TEMPE, Ariz.—They are going to be hard-pressed laying claim to that best-little-one-win-team-in-the-history-of-the-NFL title. After Sunday, any self-respect the Bears were starting to develop faded as cruelly as a desert mirage.
This was the sort of day that's hard to shake--the kind of game that defines seasons and defeats the sense of purpose that makes a team capable of ignoring its dismal record.
After Sunday's eight-turnover disaster and 20-7 embarrassment at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals, they seem to be telling us. After six games and five defeats, particularly after 13 turnovers the last two weeks, they give us little choice. The fact that they're just as capable of challenging a playoff team as they are of wilting against mediocrity may make them an enigma. But it also takes them that much closer to a season eulogy.
"We felt like to stay in the middle echelon of the pack, we had to get this win," Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Now we've dug ourselves a deeper hole."
Following last week's dramatic victory over Detroit with a game of almost no redeeming qualities Sunday continues a trend in the Wannstedt era of following big victories with even bigger losses. "We just weren't focused at the level that we need to be, and that's my responsibility to get them more focused, I guess," Wannstedt said.
This set a new standard for letdowns.
To wit: Erik Kramer threw four interceptions and fumbled once, while returner Glyn Milburn, fullback Ty Hallock and tailback Curtis Enis had a fumble apiece to render the Bears' offense moot, save for a late 79-yard touchdown pass from Kramer to Bobby Engram.
"We were never on the field long enough to break a sweat," Kramer said.
Arizona middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon, with three interceptions and 51 return yards, including 31 after scooping up a blocked punt by the Bears' Ricky Bell for a Cardinals first down, had more yardage than any of the Bears' backs and nearly eclipsed their rushing total of 66 yards.
The Bears' defense kept the outcome, if not respectable, at least close by allowing only one Arizona drive to go longer than 42 yards while getting stuck with starting field position at its own 21, 14, 33, 45 and 21. "If our defense wasn't playing like they were," said Wannstedt, "the thing could've been 70."
Meanwhile, three of Kramer's interceptions came off tips by the Cardinals' vaunted defensive line--two by Eric Swann and one by rookie Andre Wadsworth, which Kramer wrote off as an inexplicable fluke.
His offensive linemen, explaining that a three-step drop by a quarterback calls for defensive linemen to try for deflections, agreed. "Anytime you see a tipped ball, it means a defensive lineman is getting blocked," said guard Todd Perry. "He's not getting pressure on the quarterback, and that's football, that happens. But we had too many other turnovers that weren't related to that."
The Cardinals (3-3) got into the act with five turnovers and 59 yards lost to seven penalties, which only made the Bears' shortcomings more glaring. Not only could they not hold onto the ball themselves, they could not take advantage of the opportunities the Cardinals handed them.
Yet the Bears, now scoreless in the last 11 third quarters dating back to last season, clung to the notion that somehow they were absolved of complete incompetence. "The thing that really disappoints me," said Wannstedt, "is when you have a loss and the team is lined up and they have you blocked or you can't cover, then I'll stand here and say, `Hey, we weren't good enough.' But when you go out there and you turn the ball over eight times, that's not giving yourself a chance. That's the most disheartening thing to me."
Before Engram's touchdown, the closest the Bears came to the goal line was on a third-quarter drive to the Cardinals' 10 following an Arizona fumble. But that drive was squelched by a Kramer fumble following a Swann sack. Before that, the Bears had driven no farther than the Arizona 42.
Bears end Shawn Lee echoed many of his teammates' sentiments that Sunday was an aberration. "It doesn't fit," said Lee. "It's like an odd piece of the puzzle."
"The turnover situation," explained Kramer, "was a combination of them getting some tipped ball interceptions and then guys just trying to make something happen because we felt the game slipping away."
With the 4-2 Dallas Cowboys up next, a team Wannstedt warned will score 50 points against a similarly careless effort, the Bears' hopes of respectability are quickly dwindling.
"The mind-set now is beat Dallas," Jim Flanigan said. "That's the only thing we can do to get this thing going in the right direction. Obviously 4-4 is out the window. We're just going to win as many games as we possibly can and hopefully get on a roll. Stop making mistakes as a team. That's what's killing us."
After their high of last week, Sunday offered a stark contrast in outlooks. "We're 1-5 and not in very good position now," Kramer said. "We were hoping to come out of this at 2-4 and get on a roll. It beats a dead horse to say it's a damaging loss. That's obvious. It's what are we going to do from here? Are we going to fold up our tent or are we going to come out and play hungry next week?"
"I don't think one game will determine what type of team we are, especially this game," Chris Penn said. "With eight turnovers, I just don't think this is a test how good a team is."
Unfortunately for the Bears, as Perry pointed out, this is not unfamiliar territory. "We're used to this," he said. "We're used to adversity. We have a lot of character on this team. Guys will step up and they'll find a way to get this thing righted.