It's safe to say that Erik Kramer has never been more appreciated.

Kramer, who last year at this time was getting booed for his part in the Bears' quarterback duel with Steve Walsh, looked positively resplendent in a rain poncho Saturday night.

Actually, everyone on the Bears' sideline had that advantage as their active teammates looked rather sickly by comparison in the preseason opener, succumbing to the Carolina Panthers 30-12.

A crowd of 65,350 christened Ericsson Stadium in its inaugural game. The Panthers made the night positively festive.

Negatives for the Bears included seven sacks for an offensive line that allowed 15 all of last season, missed opportunities on defense, some general preseason-type sloppiness in the form of nine penalties for 55 yards and two turnovers leading to touchdowns.

Nevertheless, Bears coach Dave Wannstedt put a positive spin on the evening, based primarily on a first half in which his first-team defense was effective, holding the Panthers to one touchdown.

"If you look at our team, you say, `Do they look like they're better rushing the passer on third down?' Yes. `Do we have a couple cover guys?' I'd say yes. . . .

"I was real happy with our first-team defense. That's probably as well as a group that they've played in three or four years from a run standpoint and a third-down conversion standpoint."

Middle linebacker Bryan Cox, playing his first game as a Bear, made his presence known with consistent pursuit and a near interception. Rookie cornerback Walt Harris was also impressive in his debut. But three near interceptions by the Bears did little to hearten Cox.

"We had some situations in the first half where we didn't finish plays," he said. "But again, the thing we wanted to work on was being aggressive against the run and perform well on third down, and we did that."

Offensively, however, it was painfully obvious that the Bears will be in trouble should Kramer, who played every down last season, go down. He didn't play to protect his hamstring, which kept him out of training camp workouts until last week.

"Our passing game in general was the thing that was disappointing, and obviously, we need Erik in there," Wannstedt said. "We're not going to stick our heads in the sand. We have to be better than that."

Krieg, who led all quarterbacks last season in number of times sacked with 53 for 380 yards, was downed twice behind the line in the first quarter. In between Krieg also had one fumble, which he recovered for a 1-yard loss.

But Krieg's most glaring transgression was an interception on a first-and-10 pass from the Bears' 18, returned for a touchdown by cornerback Eric Davis at 6:49 of the first quarter, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead.

"I'm disappointed," said Krieg, who finished 5 of 10 for 34 yards. "I'd like to show these guys that I'm capable of playing."

The placekicking duel between incumbent Kevin Butler and Carlos Huerta came down to one field goal apiece--a 44-yarder for Butler at 2:31 of the second quarter and a 24-yarder by Huerta as time expired in the first half, leaving the score at 7-6, Carolina.

Stenstrom replaced Krieg late in the first half and engineered the only three Bears scoring drives. He was 12 of 18 for 104 yards and a touchdown, despite being sacked five times for 33 yards.

The lone bright spot early was the punting of Todd Sauerbrun, who averaged 48 yards on six kicks.