With pained looks and pursed lips, they slowly followed the cart down the Metrodome hallway late Sunday afternoon.
The cart carried Rex Grossman, sitting on the back with a tightly knotted silk striped tie around his neck and a bulky black brace wrapped just as snugly around his right knee as he faced the prospect of missing the next monthor longer.
Grossman's blank expression matched that etched on the faces of father Dan and coach Lovie Smith as they trudged behind him on the way to the team bus, everyone knowing where to go, nobody quite sure where they were headed.
A 27-22 defeat to the Vikings, a gutsy Bears effort marred by missed opportunities, was far from the biggest loss of the day, though it did drop their record to 1-2.
The misty eyes of Grossman's fiance, Alison Miska, and his mother, Maureen, confirmed that reality as surely as the long postgame embraces between Grossman's family members and his close friends on the team, such as Todd Johnson and Alex Brown.
"You kind of just say to yourself, what else can go wrong?" defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said.
Nobody would blame the Bears for wondering after another difficult day.
They began the game with an injury list reading like their Pro Bowl ballot. Linebacker Brian Urlacher missed his first NFL game in five seasons with a strained hamstring, joining Mike Brown, Charles Tillman, Jerry Azumah and Rex Tucker on the sideline.
They ended it by adding Grossman, who lay grimacing in pain after scoring on a 6-yard touchdown scramble with two minutes to play. Smith called it a sprained knee, and an MRI Monday will determine the extent of the damage done when he landed awkwardly lunging for the pylon.
Only the balance of the season hinges on the result.
Nobody in the organization wanted to speculate on the immediate future of the future of the franchise, but two teammates confided they expected Grossman to miss at least a month if it turns out his knee is indeed sprained. The prospect of the injury being worse than that was enough to render Alex Brown speechless.
"I don't even want to talk about Rex right now, OK?" Brown said, barely audible.
The Bears quickly missed Grossman on the first offensive play after he was wheeled off.
Down 27-22 with 1 minute 36 seconds left and the ball at the Bears' 39, Jonathan Quinn entered. It was the kind of situation Grossman had been waiting for, but an impossible one for a backup.
On Quinn's first regular-season pass since 2001, he overthrew Justin Gage. He overthrew Gage again on second down before bouncing a one-hopper in front of Gage on third down. On the final, desperation play of the game for the Bears, Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams beat right guard Steve Edwards, filling in for the injured Mike Gandy, and sacked Quinn to end the threat and the game.
"After it was all said and done, we had a chance at the end to win the football game, so you have to be proud of our players for doing that," Smith said. "You have to score touchdowns when you're on the road, and we didn't get any touchdowns early."
Indeed, the Bears marched as deep as the Minnesota 11 on three straight drives in the first half only to come away with two Paul Edinger field goals.
On the first drive into the red zone, a false-start penalty on offensive tackle John Tait created a third-and-11. On the second drive, Vikings linebacker Lance Johnstone forced Grossman to fumble, and Minnesota's Williams recovered. On the third, a false start by tight end Desmond Clark turned first-and-goal from the 7 into first-and-goal from the 12, and the Vikings held.
"That was the most frustrating thing about the game," center Olin Kreutz said. "If we score touchdowns down there, it's 14-0, not 6-0."
As good teams do at home, the Vikings took advantage by leaning on Onterrio Smith as heavily as the Bears lean on Thomas Jones. He nearly matched Jones' 22 carries for 110 yards with 17 for 94 and consistently hurt the Bears on screen passes that set him loose in the open field.
The Vikings' Smith took advantage of the Bears' preoccupation with Randy Moss, chased all day by cornerback R.W. McQuarters. Even though Moss caught seven passes for 119 yards and two short touchdown passes, the dagger to the Bears came from the Vikings' "other" wide receiver.
A 1-yard Jones touchdown run had just pulled the Bears within 20-15 with 6:23 left.
But on the Vikings' first play after the score, Nate Burleson got open working against cornerback Todd McMillon, making his first start in two years for Tillman. Burleson caught the deep-in route and then broke a tackle of Johnson, making his first career start for Mike Brown at free safety. Burleson spun around and sprinted to the left sideline until McQuarters caught him from the other side of the field at the Bears' 2.
Three plays later, Moss caught a 2-yard TD pass on a short rollout.
"You can't put it all on one play, but when we have a chance to stop them, we have to stop them," Alex Brown said. "We have to tackle."
Looking drained, Lovie Smith didn't even want to discuss the issue of two questionable officiating calls killing Bears' momentum.
The officials waved off a defensive pass-interference call on Vikings cornerback Terrance Shaw on third-and-8 in the second quarter because they said the ball had been tipped at the line of scrimmage before it got to David Terrell, though replays made that hard to determine.
But the most obvious missed call came on the Bears' failed two-point conversion attempt, when Minnesota defensive end Kenny Mixon clearly jumped offside but no flag was thrown.
"Let's get off that," Smith said. "Officials never lose the game."
He left the podium more focused on making sure his team wouldn't lose heart as crestfallen players filed out of the locker room.
"We have 13 games to go," Smith said. "That's why you have 53 men on your roster, for injuries. Injuries happen. We've had our share of injuries. Hopefully we won't have a lot more."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times