GREEN BAY—They come wrapped in different packages each week. Dressed up or dressed down depending on the locale or the stakes involved. They are a big disappointment or a bigger disappointment or, worse yet, as it was Sunday in the Bears' 26-20 loss to Green Bay, simply a matter of frustrating fact.
But a loss is a loss is a loss, and in the case of the 3-11 Bears, add three more of those to equal their sixth straight. Three more on top of that to total their nine-game losing streak to the Packers, the longest streak by either team in the 155-game series.
Go for two? Kick the field goal? You never seem to know what the Bears are thinking, and more and more, it seems, neither do they.
Theoretically, they had a chance to win Sunday's game with the ball on their own 21 and 3 minutes left in regulation, and an even better chance with the ball on the Green Bay 25 and 1:05 remaining.
But really, they didn't.
Quarterback Steve Stenstrom was sacked three straight times for losses totaling 21 yards, and that was pretty much that as the hometown fans went giggling into the night.
"You can't even say we ran out of time," said defensive tackle Mike Wells. "It was a struggle all day long, and in the end we didn't have enough points."
When it was over, the Bears could say they had enough elements to win. In fact, with one special-teams touchdown--a 94-yard kickoff return by Glyn Milburn with 3:40 left--and another by the defense--a 13-yard interception return by Walt Harris in the third--how many teams still lose?
Even perpetual optimist Dave Wannstedt knows when the odds are against him. "You come up to Lambeau Field and you score one offensive touchdown?" the coach said. "Come on. You'd think it would be a slaughter if that happened. That's been a problem for us the last half of the season, and it just hurts me there's not more we can do right now."
That is the problem for a team that has been in a tailspin since losing starting quarterback Erik Kramer at the bye six weeks ago:
- They can't run. After Edgar Bennett's 43-yard off-tackle scamper on their first offensive play to set up a touchdown, the Bears gained only 51 rushing yards the rest of the game.
- They can't protect the passer. With the game on the line, three straight sacks--four for the game--is not a good thing. "With a new quarterback, we have to give him a sense of security," said Chris Villarrial, giving Stenstrom ample slack in his fifth start. "That's something we haven't been able to do."
- And they can't pass and catch very well anymore, either. Stenstrom was 16 of 28 for just 126 yards, but two deep incompletions to Curtis Conway were catchable.
Stenstrom took responsibility for the second incompletion--on a third-and-6 from the Green Bay 48 in the third--that would have taken a diving effort and then still might have carried Conway out of bounds.
"In hindsight, if I knew how bad he was going to beat his man, I would have kept the ball a little more in the field of play and let him just run it down and take it into the end zone," Stenstrom said.
But the steady decline of Conway, still the Bears' biggest potential offensive weapon, is as baffling as it was disturbing with the veteran receiver near tears after the game.
"I don't know what to say," said a bewildered Wannstedt. "He's got to make those plays, and nobody knows it more than Curtis."
The Bears know a lot of things.
They know that on occasion they can still rely on a stubborn defensive line, which accounted for three sacks Sunday and, except for Dorsey Levens' 50-yard run that set up the Packers' final score, controlled the line of scrimmage.
"Our defense played their guts out," Wannstedt said defiantly, though certainly they were aided by the absence of Green Bay center Frank Winters.
But they also know that despite a secondary that intercepted Brett Favre twice, Favre--minus wide receiver Robert Brooks--still managed to pass for 290 yards on 26 of 42 and two touchdowns, eight of those catches for 103 yards and a TD to a man with a broken jaw, Antonio Freeman.
The Bears can't seem to do much right these days. After they took a 13-9 lead in the third quarter, they tried a two-point conversion that failed on two levels--on the field and in justification afterward.
"Obviously the chart says to go for two in that situation," Stenstrom said. "What it does is give you mathematical odds. If it's 14-9, it takes two field goals to beat you; 15-9, it takes a touchdown to beat you. I think that's the logic behind it."
The logic--trailing by 10 on the first drive of the fourth--behind passing on a field goal chance and going for it on fourth-and-4 from the Packers' 31, was that placekicker Jeff Jaeger had told Wannstedt before the game that the 30 probably would be his cutoff.
"There's not a lot of time to decide," Jaeger said. "It's easy to say I wish I had the chance, but that's hindsight."
While the Packers raised their record to 9-5, they didn't clinch a playoff berth because Tampa Bay and Arizona also won. The Bears, of course, could not possibly care less. They have their own problems, mounting each week, and the worst part is that no one seems to know what to do about them.
"I'm baffled," Villarrial said. "It seems like guys are going out there and playing hard. I know it's the same old story, but what it really comes down to is that we have to go out there and put pressure on ourselves to get the job done. There's no other way to look at the situation. We're struggling bad right now."
Yes, they are.