There are all kinds of reasons for the Bears to have a Monday morning hangover. Solid, valid, quantifiable reasons that explain a 3-8 slide to close the season, a 6-10 record and by all rights should leave a team with a sour taste heading into a long off-season.
The Bears' 20-6 loss to Tampa Bay on a Buccaneers-friendly 54-degree Sunday, which gave the Bucs their first Central Division title in 18 years, was another example of the defense once again collapsing at the precise point it had the most to gain.
For all the promise of its new high-powered offense, the Bears will rank in the bottom quarter in the league in points scored.
But something happened this year to sustain their stubborn optimism and build their self-esteem. And amid the rubble of failed execution and missed opportunities, it may just be Dick Jauron's greatest achievement in his first year as head coach.
"Sometimes I'm kind of shocked to look at our record because it doesn't feel that bad," said tackle Mike Wells, echoing many of his teammates. "But sometimes you can't look at the record. How you feel as a player is the barometer. And when you're surrounded by good people who play hard and have faith in each other and are committed to each other, that's a good feeling.
"You just feel like good things are going to happen, and that's totally different than last year."
If it's just a feel, as they were saying, it will no doubt help serve as motivation for the next eight months. But something more substantial will have to replace it come September.
"We said going [into Sunday's game] that in order to be the best, we'd have to beat the best, and we know where we stand," said Jauron. "The last two weeks has shown us where we stand, and we have a ways to go."
The Bears were outscored 54-18 by two division champs, St. Louis and Tampa Bay, to end the season. Only once in the last seven weeks did they gain 100 yards on the ground as a team and only once over that same span did they hold an opponent to fewer than 20 points
In the final analysis Sunday, two second-quarter turnovers on back-to-back series by Cade McNown--an interception and a fumble--led to a 25-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica and a 1-yard touchdown run by Mike Alstott and essentially gave the Bucs the game.
McNown, who was 20 of 42 for 196 yards passing and scrambled five times for 29 yards, said the interception was an offshoot of an aborted scramble. "As I scrambled out to the right, I saw Bobby [Engram] as the guy came off him, and right as I was throwing it to Bobby, he was looking to block [for me]," said McNown.
"That's one of those things that should never come up, but now we know. Hey, keep your eyes on me and once I'm past that line of scrimmage, then we'll turn up and block. But I blame myself more than I blame Bobby because obviously I failed to see that at the last second and pull it down."
Just the same, aside from drives of 39 and 57 yards leading to two second-half field goals by Jaret Holmes, the Bears showed no real inclination to win. Only once this season, back in Week 3, have they had fewer first downs than the 13 they had Sunday, when the Bucs held them to 0 for 12 on third-down conversions.
James Allen replaced the injured Curtis Enis at tailback, but aside from a couple of flashes, ended up with Enis-type numbers: 43 yards on 12 carries.
Considering the enthusiasm surrounding the season-opening victory against Kansas City, the Bears offense would appear to be a disappointment. But offensive coordinator Gary Crowton sees the variables involved.
"I knew when we played Kansas City that we were a long ways away," said Crowton. "Shane [Matthews] has the ability to get rid of the ball quick and get it to the open man fast, but I knew the feel of the offense was still not there. ... [But] I feel we've come a long way now.
"The biggest thing I've been frustrated with is we've had three different quarterbacks starting seven different games. What's important is continuity."
What's important is knowing how to win. And for all the near-misses the Bears like to talk about, there were also a couple of wins--New Orleans and the Packers in Green Bay, for example--that they could have just as easily lost.
Good teams, as Jauron pointed out, win the games they should win. When last the Bears met Tampa Bay, the Bears were 3-2 while the Bucs were 2-3. Since then, the Bears are 3-8 while the Bucs are 9-2.
The wonder of it is that the Bears still walked away Sunday feeling truly good about themselves.
"You can't look at stats all the time," said Marcus Robinson, who had a quiet seven catches for 84 yards. "Certain teams have bad stats but they have good people playing on the field."
And so they look ahead. "I feel disappointed that we lost," said Jauron. "I feel disappointed in the record. But I'm certainly not down about where we're going. We certainly didn't think it would be easy. We're just all impatient. Everybody."
The veterans: "I'm not getting any younger," said Jim Flanigan. "We want to win as soon as possible."
And the rookies: "We're going to be exciting next year," said McNown. "I'm really upset how things went today. At the same time, I think there's a lot to be encouraged by and I'm looking guys in the eye in that locker room and we're already talking about next year because we know we're going to be good."
buccaneers 20, bears 6