It might be too soon to view it as anything more than another Bears defeat, though an especially cruel one. But one day, Sunday night might be looked back on as much, much more than that.
In what has to be the lowest point of the five-year Dave Wannstedt era, there was the sense that more had been lost than a 20-17 decision to the New Orleans Saints.
the Bears with the longest pass play in the 30-year history of their franchise. "At 0-6, I guess nothing we're doing is very good."
Bringing them within one loss of the worst start in Bears history with Green Bay looming next week, Sunday's defeat came in a game the Bears had to win. With Wannstedt grappling for answers and finding few, it came after another quarterback switch. And if all that isn't bad enough, it came against Mike Ditka.
But Ditka was a mere footnote in a night of horror held out in front of the Bears in unresolved agony until a final drive fell just a yard short of a first down at the Saints' 31-yard line with 1:21 left.
Less than 5 minutes earlier, the Bears were doing their second touchdown dance in two minutes after failing to score in 14 previous quarters. Raymont Harris bulled in from the 1-yard line after Jim Flanigan's recovery of a Saints fumble to give them a 17-13 lead.
But like almost everything else this season, it all went for naught. The Saints followed with an 89-yard pass play from Heath Shuler to Randal Hill, who peeled off Tom Carter at the New Orleans 41 and scampered the rest of the way unhindered.
"What stands out most right now," Bryan Cox said, "is that teams preparing to play us are saying, `Just hang in there and they're going to fold.' It's disconcerting.
"You try to stay positive and look for something good, but we're not playing the Super Bowl champs every week. We have to beat some of these guys. At 0-6, it means we're not a very good football team."
For most of the night, before a testy Soldier Field crowd of 58,865, this was as bad as expected, as bad as it gets in the NFL this season. Or so the league has to hope.
There were 21 punts--14 in the first half alone. And the Saints never did convert a third down.
"I've never been in a game in my 20 years of coaching where they don't convert a third down and still win the game," an exasperated Wannstedt said.
So desperate for their first victory were the Bears and Wannstedt that he changed quarterbacks at halftime after vowing that he was committed to Rick Mirer as his starter.
Granted, Wannstedt did stipulate that Mirer would have to produce. And granted, Mirer did not, extending his streak to nearly 12 quarters without leading the Bears on a touchdown drive. The Bears haven't scored more than three points in a game under his direction.
But it looked like a futile move until Kramer scored on a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line to bring the Bears within three points with 7:44 left.
"You all saw the numbers in the first half," Wannstedt said. "We had field position and we had turnovers and we made nothing happen. That's why I made the change."
He would not discuss his next quarterback decision until ample film review.
At the start, the Bears capitalized on one of the Saints' biggest problems this season, when Walt Harris stripped Mario Bates after a 12-yard first-quarter run and Paul Grasmanis recovered on the New Orleans 31.
It was the Saints' 21st turnover, a league high, and they paid for it five plays later, though certainly not as much as the Bears would have hoped, when Jeff Jaeger kicked a 23-yard field goal.
Those were the only points of the quarter, though the Bears had another chance on the Saints' first play of the next possession when safety John Mangum intercepted a Shuler pass. Four plays later, fans were treated to another Todd Sauerbrun punt, and the tone was set for the night.
"Maybe we only played to our abilities," Ditka said, clearly referring to both combatants.
With the exception of some random acts of defense on both sides, the lasting impression of the first half was of two struggling offenses demonstrating why they are struggling--little firepower and even less imagination.
"They're not asking for anything that I can't do and they're not asking for anything I haven't done before," Mirer said. "But for whatever reason, that has become harder than it's supposed to be."
The Saints had their biggest play of the half on a 42-yard pass from Shuler to tight end John Farquhar from their 31. But it resulted only in a 38-yard field goal by Doug Brien.
When the Saints scored on their first possession of the second half, on a 49-yard burst by Bates, who cut across the grain and all but caved in the right side of the Bears' line, a 10-3 lead actually seemed safe.
And when Ray Zellars' 26-yard scamper highlighted a 41-yard drive that produced Brien's 48-yard field goal on the next possession, the game appeared positively out of the Bears' reach.
The Bears' comeback only prolonged the anguish, but as always, they vow to fight on.
"You would have thought tonight that everything added up to a win," Kramer said.
SAINTS 20, BEARS 17