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Bears suffer double disaster
On a bad day turned horribly worse, the Bears lost a football game, then were stunned by the news late Sunday that running back Curtis Enis is out for the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.
The news was particularly shocking because Enis walked off the field late in the third quarter of the Bears' eventual 20-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams at Soldier Field. He is set to undergo reconstructive surgery in the next three to four weeks, and his rehabilitation is projected to take seven to 10 months.
Until the Enis news, the Bears' biggest loss appeared to be their credibility.
They had convinced themselves they were better than this. Better than five losses. Better than mediocre. Surely better than the Rams.
Playing without starting quarterback Erik Kramer wasn't supposed to matter to the Bears. Surely a team that had won three of its last four should defeat the Rams, a team in disarray, who came in with only two wins.
Instead, the Bears regressed to 3-6, to an inferiority complex that makes the path back to respectability seem decidedly uphill.
"We've got to win home games, and we've got to win the games we should win," defensive tackle Jim Flanigan said. "To lose one like this just puts us further in the hole. There was so much enthusiasm going into this game, and now we're kind of back to square one."
With an array of penalties, missed opportunities and an absent pass rush, the Bears continued looking back after taking their only lead on the first series of the game.
"You seen it," coach Dave Wannstedt offered in his opening words of explanation.
Actually, 16,681 ticket-holders chose to avoid the damp and dreary atmosphere of the real thing. And even those who "seen" it would be hard-pressed to explain how the most talented player on the team could drop one touchdown pass and overthrow another. How the Bears could throw away a first down at the Rams' 10 with 1:11 left by having Steve Stenstrom spike the ball to stop the clock.
"Write what you want," Wannstedt later told a pesky reporter looking to assess blame for the Bears' sloppiness.
Yes, Kramer was sidelined with a strained rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. But Stenstrom wasn't responsible for ne'er-do-well Rams quarterback Tony Banks looking like Steve Young in his season's best performance (24 of 31 for 202 yards and a TD with no sacks or interceptions).
In their first eight games, the Rams had not made a first down on their first possession. But after the Bears marched 70 yards on 12 plays to score on a Stenstrom-to-Curtis Conway 4-yard TD pass that was easily their best moment of the afternoon, the Rams seized momentum and kept it.
A 13-play, 70-yard drive ended with a 3-yard scoring pass to ex-Bear Ricky Proehl, who had eight catches for 99 yards overall. That tied the score and set a tone.
"I think if we would have come out and been a little stronger right there, that might have changed the game," Bears linebacker Barry Minter said.
After starting running back Jerald Moore left the game with a concussion late in the first quarter, the Rams got little relief from former Illini star Robert Holcombe. But it hardly mattered. Camping in the pocket, Banks had all day to run a dink-and-dunk passing game to perfection, piling up first downs and generally shaking off the Rams' bevy of penalties (11 for 82 yards).
Stenstrom, sacked four times and under pressure all day, completed his first nine passes, then just six of his next 16 as the Bears sabotaged themselves.
This was never more evident than on their second possession of the second half when Conway dropped a pretty pass in the end zone after being held by Rams cornerback Dexter McCleon. The Bears settled for a 31-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal to draw within seven.
"Whether you're held or not, if you have a chance to catch the ball in the end zone, that should be money in the bank," Conway said. "It was just ridiculous."
It got worse.
The Rams went up 20-10 early in the fourth on Jeff Wilkins' 33-yard field goal, which capped a drive helped along by a pass-interference call against Bears nickel back Randy Hilliard on third and 20 from the Bears' 32. Three series later, with time winding down and the crowd growing thinner, Conway overthrew a wide-open Bobby Engram on an end-around pass that surely would have gone for a touchdown.
Conway couldn't complete a terrific diving catch near the Rams' 40 on the preceding series and was devastated afterward.
"That just shows you the type of game I played today, and it was terrible," he said. "It's totally unacceptable, and I definitely have to get better and do the things I need to do to play like I'm capable of playing."
The Bears got a break when rookie Tony Parrish was credited with a fumble recovery, though he didn't appear to have possession when the ball dribbled out of bounds at the St. Louis 35. But with just under four minutes left, safety Keith Lyle intercepted Stenstrom's pass deep in Rams territory.
The Rams couldn't move, and a holding penalty in the end zone on Rick Tuten's punt resulted in a safety, drawing the Bears to within eight and giving them a final chance to tie it and two minutes with which to work. But after a 48-yard completion to Engram and an 11-yard run by Edgar Bennett set them up with a first down at the Rams' 9 with 1:11 remaining, the Bears fizzled.
In succession, Stenstrom spiked the ball to stop the clock, then misfired on three straight passes, the last intended for Chris Penn in the end zone.
"This takes us back to reality," Wannstedt said. "It takes us back to the drawing board. And hopefully it makes us realize that if we give up a 50-yard pass-interference penalty and we have a chance to make a touchdown catch, we better make it because there are very few teams in this league that are good enough to overcome that."