Sloppy effort, happy ending
Now, that's how you make an NFL roster.

Veteran wide receiver Ahmad Merritt, on the proverbial bubble, returned the opening kickoff of overtime 87 yards Thursday night to set up Paul Edinger's game-winning 25-yard field goal and give the Bears a 13-10 exhibiton victory in the opening game of the Lovie Smith era.

"It's my fifth year, and I always start out at the bottom so I just have to get my opportunities and make the best of it," said Merritt, behind rookie Bernard Berrian on kickoff returns. "It doesn't matter if it's preseason, regular season, or playoffs, every game means a lot in my situation."

Before Merritt's heroics, it took until 2 minutes 30 seconds remained in regulation before Smith's signature on his new team was legible to a crowd in the Edward Jones Dome that knows it well.

That was when cornerback Nathan Vasher recovered a Dane Looker fumble forced by linebacker Joe Odom on a potential game-winning drive. The turnover gave the Bears the look of a team styled by a man who made his reputation shaping defenses in St. Louis.

But other than those brief glimpses of an attacking, opportunistic defense, Smith's homecoming revealed how far the Bears have to go to get his new house in order.

Nineteen Bears penalties for 160 yards marred the dramatic ending for Smith and left an impression his team is undisciplined and needs work on the little things.

"I think most penalties are concentration lapses," Smith said. "We'd get a few yards, and then the penalties would knock us back."

The Bears were penalized four times on a 13-play opening drive. The penalties included three false starts and a holding penalty, beginning a trend of sloppiness that only got worse.

"We're going to chalk those up to the first game and guys moving around in different positions," Smith said.

A holding call on left guard Mike Gandy negated a 10-yard touchdown pass from Rex Grossman to fullback Bryan Johnson on which Johnson broke a tackle and barreled his way into the end zone. The Bears settled for a 31-yard field goal by Edinger, managing a positive result on the year's first drive. "That was a great way to start off our season as an offense," Grossman said.

Grossman exhibited command and played only the opening series, completing 4 of 5 passes for 39 yards. Backup Jonathan Quinn, more serviceable than stellar, took over until the fourth quarter and brought the Bears back to tie the game 10-10 with a 15-play, 88-yard drive that ate up 10:04.

Quinn capped the drive with a nice ball fake that sucked in the defense and freed tight end Gabe Reid, who caught Quinn's 1-yard rollout pass in the right corner of the end zone.

Rookie Craig Krenzel mopped up the final 8:21 against a mixture of Rams second- and third-teamers.

Offensive coordinator Terry Shea's high-risk, high-reward unit mostly played it safe, stressing ball security and defense recognition instead.

Running back Thomas Jones provided the brightest spot for the Bears in regulation, squirting through the Rams' defense for 53 yards on seven carries. The way Jones cut back across the field for a 26-yard gain when a toss sweep looked stopped on third-and-1 provided a glimpse of the big-play capability his breakaway speed brings.

"The offensive line did a good job of blocking, and I just took care of the rest," Jones said.

Jones' compliments aside, it was not the best of times for the Bears' offensive line.

With offensive tackle John Tait out with a sore right groin and set to see a specialist to determine the extent of the injury, the Rams showed the Bears just how badly they need him.

Left tackle Qasim Mitchell struggled protecting the quarterback and hearing the cadence. Referees flagged him for three false starts and a holding penalty. Right tackle Steve Edwards, starting for Tait, had two false starts and gave up two sacks. Left guard Gandy, starting for Rex Tucker, was flagged for three holding calls. The offensive line was responsible for 10 of the Bears' 19 penalties.

Two near-misses in the final minute of regulation nearly sent the Bears home before Merritt saved the day. Odom dropped a sure interception of a Jeff Smoker pass inside the Bears' 20 with nobody in front of him. Then as time expired, wide receiver Jamin Elliott let a tipped ball go off his hands on a "Hail Mary" pass.

"We talk about playing hard up till the end," Smith said, "and we did that [Thursday]."