This is not the quarterback controversy anyone had in mind, but the Bears just backed themselves into a three-way debate involving youth, experience and a guy in street clothes who nurses a sore hamstring and is looking better and better all the time.
Cade McNown, Jim Miller or a still-gimpy Shane Matthews? That will be the decision facing Bears coach Dick Jauron this week in the wake of his team's dismal 6-3 loss Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccanneers.
By pulling McNown late in the third quarter for Miller, Jauron admitted for the first time that his rookie was not ready to lead the Bears to a victory.
"The way the game was going," Jauron said, "I thought it would give us the best chance with Jim on the field."
In fact, trailing just 6-0 at the half and with the defense hunkering down for its second straight second-half shutout, the Bears looked like they had no chance with McNown, starting the second game of his pro career.
Under McNown's leadership, the Bears got only as far as the Bucs' 28-yard line, and that third-quarter possession ended with an interception. It turned out to be McNown's last play. Only two of McNown's eight possessions lasted more than five plays.
He left having completed 9 of 23 passes for 82 yards and thrown one interception, but with a bravado that he would be just fine.
"I think I did some good things. I don't think they're saying this guy is not going to get it done," McNown said of the coaches' decision. "They had a choice, and they made a choice they have to live with and I have to live with. They're trying to win a game, and I can't dispute that."
Miller, a six-year veteran who spent the final four games of last season as the Bears' backup, made his first appearance with the team in a game with 3 minutes 21 seconds left in the third quarter and moved them into field-goal range on two of his first three series--kicker Chris Boniol was wide left from 44 yards and good from 28.
But six plays into the final series and with 45 seconds left in regulation, Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks picked off his second pass of the day, intercepting Miller at midfield to seal his team's victory.
Afterward, Bears players praised Miller.
"He came in, looked us right in the eye and made us competitive," said offensive guard Chris Villarrial. "He was excited, he yelled at us. It makes a world of difference, it really does."
Jauron said he would not address the issue of who will start at quarterback next Sunday in Washington until at least Wednesday, when he sees if Matthews, who missed his second straight game and has not yet tried running, can practice.
"I have so much confidence in Cade," Jauron said. "I think he has a great future."
But the bigger picture shows a 3-4 Bears team that is facing four more road games in its next five outings and is starting to fray at the edges--a once-potent offense souring, a special-teams unit showing some real vulnerabilities and a stubborn defense becoming more and more frustrated.
Playing without injured starting middle linebacker Sean Harris, the Bears' defense once again did what it had to do, keeping a potent running game and the powerful Mike Alstott under control and generally enjoying the fact that veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer looked just as bad as his rookie opponent.
On offense, the Bears were missing injured starting wide receiver Curtis Conway.
"We did quite a few things we wanted to do as a defense," said tackle Mike Wells. "We didn't score, though. We did everything we wanted to do but win."
It was, to say the least, an unsightly game from most angles. The Bears converted just 6 of 18 first-down opportunities, the Bucs just 3 of 14.
"They gave us enough points to win the game, and that's all that counts," said Bucs tackle Warren Sapp, whose team raised its record to 3-3 after consecutive losses to Green Bay and Minnesota. "I'll take an ugly win compared to a pretty loss."
Rookie kicker Martin Gramatica converted his 10th straight field goal this season with his 49-yarder on the Bucs' first possession to give Tampa Bay an early 3-0 lead, and connected from 34 yards in the second quarter to make it 6-0. But in between the two, his bid for an NFL rookie record of 11 straight without a miss failed when he hit the upright with a 43-yard attempt. He also missed from 39 in the third quarter.
Bears punter Todd Sauerbrun, meanwhile, had his troubles, giving the Bucs good field position from his opening line-drive kickoff, to his first punt, a 13-yarder considerably short of the coffin corner, to a 24- and 34-yarder, to two touchbacks.
Perhaps from overuse--Sauerbrun punted six times in the first half--things went from bad to worse as he aggravated a left shoulder injury on a 59-yard punt that outdistanced the coverage and was returned 31 yards.
"It was all me," said Sauerbrun, dismissing his injury. "I was awful. I tried placing it in the beginning, and it didn't work out for me, so then I just decided it would just be bombs away after that. It was just a (bad) day."
A bad day that left offensive players beating themselves up for not supporting their defense--the Bears rushed for just 86 yards--and their defense trying hard not to appear resentful.
"Once again our defense played a (great) game, and we didn't," said offensive tackle James Williams. "We scored three points. I still can't believe it."
"We can all play better," said defensive end Clyde Simmons. "We could have forced turnovers and given the offense easier opportunities to score so they don't have to drive the length of the field every time.
"This is a team, and we're not going to point fingers. What we have to do is play better as a team."
Who will lead the team is the question.
"It shouldn't matter who's back there," Villarrial said.
Not if they can't score, it doesn't.
"It's definitely a painful loss for our football team," Jauron said. "When you hold an opponent to six points, you've got to win the game."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times