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'A sour feeling in our guts'
They never said what would happen if they lost.
A victory Sunday over Tampa Bay, the Bears readily admitted all week, was essential. It would serve to carry them into a productive off-season, and give them optimism as well as a .500 record. It would infuse a feeling of respectability after a year they would otherwise just as soon forget.
Not a word about the consequences of losing to the perennial last-place team in the division. Or of extending their regular-season road losing streak in December and January to an NFL-record 18 games and finishing the season with a 1-7 road mark and 7-9 overall.
A 31-7 deficit at halftime? A 34-19 loss? Or even worse yet, another major injury to a key player, this time the ruptured Achilles' tendon of defensive tackle Jim Flanigan?
Maybe it was simply unthinkable.
Now, that's all they'll have to think about.
"This is going to leave us with a sour feeling in our guts and we have to deal with it for the next six months," said offensive guard Todd Perry. "It's going to be a long off-season."
It may seem that much longer after a game that was essentially decided in a matter of seconds.
"A couple of plays turned this thing around as it does every week," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt, effectively, though predictably, reducing a nightmare to a nap.
It was, however, almost that simple as a 7-0 Bears lead--
achieved on a nine-play, 68-yard opening drive and a 1-yard touchdown run by Raymont Harris--was wiped out by one honest drive by the Bucs and a couple of freebies.
"It was one of those Murphy's Law days," said defensive tackle Carl Simpson. "Anything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. We just had a bad day, a terrible day."
Dave Krieg started the ball rolling, literally, on the Bears' second possession of the game with a fumble on their own 4-yard line. The Bucs recovered, and two plays later, Errict Rhett plunged over from the 3 to give them their first lead--one they never gave up.
Just to make sure they would thoroughly sabotage themselves, however, the Bears followed a backward drive on their next possession with a silly penalty on a punt, when James Burton was flagged for illegally downing the ball after running out of bounds.
The subsequent punt resulted in an 88-yard touchdown by Karl Williams, the longest punt return in Tampa Bay history.
The now high-flying Bucs scored twice more before the half ended, tying a franchise record for most points in the half with 31, and even more embarrassing for the Bears, marking the first time in their previous 35 games that they had scored more than 24 points.
Easy to write off the loss as two play gone awry? Perhaps. That's what Alonzo Spellman and others did, with Spellman going so far as to predict two Bears victories over Tampa Bay next season. "All I know is that team is awful," he said. "They know it, we know it. It was a fluke."
Just the same, the Bears put themselves in lousy field position all day, committed 12 penalties for 75 yards (three, incidentally, by Spellman) and had two turnovers while the Bucs had none. Behind 21-7, they couldn't hope to catch up considering their passing liabilities and loss of spirit, much less down 34-7.
All of which annoyed veteran linebacker Joe Cain to no end. "Things like today are not supposed to happen," he said. "You're supposed to have enough pride to go out and finish the task at hand. And that's what Tampa did and that's what we did not do. So yeah, I give them credit, because they came out and finished the job."
The Bucs (6-10) finished with just 181 yards in total offense, enough to leave the Bears with some measure of pride. But that and two late scoring drives engineered by Shane Matthews in the final 2 minutes 14 seconds were window dressing at best.
"It wasn't a lack of effort from our guys," said Wannstedt. "We just weren't as sharp as we want."
Now an even 32-32 after four seasons, Wannstedt tried his best to stay upbeat, writing off the '96 campaign by pointing out the obvious--that the Bears lost 30 players at various times to injury, including his starting quarterback, a star middle linebacker, most of his running backs and all of his tight ends, and started 37 different players.
"It's been frustrating," he said. "There are some things you can control and some things obviously you can't, and you just try to overcome it and we just ran out of games to play."
Just the same, Sunday's finale left a lingering feeling of doubt in the visitors' dressing room that was uneasy and disquieting and not, under the circumstances, unexpected.
"The sad part," said Cain, "is we had some progress the past few weeks. Then something like today happens and it makes you question what's going to take place in the future when we have a big game or we play a team we're supposed to beat and everyone falls into a comfort zone. So it makes you worry about the future.
"You can't help but wonder what's going to happen."