories of the Bears' 24-14 loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers was their improved draft position and switching from a second-string quarterback to the third-stringer. Those will have to pass for big news at this point in a 4-11 season.
For the second time in three weeks the Bears were held to fewer than 200 yards of total offense despite facing a defense missing its No. 1 pass rusher and middle linebacker. Five of the Bears' 17 possessions resulted in negative yardage, and only two of the first 16 lasted longer than three plays.
The defense held Carolina to 254 total yards, fewest by an opponent all season. But the largesse of the offense and special teams simply ensured that the Panthers would not have far to go for their points. The Bears fumbled four times and lost them all, all in their own territory, and three of them turned into 17 points.
"The game will never change," said coach Dick Jauron in what will stand as the epitaph for the 2002 season. "If you turn the ball over as many times as we did, particularly in the field position where we turned it over, you're not going to win the game."
The two punters together touched the ball more times (21) than Bears running backs ran with it (18) and more than doubled the combined offensive output of the two teams: 888 punting yards to 440 of total offense.
With the loss, the Bears are ensured of a draft position ahead of the Panthers (6-9) and no lower than seventh. However, the Detroit Lions' loss to the Atlanta Falcons means the Bears can draft no higher than third. The Bears moved from fifth to fourth in the draft order as the Vikings improved to 5-10 with their victory over Miami. They are likely to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-3) with Henry Burris starting at quarterback after Chandler sustained a concussion on a hit in the second quarter.
Burris will have to start by holding on to the footballhe lost two fumbles Sunday. And he'll have do it against one of the NFL's top defenses. The Panthers changed their defensive game plan when Burris replaced Chandler.
"We pressured more after that [Chandler injury]," Carolina coach John Fox said. "Anytime you have a backup quarterback, no matter who you are playing or who it is, they haven't gotten a lot of the practice reps that week and are not as familiar with some of the audibles."
The Bears struck first and deep, with White breaking open on a deep post pattern against single coverage by cornerback Reggie Howard. White caught the ball at the Carolina 40, taking a Chandler pass in stride and then outracing Howard to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown.
But then the Bears started giving the ball, and the game, away.
The Panthers caught the Bears blitzing safety Mike Brown and linebacker Mike Caldwell and quarterback Rodney Peete found wide receiver Steve Smith on a slant against rookie cornerback Roosevelt Williams. Smith went 69 yards before he was run down from behind by cornerback Jerry Azumah, who slowed him enough for safety Mike Green to make the stop at the Bears' 2.
Running back Dee Brown went in on the next play to finish the six-play, 85-yard drive and tie the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Brown added a second score after the Panthers took over at the Bears' 11 courtesy of a muffed punt return by Ahmad Merritt that was recovered by linebacker Ed McDaniel. Carolina needed just three plays to take a 14-7 lead on Brown's 1-yard run.
The Bears then helped the Panthers increase their lead. On his third play of the game, Burris was sacked from behind by defensive end Al Wallace and fumbled, giving the Panthers the ball at the Bears' 41. A 22-yard interference call against Williams moved the ball to the Bears' 5.
Two plays later the Panthers got a matchup of linebacker Bobbie Howard on wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who caught a 3-yard pass from Peete to put Carolina up 21-7
The defense gave the Bears a chance in the fourth quarter when rookie linebacker Bryan Knight hit Peete from behind and forced a fumble. Brian Urlacher scooped up the ball and returned it 43 yards to the Carolina 8, where he was run out of bounds by tackle Melvin Tuten.
The takeaway turned into points when Burris rolled to his left, set himself and found White open in the back of the end zone for a 5-yard TD pass. The score pulled the Bears to 21-14 with 11 minutes 48 seconds left.
"I was supposed to run to the corner, but they saw Henry running to that side and left me," White said. "I just tried to find a little open space and Henry found me."
The next possession, however, ended the Bears' hopes when Burris had the ball knocked loose from behind and it was recovered by blitzing linebacker Mark Fields. The Bears' defense held the Panthers to minus-1 yard, but a 25-yard field goal put Carolina ahead 24-14.