It wasn't supposed to happen this way. If they were not yet a team destined for greatness, they weren't awful either. Didn't they make the playoffs the previous season? Weren't they confident in their running game? Excited about their defensive potential?

After a promising start, wasn't a division title a reasonable goal?

But the losses kept coming. And coming. Often by close margins. Game efforts, usually. Just dumb mistakes, a different excuse every week and a black hole the 1978 Bears could not seem to climb out of as they suffered a franchise-record eight consecutive defeats.

As the 2002 Bears try to avoid matching that mark for futility Monday night in St. Louis, they may be struck by some of the similarities. They may also be heartened to know that the '78 Bears, in Neill Armstrong's first season as coach, halted the streak with four victories in their final five games and went back to the playoffs the next season after a 10-6 campaign.

We won't talk about the four seasons after that.

"I saw that New England game last week and it actually made me think of '78," said Armstrong, now retired and living in Texas. "I just hated to see that. Once we got into that losing streak, it was just so hard to climb out of.

"I don't know what it is that happens. Sometimes it only takes one or two plays. It's hard to explain. I don't know if there were sports psychologists at the time, but we could have used one."

The '78 Bears lost a Monday night game to Denver (Loss No. 4) in part because of controversial penalties. An overtime loss (No. 2) to Oakland was the result of a late-game breakdown. Still another (No. 5), to Tampa Bay, could be indirectly attributed to Walter Payton's dog, who on Thursday of that week took a small chunk from the backside of punter Bob Parsons, who then dropped a snap from center late in Sunday's game.

OK, so maybe it's not the ideal comparison to Bryan Robinson's infamous pooch, whom the defensive end accused of tripping him and causing him to fall and break both his wrists during the off-season.

That may or may not have been a factor in Robinson's ill-fated decision not to fall down with the ball he thought he had intercepted in the fourth quarter Sunday against New England.

But maybe some of the following will sound familiar.

Fans disgruntled

Many, including quarterback Bob Avellini, believed the team had overachieved in '77, Jack Pardee's final season before he bolted for Washington. In '78 the Bears' reserved new coach, Armstrong, and his offensive coordinator, Ken Meyer, were criticized for their ultraconservative offense and for playing not to lose, while the defense, under colorful coordinator Buddy Ryan, alternated between great and terrible.

The Bears used two quarterbacks, Avellini and Mike Phipps, neither of whom was a fan favorite. They also seemed to find every conceivable way to lose, once on an illegal spike.

In a 31-29 loss to the Jim Zorn-led Seattle Seahawks (No. 7), Bears tackle Lionel Antoine tapped Seahawks linebacker Terry Beeson on the shoulder to get his attention while Beeson was protesting a Roland Harper touchdown scored with 35 seconds to play. Antoine then spiked the ball at Beeson's feet.

It was the first year the taunting rule was in effect and the Bears were hit with a 15-yard penalty, which pushed back the ensuing kickoff, an onside kick by Bob Thomas, which the Bears recovered. When Phipps' pass to Golden Richards was intercepted to end the game three plays later, the line of scrimmage was the Seahawks' 46. Without the 15-yard penalty, plus another 5-yarder for illegal formation on first down, a makable game-tying field goal could have been the scenario.

None of the Bears except Payton seemed aware of the new taunting rule.

"Yes, I spiked it in his face on purpose," Antoine said. "I was excited because we were back in the ballgame. They add rules and don't tell you about them. What are they trying to do, take emotion out of the ballgame?"

Not in Chicago, they didn't. In 1978 the Bears' general manager was featured each Monday on "The Jim Finks Weekly News Conference," a radio call-in show on WBBM-AM.