The frustration was palpable, oppressive, hanging as heavy in the postgame atmosphere of Soldier Field as a fog rolling in from the lake.
From the emptiness of a simple gesture by Rashaan Salaam, looking helplessly at his open palm as he walked to the dressing room; to the anger of Todd Burger, nearly taking on a group of surly fans along the way; to the uncharacteristically stinging words of coach Dave Wannstedt, this was a Bears team wounded to its core. And not merely by the obvious disappointment of a last-minute loss in a game with seven lead changes, but by all that it represented.
"We had opportunities to win the football game on offense and defense," said Wannstedt, his voice atypically rising, "and giving good effort doesn't mean a damn thing if you don't make plays. That's what this game came down to--making a play with three minutes to go to win it, and two or three situations at the end on defense to stop them. And we didn't make the plays, it's as simple as that."
It was that, as well as a key fumble by Salaam in the third quarter leading directly to a Minnesota touchdown, and consistently good field position for the Vikings set up by poor special-teams play by the Bears for the second week in a row.
Despite all of that, the Bears still figured it was their day. Raymont Harris' 59-yard touchdown scamper gave them a 24-20 lead with 11:52 to play. They thought they had sealed a victory when a defensive stand ended with a sack by Jim Flanigan for an 8-yard loss and a missed 42-yard field goal by Minnesota's Greg Davis with 3 minutes 29 seconds left. So when safety Anthony Marshall hit quarterback Brad Johnson on the Vikings' next possession to give them third and 17 on the Bears' 42, it seemed a perfect time to begin celebrating.
Minnesota players said afterward that it only fired them up more. "It wasn't celebration," protested Wannstedt, "it was excitement."
Whatever the case, leading 24-20 and with defensive saves having sustained them for much of the day, the Bears could not have believed that the Vikings would not only convert on a fourth and 8 from the Bears' 33 two plays later on a 21-yard pass from Johnson to Cris Carter, but also score soon after on a 9-yard pass from Johnson to Chris Walsh.
It was a classic error in judgment by the Bears. Soft coverage that caught second-year corner Walt Harris out of position in zone coverage was designed, said defensive coordinator Bob Slowik, to stop the inside slant while leaving them utterly defenseless to handle a simple out.
"You can't give them that much ground and expect to make a play," said Slowik, accepting culpability for the "wrong call" and for the disastrous final drive as a whole.
Sandwiched around the Vikings' winning drive were two futile possessions on which the Bears failed to get a first down.The Bears' final possession ended with a 15-yard sack of Erik Kramer at their 22.
"They stole one from us, and they know it," said a sullen Burger afterward. But clearly, the Bears sabotaged themselves.
"You have to be able to make big plays," said defensive end John Thierry. "We have to be able to get our hands up. On fourth down, you have to take chances. We literally gift-wrapped the game and gave it to them."
Salaam would probably not have characterized his second fumble of the day in that way had he commented afterward. But Minnesota safety Orlando Thomas could not have been any more grateful had he received solid-gold cuff links.
Linebacker Ed McDaniel's strip of Salaam after a 6-yard gain popped directly into the arms of Thomas, who ran 22 yards for the touchdown that gave the Vikings a 13-10 lead.
"We have to talk about that," Wannstedt said, declining to specifically criticize his third-year running back. "But he's got to protect the football. You can't give a team a touchdown and expect to overcome it very often."
You don't very often overcome a huge field-position disadvantage, either--the Vikings' average drive started on their 39-yard line. But that was the Bears' lot after a combination of less-than-perfect placement by punter Todd Sauerbrun and poor coverage in general.
The Vikings converted on a 33-yard field goal by Davis after starting on the Bears' 46 after a punt, missed a 40-yarder after starting on their own 43, and kicked a 28-yarder after starting on their own 33. All of which left Wannstedt fuming.
"Our defense again started off with their backs to the wall the entire first half, and we will address that," he said. "That's ridiculous. I don't know what to say about that. It's unacceptable. It's terrible."
Just as terrible is losing offensive lineman Chris Villarrial for from four to six weeks with a broken left leg.
Perhaps even more disappointing is that Green Bay's loss to Philadelphia means the Bears could have been tied with the Packers going into next week's game at home against Detroit instead of occupying last place in the division alone.
"When you're 0-2, you're fighting an uphill battle awful early in the season," Wannstedt said.
Bryan Cox said the very prospect of 0-2 was "too much to think about. Everybody has to look inside. We have to come in Monday with the attitude that hey, we've got to go to work.
"Yes, we've dug ourselves a hole, but believe me, you don't know how happy and excited I am because I feel like I've got some guys who are standing up and fighting with me. Nobody is giving up. Nobody is quitting this year. And that has to translate into wins."
It has to if the Bears hope to still be talking about the future much beyond this month.
"We've got to stop this right now and straighten things out because it doesn't get any easier," said defensive lineman Mark Thomas. "We've got some tough teams coming up, and we've got to fix things quick. Now."
VIKINGS 27, BEARS 24