TAMPA—This is not the quarterback controversy anyone had in mind, but the Bears just backed themselves into a three-way debate involving youth, experience and a guy in street clothes who nurses a sore hamstring and is looking better and better all the time.
Cade McNown, Jim Miller or a still-gimpy Shane Matthews? That will be the decision facing Bears coach Dick Jauron this week in the wake of his team's dismal 6-3 loss Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccanneers.
"The way the game was going," Jauron said, "I thought it would give us the best chance with Jim on the field."
In fact, trailing just 6-0 at the half and with the defense hunkering down for its second straight second-half shutout, the Bears looked like they had no chance with McNown, starting the second game of his pro career.
Under McNown's leadership, the Bears got only as far as the Bucs' 28-yard line, and that third-quarter possession ended with an interception. It turned out to be McNown's last play. Only two of McNown's eight possessions lasted more than five plays.
He left having completed 9 of 23 passes for 82 yards and thrown one interception, but with a bravado that he would be just fine.
"I think I did some good things. I don't think they're saying this guy is not going to get it done," McNown said of the coaches' decision. "They had a choice, and they made a choice they have to live with and I have to live with. They're trying to win a game, and I can't dispute that."
Miller, a six-year veteran who spent the final four games of last season as the Bears' backup, made his first appearance with the team in a game with 3 minutes 21 seconds left in the third quarter and moved them into field-goal range on two of his first three series--kicker Chris Boniol was wide left from 44 yards and good from 28.
But six plays into the final series and with 45 seconds left in regulation, Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks picked off his second pass of the day, intercepting Miller at midfield to seal his team's victory.
Afterward, Bears players praised Miller.
"He came in, looked us right in the eye and made us competitive," said offensive guard Chris Villarrial. "He was excited, he yelled at us. It makes a world of difference, it really does."
Jauron said he would not address the issue of who will start at quarterback next Sunday in Washington until at least Wednesday, when he sees if Matthews, who missed his second straight game and has not yet tried running, can practice.
"I have so much confidence in Cade," Jauron said. "I think he has a great future."
But the bigger picture shows a 3-4 Bears team that is facing four more road games in its next five outings and is starting to fray at the edges--a once-potent offense souring, a special-teams unit showing some real vulnerabilities and a stubborn defense becoming more and more frustrated.
Playing without injured starting middle linebacker Sean Harris, the Bears' defense once again did what it had to do, keeping a potent running game and the powerful Mike Alstott under control and generally enjoying the fact that veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer looked just as bad as his rookie opponent.
On offense, the Bears were missing injured starting wide receiver Curtis Conway.
"We did quite a few things we wanted to do as a defense," said tackle Mike Wells. "We didn't score, though. We did everything we wanted to do but win."
It was, to say the least, an unsightly game from most angles. The Bears converted just 6 of 18 first-down opportunities, the Bucs just 3 of 14.