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The most asked question in the Bears' locker room Sunday night wasn't why Kevin Butler missed a potential winning field goal wide left from 37 yards in the closing seconds, or what motivated the defense to play with extra energy, or how Arizona coach Buddy Ryan justified wanting to win this preseason game so badly he stayed with his first unit to the end.
The most asked question was whether Steve Walsh thought he had been treated fairly in the quarterback duel, whether he felt cheated. It was asked because everyone has declared a winner in the race except Dave Wannstedt, who is relying on a coach's best friend--the game film--to buy more time before announcing a starter for the regular-season opener Sept. 3 with Minnesota.
"There's no hurry," Wannstedt said.
Spoken like a man who has finally made up his mind that Erik Kramer is his quarterback, despite Sunday's 17-16 loss to the Cardinals. Kramer certainly supported the argument that he should reclaim the job he lost last season to Walsh, throwing two touchdown passes among his 17-of-26 passing effort for 189 yards.
When Kramer departed in favor of Walsh with 8 minutes 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Bears led 16-10. Two plays later, Walsh may have sealed his fate by throwing an interception that Aeneas Williams returned 37 yards for the decisive score. It was Walsh's third interception in three games.
Pressed afterward to acknowledge that Kramer had won their struggle, Walsh would only concede that maybe Kramer has had more chances and in better situations with the first team, though that didn't stop the Cardinals from sacking Kramer five times in the first half, three of them by tackle Eric Swann, who finished with four sacks.
"Maybe he's had a few more chances than me," Walsh said, "but you only get a certain amount of chances in this league and you've got to make the most of them.
"The situations I've been put in haven't been the best, but I haven't really responded, either."
Kramer didn't have the best of situations in the first half. Besides the sacks, Jeff Graham and Michael Timpson dropped well-thrown long passes. Timpson could have taken the Bears to the goal line if he had hung on.
"That's what football is about, being able to work through things like that," Kramer said. "I felt good about the way I played and the way the team battled back."
Kramer didn't find Curtis Conway with a pass until late in the second quarter, perhaps one reason the Bears trailed 10-2 at halftime. Their only score came when linebacker Joe Cain sacked Cardinals quarterback Dave Krieg in the end zone for a safety.
But in the second half, Conway and Kramer started to develop a rapport that makes Bears fans wonder if passing will for once be a significant part of the offense this season. Conway finished with five receptions for 77 yards, including a 14-yard score in the fourth quarter that provided the Bears a 16-10 advantage that held up until Walsh threw the interception.
"Just a bad read," said Walsh.
If the offense remained a good-news, bad-news situation, not so the defense. Taking to heart a 55-13 licking in Cleveland last Monday, the entire defense was rejuvenated. Arizona finished with just 31 net rushing yards.
"Alonzo and the whole line was intimidating their offense," said Bears linebacker Ron Cox. "Even when we put the second defense in in the fourth quarter, they kept pounding them."
Ryan, the crusty old Bears defensive coordinator during the 1985 championship season, refused to bow to the Bears. He kept his top defensive unit on the field to the finish.
"We aren't going to be as good as we think we are if we don't stop making dumb mistakes," said Ryan, whose team is 3-0 in the preseason.
A perfect way to slide into Rashaan Salaam. He was impressive in a fourth-quarter drive when the Bears (1-2) sought to rally, picking up some tough yardage with second and third effort.
However, his performance was marred by an unnecessary-roughness penalty in the first half that set back a drive and by a fumble with 2:00 to play that Arizona recovered at its own 13. Salaam totaled 32 yards on 16 carries.
"We've got to hold on to the football at the end," Wannstedt said, deciding not to criticize his rookie further.
While Wannstedt said he couldn't wait to get at that film and look at special teams to decide which players stay and which go--the roster cutdown to 60 from 77 comes Tuesday--the real decision from this game was at quarterback.
Kramer is in and Walsh is standing by, at least until such time that Kramer can't continue to keep his finger on the fast-forward button and propel the Bears to the top of the Central Division.
"Kramer played well against as aggressive a defense as we'll see all season," Wannstedt said. "He kept his composure well. The five sacks in the first half can intimidate a quarterback, but he kept his cool."