EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Unofficially, the 2000 Bears season expired when still another Shane Matthews pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage Sunday, this one on fourth-and-3 with 1 minute 40 seconds remaining.
But this was a game and a season that died many deaths. It was simply the ninth defeat, a 17-10 wet rag of a loss to the New York Jets on a dismal New Jersey afternoon that sealed the deal.
There were also the three fumbles by Bears running back James Allen, two leading to 10 first-half points for the Jets, not to mention killing two promising drives and Allen's own momentum.
And then there was the big-picture explanation offered by Phillip Daniels: "If we had four, five maybe six wins early, it's a different story now."
Sunday's loss assured the Bears of their fifth straight losing season, their seventh in the last nine, and mathematically eliminates them from playoff contention.
"The light just got dim," said defensive end Bryan Robinson of a scenario that has seemed remote for most of the season.
In reality, the season began to crumble with a 20-9 lead in a season-opening loss in Minnesota as much as it ended Sunday. It cracked on a sticky day and a 41-0 shutout in Tampa a week later and a 31-10 humiliation by New Orleans weeks after that. It died with Cade McNown's struggles, Curtis Enis' frustrations and Jim Miller's torn Achilles' tendon.
If anything, as a pelting rain Sunday washed away the final remnants of hope for a miracle postseason berth, there seemed to be some relief that a new, more realistic focus could begin.
"Now we're spoilers, we're going to be spoilers," said offensive tackle James Williams. "We're going to kick everybody's [butt] that we can and make it as rough for them to get to the playoffs as we can. It's not OK, but that's how it has to go now. It will make me feel better winning a game and ruining someone else's chances than it would just winning a game and trying to do better than we did last year."
That familiar refrain was not being heard going into Sunday, considering that Jets running back Curtis Martin was ailing, the Bears defense had been on a roll and the team was riding as high as a 3-8 team could ride with two victories in its previous three games.
And indeed, the Jets appeared eminently beatable with no first downs on three of their first four possessions and the Bears hurting themselves rather than New York inflicting the damage.
After holding the Jets to a 20-yard field goal in the second quarter following Allen's second fumble, this one at the Bears' 35-yard line, and New York first downs on the 13 and again at the 2, the visitors had to feel relatively good about themselves.
At least the Bears' defense had to feel pretty good. The offense, lurching through its 12th straight quarter without a touchdown, had little reason to be encouraged. And when former Bear Shane Burton batted down a Matthews pass on fourth-and-6 from the Jets' 35 late in the second quarter, it was evident that another Jets' score--which they would get on the next series--would make it very difficult for the Bears to survive.
Through three quarters, Matthews was 5-of-17 passing for 22 yards, the lone Bears score coming on a 39-yard field goal by Paul Edinger, set up by a deflected pass by Clyde Simmons and interception and 21-yard return by Mike Wells.
"When they only rush three guys and drop eight into coverage, there aren't a lot of passing lanes there, and when I had them, I just didn't hit the guy," Matthews said.
No question, the best Matthews looked was on the Bears' first touchdown drive in 14 quarters, an eight-play, 64-yard no-huddle march that culminated with a 6-yard pass to Marty Booker with 5:14 left to close the gap to 17-10.
The next time the Bears got the ball back, only 2:04 remained and Matthews completed only one of four passes.
The irony was that while Matthews sputtered and Allen fumbled, the running game was going well. Allen, whose fumbles were the first in his career, had 75 yards rushing in the first half alone, breaking the 100-yard mark for only the second time in his career early in the second half.
But after his third fumble midway through the third quarter, a shaken and frustrated Allen was banished temporarily to the sideline, replaced for three series by Marlon Barnes. "You can't go out there and turn the ball over and expect to keep playing," said Allen, who finished with 122 yards on 25 carries. "Somebody else has to come in and help the team. They took me out, and that was a good move."
Bears coach Dick Jauron offered possible alibis for Allen from fatigue to two injured hands--one of which took three stitches to close a wound between his right index and middle finger last week--and Jets players acknowledged going for Allen's hands. "The only thing I said to him was, `You can't drop the ball. You're not going to win football games with the ball on the ground,'" Jauron said. "Then as soon as you say that to a player like that, you tell him to keep his head up and he'll have other opportunities, but he's got to hold onto the football."
While he composed himself, Allen received a face guard-to-face guard pep talk from Williams. "I told him that every good running back has gone through this, Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, you name them," Williams said. "It was his turn. Unfortunately, it came at a bad time, but he'll bounce back from it, it will make him think about it a little more and next week, he'll be back to the same old James Allen. Next week, he'll get 125 yards with no fumbles."
Next week against the Packers, the Bears may well be led by McNown, Sunday's No. 3 quarterback who missed his fourth start while recovering from a shoulder injury.
Either way, said Wells, it will be the "same philosophy" for the final four games. "We're going to press on and try to beat people up if not win every game we go out there," he said. "Just try to be a physical team and set the tone for whatever's going to happen next year."