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These weren't wimpy preseason boos. Bears fans must be holding a secret training camp of their own to tune up their vocal chords.
They came to Soldier Field Friday night in impressive shape, trumpeting and braying as brashly as the Chicago Symphony brass section. This early state of readiness has to be of concern to Erik Kramer's ego, still healing from last year's serious bruising.
Kramer was shown no mercy again, neither by the crowd nor his offensive line. Guard Marcus Spears, for instance, did nothing to improve on a spotty training camp performance, driven back hard and fast on a play in which Kramer was sacked.
"Probably, I suppose, I'm in a bit of a hole," Kramer said of his public relations mess. "I understand, if you're not moving the team it's going to be tough. Tonight, it was not very pleasant. A lot of bad things went on out there."
And yet, when all was said and overdone in the Bears' 18-15 victory, Kevin Butler made it all right. After Carolina's John Kasay picked apart the Bears with field goals of 48, 47, 44, 39 and 22 yards, the last remnant from the 1985 Super Bowl champions stole Kasay's thunder by kicking a decisive 51-yard field goal with 1:52 remaining.
Other than Butler, the late offensive standouts were backup names, unknowns such as third-string quarterback Shane Matthews, who threw the 13-yard touchdown pass with 3:49 left to backup fullback Anthony Johnson, who then caught the subsequent two-point conversion for a 15-15 tie. Kenny Shedd, in a tight battle to make the cut and get off the practice squad, returned a punt 29 yards with 2:50 left to help arrange Butler's saving facelift.
"Thank goodness training camp isn't over," said coach Dave Wannstedt, who will return to Platteville, Wis., to resume practice Sunday with his club. "We have a lot of work to do.
"The way we played in the first half between the fumbles--which is inexcusable--and the turnovers, that's not us. It won't be us."
Excuses aside, it had to be frightening to Bears fans that this offense looked strangely like the adequate yet unexciting and inexacting attack that too often lacked glamor and big-play execution last season. Steve Walsh, the leading man when last this soap opera was canceled in San Francisco in the playoffs, clearly beat Kramer one-on-one on this occasion, though Walsh being Walsh, he did so in a low-key manner.
Since Kramer had appeared to edge ahead of Walsh in the last week of camp, this game served to swing the balance in the competition back to square one.
"We had guys open and we didn't get the ball to them," Wannstedt said. "Why? I don't have a reason now."
Kramer did. "Even though we had open sometimes, it's a little hard to get a pass off with guys in your face."
Even from the sidelines, defensive end Alonzo Spellman can see that too many offensive players are overly eager. "The offense will be all right, but right now you've got guys trying too hard, sort of pressing," he said.
You could quit watching the Bears for years, come back from the moon and recognize this team. The defense remains the foundation.
The offense shouldn't be completely ignored on the positive side of the ledger, however. For instance, guard Todd Perry continued his improvement on the offensive line and held out hopes that he and left tackle Andy Heck can open holes for Rashaan Salaam this season. That is if Lewis Tillman, who ran well at times Friday, lets him into the lineup.
Salaam, whose contract holdout ended Thursday, was an observer on the sideline. His first preseason game will be Aug. 14 in Cleveland, a Monday night game.
Kramer and Walsh both struggled to find a rhythm with their receivers, not unusual at this early stage. Balls were winding up behind receivers, who perhaps were overrunning patterns as well.
But the worst pass of the night was undoubtedly the ball Kramer threw far behind Jeff Graham on his first second-quarter drive. Coming on third down, the miscue forced a punt and prompted a loud swelling of negativity to wash over Kramer from the stands. Earlier in the quarter, Graham and Walsh had teamed up for a 31-yard pass play to score.
Kramer and running back Robert Green had trouble on two handoffs in the third quarter that Wannstedt later blamed on a problem in finding a solid backup center.
"I don't feel good about tonight, but I've had a good camp and I'm not going to let it get me down," Kramer said. "I can't dwell on one preseason game."