Guess what? QB's spot is wide open

No longer does it matter how the Bears' quarterback competition is defined or where its genesis can be traced. For the first time since Rick Mirer was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks last winter, all the principals involved are acknowledging it. More importantly, after Sunday night's 21-14 exhibition loss to the Miami Dolphins, it is as interesting as ever.

With three weeks remaining before the Sept. 1 season opener against the Green Bay Packers, Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said he has not decided who will be his starting quarterback. His actions Sunday reflected a more serious commitment to Erik Kramer.

For the first time this preseason, Wannstedt gave Kramer the chance to play behind the first-team offensive line, and the result was a solid performance. Kramer threw no touchdown passes, but he was 8 of 12 for 70 yards and wasn't intercepted.

"I'm going out there to try to prove myself all the time," Kramer said. "The fact that they're considering making it a quarterback competition like this, all the better."

At the same time, Mirer took his most definitive step forward, completing 9 of 12 passes for 69 yards and one touchdown--he threw one interception--and he acted somewhat surprised when asked who would be the starter Sept. 1.

"I have every indcation to believe I will," he said. "But that's a couple more weeks away. I'm just trying to make progress doing the best I can. . . . That's a decision for someone else."

Wannstedt said he has "no timetable." But clearly, he has plenty to consider.

"Both played well enough tonight to where there will be a lot of different opinions," Wannstedt said. "But I was encouraged. Both guys moved the ball, both guys made plays. Erik's pluses right now, making decisions and getting the ball up and getting rid of it, showed up. And Rick's athletic ability showed up on a couple of scrambles. . . . That's something he brings to the table that Erik doesn't, so it was good."

Also positive was an improved ground game led by Rashaan Salaam's 10 rushes for 58 yards, better protection by the first-team offensive line and a defense that held the Dolphins to 28 yards rushing in the first half and put consistent pressure on quarterback Dan Marino.

Serious deficiencies remain with the Bears' depth, particularly on the offensive line, and a penchant for costly penalties. "As far as our first group, I was real happy with the way we played," Wannstedt said. "We ran the ball, we stopped the run, we made some plays. Our second group was a disappointment."

The Bears had an inauspicious start before 57,782 at Pro Player Park with an interception of Mirer--off a deflection from Tyrone Hughes--leading to a Miami touchdown on the opening drive.

But Mirer made amends quickly on the next series, which included a 16-yard scramble up the middle and a 17-yard pass to Curtis Conway to the Dolphins' 27.

Mirer completed the 10-play, 80-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown strike to Keith Jennings for the tight end's first reception of the preseason.

Oddly, Mirer was replaced by Kramer on the Bears' next possession, then reinserted in the third quarter, leaving the game early in the fourth. "The plan coming in was that we wanted to get Erik some work with the first group," Wannstedt said.

The first Kramer-led drive went 69 yards, including a 15-yard completion to Bobby Engram and a 23-yard run by Salaam, before stalling on fourth and 2 at the Miami 11 on a dropped short pass to Conway.

Kramer waited too long to get the ball to an open Jennings in the end zone on the next Bears possession. But Raymont Harris went over the top for the touchdown and the 14-7 lead.

Mirer returned for the Bears' first possession of the second half behind a second-string line that committed some of the same errors that so infuriated Kramer in the first two games of the preseason. Still, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh called Sunday's game "by far the best (Mirer) has played." And even Mirer seemed accepting of his competition.

"Everybody is trying to get ready," he said. "It's only fair."