By Melissa Isaacson
Tribune staff reporter
November 29, 1998
No, the full force of Wannstedt's agony had to be in watching his team play football the last four minutes of the first half. For this is when the Bears defined themselves, in total team splendor, as neither unlucky nor inconsistent nor any other of the semi-flattering labels conveniently tossed around this season.
With a 14-7 lead, the Bears displayed in succinct and convincing fashion why they are 3-9. And why things are not likely to get any better.
The sequence of events--coming in a blur of penalty flags, missed tackles, blown blocks, bad passes and finally, just plain dumb football--left the Bears in the proverbial dust on a warm, damp afternoon at Soldier Field, again sending the assembled home with a scowl.
In order, a blown Bears block allowed Tampa's Jeff Gooch to tip a punt by Mike Horan, which was recovered by Ronde Barber, who then pranced 23 yards past several stricken and surprised-looking Bears for the touchdown.
A wild snap on the point-after kick followed, but was nullified by a Bears offside penalty.
After the ensuing kickoff, a holding call on the Bears followed by a false start pushed them back to a first-and-16 on their 3-yard-line. Two consecutive pass attempts of 40 and 45 yards by Moreno to Bobby Engram were incomplete, and a poor punt by Horan into the wind left the Bucs on the Bears' 33.
The Bucs fumbled on their next possession, but with 40 seconds left in the half, the Bears went three-and-out in a total of 15 seconds and left the Bucs with one more, seemingly remote, chance to score.
Eight seconds were on the clock when Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer let the ball fly into the middle of a mob at the Bears' 4, and as is supposed to happen in such situations, the pass was incomplete as time expired. Except that demoted end John Thierry, part of the Bears' standard three-man rush, inexplicably jumped offside, giving the Bucs another chance.
Thierry explained later that he was simply "trying to make something happen." That he did.
This time Dilfer easily escaped the pocket, and as he would all day, had plenty of time to wind up. And this time, the ball found depth-chart bottom-feeder Brice Hunter, who had gone out of bounds and back in again to cradle the touchdown that put the Bucs ahead 21-14.
Hunter was eligible, officials said, because the ball was first touched by someone else. He was available because Bears nickel back Marlon Forbes admitted he disregarded Hunter.
"I saw him reach for the ball, but I didn't think it was a legal catch if he goes out of bounds," Forbes said. "Some people say if the ball gets tipped, you can come back in. That's still news to me, either way.
"It's a Hail Mary, it's a prayer is what it is, and sometimes prayers get answered. They call it a Hail Mary for specifically that reason. Nine times out of 10 they don't get that. That's Bears football '98 is what it really amounts to."
No, no, no. That's bad football. Bad, bad football. OK, maybe it is Bears football.
"Yeah, it was a horrible play, but it would be worse if we had stopped playing and our guys didn't quit," said safety Marty Carter.
No, they didn't quit. They continued to play bad football, turning the ball over on a Robert Chancey fumble early in the third quarter--their league-high 19th of the season--which led directly to another Bucs touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Dilfer to Reidel Anthony.
At this point, two fumbles, a tipped punt and a Hail Mary accounted for the four Tampa Bay scores. The 5-7 Bucs rounded out the day with a mundane 28-yard field goal by Michael Husted to end a drive that began at the Bears' 30 following a 31-yard punt by Horan and a 17-yard return by Jacquez Green.
Out of Tampa Bay's 15 offensive drives, seven started in Bears territory. The Bucs' average starting field position was at their own 46.
The Bears, meanwhile, had to rely on trickery for their first touchdown--an 18-yard shovel pass from Horan to Ryan Wetnight on a fake field goal early in the second quarter. It was only possible because of Andre Collins' interception at the Bucs' 28.
The curiosity about Moreno eventually turned to a pretty routine day for a rookie quarterback in his first NFL start. He was cheered when, on his first play, he went deep to Curtis Conway, missing on a 50-yard attempt. On his third play, he was nearly crushed on a blindside sack by Warren Sapp for a 9-yard loss.
"It was a rough experience, it was a learning experience," said Moreno, who was 18 of 41 for 153 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
There was one notable moment of encouragement early in the second quarter when Moreno scrambled out of the pocket on a broken play on second-and-8 from the Bucs' 21 and found Conway for a touchdown.
But only one Bears drive went longer than 37 yards all day, and as much as anything, that is what characterized Moreno's first start.
"I've got to make plays at critical times, and the rookie excuse doesn't cut it," he said. "The positive is that I just got a chance to get on the field and see different looks come at me at the speed the game is played on Sundays. But right now, there are no positives I can take with that."
Moreno sprained his right ankle on the Bears' last offensive play and left the stadium on crutches. But he is expected to be ready for next week's game at Minnesota, and Wannstedt said he expected him to be his starter for the remaining four games of the season.
"There are throws Moses is capable of making that he will make that he didn't make today," Wannstedt said. "The thing that did not help him today was our running game (69 yards on 24 rushes). We're not running the ball the way we need to keep pressure off any quarterback, let alone a rookie."
The pressure, little as it is for a team that has now secured its third straight losing season, was still palpable in a locker room that had just learned that former starter Erik Kramer will undergo surgery on his shoulder and knee this week and is officially out for the season.
The question, without Kramer and with only a scout-team quarterback expected to be signed this week, is whether the Bears can win again with games remaining at Minnesota, at Green Bay and at home against Baltimore and the Packers.
"It's a team game," said Kramer with a shrug, "and we're losing as a team right now."
"It's tough," said a disconsolate Chris Villarrial. "Guys are out there spilling their guts, giving everything they've got and keep coming up short. It's frustrating. It's getting very, very frustrating."
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