Bland, but beautiful

SportsFootballChicago BearsTampa Bay BuccaneersHardy NickersonJeff GrahamNFL

It was neither a thing of beauty nor a monstrosity. It was something in the middle. And, after all, that is where most folks figure the Bears to finish this season.

But for opening day at Soldier Field, the Bears could not have done much more to energize the 61,844 fans who want desperately to believe the 4-0 preseason record was not a gross misrepresentation.

A 21-9 victory Sunday over Tampa Bay proved the Bears still have what it takes to whip a team it has dominated at home (13-2) the last two decades. But the Bears earned more points for substance than style this day, allowing Tampa Bay to outgain them 304 yards to 270.

"Hey, man, when you come from New England, you appreciate a win," said Bears tight end Marv Cook, one of a half-dozen free agents to migrate to Chicago over the winter. The Bears started nine new players at starting positions from opening day 1993.

"I'm just thrilled to be a part of it and to help out in any way I can. The players expect to win here."

The Bucs ran as if coach Sam Wyche's job depended on it, rushing for 123 yards on 30 carries.

And Wyche coached like a desperate man, curiously having his kicker, Michael Husted, attempt a 54-yard field goal instead of punting while trailing the Bears only 14-9 early in the fourth period.

The Bears turned Wyche's decision into a comforting 37-yard touchdown pass from Erik Kramer to tight end Chris Gedney, one of two on the day for the second-year player from Syracuse.

"Tampa is definitely an improved football team, as are the Bears," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. "They did a lot of good things out there. But let's take nothing away from what our guys did.

"We came out in the second half and were flat in all areas. Then we got a little spark and put the ball in the end zone. Defensively, they did not score a touchdown. Yes, they moved the ball. But it's the first game and we have a lot of work to do.

"We went down there and covered kicks. I think every guy who was dressed contributed in some way."

The Bears, who travel to Philadelphia next Monday night, won their first regular-season game since Dec. 5, a 30-17 triumph over Green Bay.

Kramer was a model of efficiency, completing 18 of 25 passes for 212 yards and two TDs. He was sacked twice, but did not throw an interception. Lewis Tillman rushed 19 times for 62 yards and one touchdown.

The Bears wasted little time asserting themselves, driving 68 yards in just four plays. The drive was buoyed by a 37-yard interference penalty on cornerback Martin Mayhew trying to keep up with Curtis Conway. A 10-yard pass to Gedney, followed by Kevin Butler's extra point, gave the Bears a 7-0 lead.

"The opening drive was big for Erik, and I thought he handled himself well the whole game," said Wannstedt.

Gedney, who missed much of last season with a broken collarbone and a foot injury. said: "I got tied up at the line of scrimmage and I didn't get out into my route. I just settled into a hole and Erik got the ball to me."

Tampa Bay pulled to within 7-3 on a 31-yard field goal by Husted with 5 minutes 15 seconds left in the second quarter. Husted had missed a 34-yard field goal, but Bears defensive end Alonzo Spellman was whistled for holding, giving the Bucs a first down on the 11.

Tampa Bay held the ball 10:05 on the drive that resulted in only three points.

"I'm not quite sure what went wrong," said Tampa Bay quarterback Craig Erickson. "That's the way the Bears play defense."

The Bears took a 14-3 halftime lead after a 41-yard pass from Kramer to Jeff Graham (three catches for 58 yards) that put the ball on the 1. Kramer's first-down pass over the middle was intercepted by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, but the Bucs' Jeff Brady was detected offsides. Given a second opportunity, Kramer handed off to Tillman for a 1-yard scoring dive with :57 left in the half.

Tampa Bay caught the Bears with their points down in the third period.

"It was real frustrating going three plays and out for three or four series," said Kramer. "That's the type of thing, as we develop our offense, that we're going to have to take it upon ourselves to do-to keep it moving."

A 49-yard Husted field goal made it 14-6 with 10:26 left in the third period. A 24-yard pass from Erickson (18 of 32 for 197 yards) to Charles Wilson keyed that drive.

After a 10-play, 56-yard drive resulted in a 30-yard Husted field goal with 3:04 to go in the third quarter, Bears fans began to fidget in their seats.

Key defensive plays-strong safety Shaun Gayle's pass deflection and end Trace Armstrong's two sacks-kept Tampa at bay late in the game.

With 8:07 left and the Bucs controlling the tempo, Wyche ordered Husted to attempt a 54-yard field goal on fourth and 7. According to new NFL rules, missed field-goal attempts outside the 20 are returned to the spot of the attempt instead of the line of scrimmage.

After the kick fell short and wide, the Bears took over at their own 44. A clutch 5-yard third-down pass to Tom Waddle kept the drive alive at the Tampa 45. Two plays later, Kramer found Gedney wide open on third and 2 for a 37-yard TD and a 21-9 lead.

"Chris was supposed to run a crossing route, but he broke it down the middle of the field because there wasn't a safety there," said Wannstedt. "Erik found him and got the ball to him."

"It was one of those runs when you're wide open and you just have a lot of time to think about it," said Gedney.

And for a week at least, so will Bears fans.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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