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Players expect ax to fall
The heads hung a little lower, the hugs lasted a little longer. For a game supposedly bereft of meaning, the finality of Sunday's 31-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs affected the Bears in a profound way.
As players dressed amid hushed tones in a somber locker room, there was a palpable sense of loss--and not just a football game.
"It was a disappointing game, obviously," coach Dick Jauron said.
It ended a disappointing 7-9 year, the Bears' seventh losing season in the last eight. Four of those have come on Jauron's watch, which is why when the Bears report to Halas Hall for their final team meeting Monday morning, many veterans expect Jauron to be fired.
One player said he wanted to withhold comment until after Jauron "was gone Monday." Another just shook his head when asked if he thought there was any way general manager Jerry Angelo would bring Jauron back for another year to fulfill his contract.
Two sources close to the team warned to be careful speculating about Jauron's future unless the source of the information was Angelo or team President Ted Phillips. Asked if he expected to return, Jauron indirectly referred to an announcement the Bears said Angelo expects to make Monday at a news conference.
"We'll find that out pretty quickly," Jauron said. "I have no idea."
A team source said Sunday night that Angelo and Jauron had not yet met to discuss the situation.
Several people close to Jauron have said in the last week that he will be "devastated" if he loses his job. But after what likely was his final game representing the Bears, Jauron displayed the civility and poise that has defined his tenure and only opened a window to his emotions a crack.
Jauron spoke glowingly of the franchise he has represented since 1999--first in the past tense before changing to the present.
"I've loved being here," Jauron began. "I love being here. It's a great franchise. It is the charter franchise, and it's a great city to coach in and, most of all, a terrific group of guys."
If Jauron knew of his fate before kickoff, he refrained from using it as a rallying cry. In typical fashion, his pregame address was closer to Tom Landry than Knute Rockne.
"One thing about Dick is he doesn't change for anybody or any situation," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said.
Added defensive end Phillip Daniels: "You'd never have known his job was on the line before the game. He was the same-old, same-old."
Unfortunately for the Bears, so was their offense.
The Bears made a Chiefs defense that only a week earlier had given up 45 points and 469 yards against the Vikings look like the Steel Curtain. The Bears abandoned the running game in the first half, throwing 19 passes to 10 runs, and never developed consistency in the passing game after rookie starting quarterback Rex Grossman left with a finger injury. The Bears converted only 2-of-15 third downs.
"It's hard to run the ball when you don't have it," Jauron said.
It's just as hard for a team to throw the ball without its best quarterback.
Grossman tore a ligament on his right middle finger with 6 minutes 18 seconds left in the second quarter after falling awkwardly on his throwing hand. He will see a hand specialist Monday.
Kordell Stewart replaced Grossman and played so erratically that the Bears pulled him in favor of Chris Chandler to start the fourth quarter, trailing 21-3.
"We knew we'd have to pass the ball to catch up, and everybody was on board with the decision," offensive coordinator John Shoop said.
Sunday served as a microcosm of Jauron's five seasons of handling Bears quarterbacks, a rotation complete with injury, inconsistency and indecision.
Critics also will point to a 34-second sequence at the end of the first half that, to them, encapsulated the coaching problems under Jauron.
Stewart had completed a 17-yard dump pass to running back Rabih Abdullah that moved the ball to the Chiefs' 15 with 19 seconds left. The Bears had a timeout left but opted to use up precious seconds by scurrying to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball.
On the next play, Shoop called a running play to Abdullah that gained 7 yards down to the 8 instead of taking a shot at the end zone. That forced the Bears to use their final timeout to set up the final 12 seconds.
Stewart then hit Bobby Wade in the right flat, but rather than get out of bounds and stop the clock for a field-goal try, Wade made a rookie mistake, turning inside and gaining 2 yards.
As Stewart stood there with his hands on his hips, time expired. It was a missed scoring opportunity in a season full of them.
"We actually talked about that situation last night, and we said we'd take one shot at the end zone and then take a field goal," Jauron said.
Wade blamed instincts for making him catch the ball instead of letting it fly out of bounds and then trying to make a big play. "The ball comes your way, you see it, you jump to get it," said Wade, who thought he could have gotten out of bounds if he had tried. "I'm not going to tell you no because it's a possibility."
As a result of such poor execution, a weary Bears defense had no possibility of slowing down the Chiefs. Running back Priest Holmes scored his 26th and 27th touchdowns to break Emmitt Smith's NFL record for single-season rushing TDs and Marshall Faulk's NFL record for single-season total TDs. He broke the rushing touchdown record on a 1-yard run in the second quarter.
The Bears competed with typical doggedness until the fourth quarter, when an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty by R.W. McQuarters and constant trash-talking gave them the look of a frustrated team ready for its season to end.
"That's a [heck] of an offensive football team that doesn't have a lot of holes in it," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.
Blache planned to retreat to a hunting cabin and, more tactfully than he did last week, reiterated his belief that it would be wrong for the Bears to dismiss his friend, Jauron. Blache's counterpart, Shoop, made his strongest appeal yet to return despite sources saying that any Angelo decision will include Shoop's removal as offensive coordinator, at the very least.
"The three years that I've been offensive coordinator, there's been a turnstile at the quarterback position," Shoop said. "We've accomplished some great things when we've had some relative stability at the position, even without a sensational player. I believe Rex Grossman has a chance to be a sensational player, and I certainly want to be a part of that."
He will find out Monday whether that remains possible, when Angelo outlines his plans for the future of a franchise braced for change.