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The Bears haven't played like losers while losing twice this season. They have played like a team looking for an identity, for a road map to the top.
Just as a 27-24 setback Sept. 11 to Green Bay was rife with silver linings in between the sporadic performances, a positive spin can be put on this latest misfortune, Sunday's 34-28 loss to St. Louis at Busch Stadium.
But tight end Chris Gedney was having none of it. "This isn't a learning experience for us, it can't be," Gedney said, shooting down that tiresome excuse. "We have to start learning from success, not mistakes."
St. Louis is certainly a team the Bears can emulate. The Rams have yet to commit a turnover, which is why they are 4-0. The Bears continue to make some of the juiciest turnovers since Betty Crocker, which is why they are 2-2.
They fumbled away the ball twice on their first three possessions Sunday. St. Louis turned the errors into a 10-0 lead that haunted the Bears all afternoon.
"You can't do that on the road in front of this type of crowd," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt of fans thrilled to just have football back in town, let alone an undefeated team. "We played into their hands."
Erik Kramer completed 27 of 38 passes for 317 yards and became the first Bear to throw four touchdown passes in a game since Jack Concannon did it against Green Bay in 1970. But that's where the identity problem arises.
This Bears team is one that has flip-flopped the tradition of run first, pass second. Passing the ball has become primary, supported by the run. But the Bears haven't proved they can win by this new method of emphasis on the airwaves--not consistently, anyway.
Rashaan Salaam is part of the reason for the shuffled balance on offense. The rookie is learning on the job and, as seen from his 40 yards on 16 carries against the Rams, Salaam is not ready to have the burden of emphasis placed on his shoulders.
"We have to keep pounding it with him," Wannstedt said of a Heisman Trophy winner whose fumble Sunday was his second this season and more mental baggage for the youngster to haul. "His attitude is good and he's willing."
But until Salaam has matured, you can expect to see more of Kramer to Jeff Graham and Curtis Conway, whether the Bears are down 10-0--which was the case Sunday after Kramer and Salaam fumbles were converted into quick points--or ahead by a slim margin.
"In this league, things change," said Graham, whose 47-yard scoring catch with 12 minutes 59 seconds left pulled the Bears within 31-28. "I'm not saying the passing game is overwhelming the running game, but in the course of a game one might not be clicking."
No one wants to admit running has been shoved to the back seat. But the Bears have eight touchdowns via passing and four by running this season.
The Bears also died by the pass Sunday. On their final play from scrimmage, facing a fourth-and-8 situation on their own 49, the Bears went with a play suggested by Kramer. Questions arose, however, once Conway ran a 6-yard route, caught the pass and was tackled. The Bears were done for the day.
"That's the play," Conway said. "I'm supposed to be able to turn and run it and get the first down. That's the right route."
"In hindsight, maybe I should have stuck with the crossing route," Kramer said of the original call suggested on the sideline. "They were working all day. A lot of things were."
Kramer's only slip occurred on the second play of the game. After completing a 49-yard pass to Graham, he was going to hand off on the next play to Salaam. Instead, the ball fell from his grasp as he went back toward the running back.
Kramer attempted to salvage some yards by trying to scoop the ball on the run, but he overran it and Toby Wright carried the fumble recovery 73 yards for a score.
Salaam fumbled on the Bears' next possession. That time, the Rams settled for a 45-yard field goal by Steve McLaughlin.
McLaughlin added a 25-yarder with 2:42 left, in contrast to Bears rookie kicker Todd Sauerbrun, who failed to back the Rams into poor field position. "The kicking game killed us," Wannstedt said. "We didn't back them up once."
The second quarter belonged to the Bears. Kramer threw for three of his TD passes then--15 yards to tight end Keith Jennings, 20 yards to Conway and 12 yards to Michael Timpson.
By halftime, the Bears were ahead 21-17. By the end of the third quarter, they were down 31-21.
"The Rams came out and started bouncing Jerome Bettis to the outside, getting him the perimeter," Bears linebacker Vinson Smith explained. "They started using Bettis' size against our defensive secondary. That's a tough matchup for a defensive back."
Especially when Mark Carrier, one of the safeties, played at far less than 100 percent with a sprained knee that kept him from practicing last week.
Rams quarterback Chris Miller left with a concussion early in the fourth quarter, but Mark Rypien was required to do very little in relief. The Bears allowed the Rams to control the ball for 10:17 of the final period.
"Bottom lime," safety Marty Carter said, "is that they dictated instead of us."
But all was not lost.
"Yeah, we lost the game, but there's reason to be optimistic," Kramer said. "We gave them some gifts and, in the long run, that's not going to happen."
However, the Bears can't keep looking a gift horse in the mouth.
"We could have taken a step," Wannstedt said of falling to 2-2, "and instead we're in the middle of the pack."
The Bears now have to decide how they can break away from the middle ground. And how passing first, running second can get them where they want to go.