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If the Bears have not exactly embraced their fate as participants in one of the worst football seasons in their history, they have now, it seems, accepted it.
With an odd sense of detachment at 1-10, they numbly go through the motions of analyzing each defeat with a burgeoning inferiority complex that linebacker Bryan Cox and a growing number of his teammates and coaches call simple common sense.
"Sometimes you just have to face reality," Cox said after the Bears' 23-15 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday at a desolate Soldier Field made bleaker by 21,302 no-shows.
"Why get mad? Why throw your helmet? Why go crazy? We're fighting and playing almost as good as we can play. We're making costly penalties and turning the ball over, but we're just not that good. Why don't people understand that? That's not degrading ourselves; it's just saying we need to upgrade ourselves."
Fellow linebacker Ron Cox calmly expressed the same sentiments.
"We just have to have better athletes," he said. "If that's at linebacker, that's fine, they have to find more linebackers. But we need better players at certain positions."
And even from Dave Wannstedt, his expression a frozen reflection of the chilling temperatures and the even colder reaction of bitter Bears fans. From the coach there was a certain--no pun intended--resignation to it all after losing to a team that was 1-15 a year ago but now leads the AFC East at 7-4.
"We are just not a good enough football team," Wannstedt said in explaining the odds against coming from behind in a game in which 20 of the Jets' 23 points were the direct result of four of his club's five turnovers, all coming in the first half.
As a result, much of the Bears' game plan was tossed, including the use of second-string quarterback Steve Stenstrom, who threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown and lasted all of two series in the second quarter.
"We'll give him another opportunity," Wannstedt said, "but when and how is something we'll have to talk about."
And then there was Erik Kramer, whose three interceptions and fumble led to two field goals and a touchdown, forcing him not to just throw more but to throw a franchise-record 60 passes. His 32 completions were one short of a franchise best, and his 354 yards were a career high. But his two touchdown passes--a 4-yarder to Chris Penn midway though the third quarter and a 5-yarder to Ricky Proehl with 30 seconds left in the game--were hardly consequential.
Two fluke misses by previously perfect field-goal kicker Jeff Jaeger--from 34 yards on an interesting second-and-10 decision late in the first half, and from 32 yards early in the fourth quarter--only made Wannstedt think it could have been closer than it was.
Meanwhile, the Bears' running game, reliant in part on rookie Darnell Autry's first NFL start (for the injured Raymont Harris), was practically non-existent with 12 yards in the first half and 49 for the game.
"If we're not running the football," Wannstedt said, "we are going to have problems against anybody."
Throw in the fact that Curtis Conway and Bobby Engram were also sidelined by injuries--Conway for the second week in a row--and the Bears were obviously handicapped. At least one and possibly two of Kramer's interceptions were caused by Penn's inability to handle catchable passes.
"We had some tipped balls, missed assignments, missed blocks and not very good production, and we owe it to ourselves to own up to it," Kramer said. "As a member of this team, it frustrates me to have to keep seeing these things we're doing."
There were bright spots, and in a game devoid of much offensive prowess on either side, they were on defense. In the Bears' case, the defense could hardly be held responsible for this latest debacle.
From 5 minutes 27 seconds of the second quarter, the Bears held the Jets scoreless, limiting them to two first downs in the second half and 45 net yards--16 yards passing by onetime-franchise player Neil O'Donnell, who replaced the injured Glenn Foley in the second quarter.
By then, however, the Bears were, once again, already beaten. And a season's worth of halftime pep talks could not hold it off.
"It's like when a lion grabs a wildebeest," Ron Cox said. "The first thing a wildebeest is going to do is drop its head. There were times today where I saw people drop their heads. We can't do that. I'd rather lose every game fighting and have my pride than drop my head. Certain times, you see people going, `Oh, here we go again.' Those times happen, but you've got to find a way to hope."
With five long weeks remaining in the season, it certainly won't be easy.
"If people around here like their jobs, they're going to have to go out fighting," tight end Keith Jennings said. "It could be really simple (for management) if we don't."
The message seems to have come across as several Bears spoke of an impending fire sale.
"Every time we step on that field, we're not only playing for the Chicago Bears but for the 29 other teams that watch us play every game," said defensive end Mark Thomas, who is playing with his third team and knows whereof he speaks. " . . . If you don't get the job done, you will be unemployed."
And with a sense of inevitability, this is how the Bears proceed.
"We have to try to win, if only to try to make things better for next season," tackle James Williams said. "But let's face it. Even if we win the last five, it will still be a big rebuilding process next year."