An ominous shadow of doubt continued to grow over and within the Bears on Sunday, as a 21-14 loss to the Detroit Lions ran their record to 0-4 and their answers to zero.
The defeat was the Bears' eighth in their last nine games and their 12th in the last 15, among the NFL's worst over that stretch. Now, with one-fourth of the 2000 season gone, the Bears have reached the nightmare stage at which their own efforts to save themselves only seem to make matters worse.
The more quarterback Cade McNown tried to make a play Sunday, the more his passes either sailed away from open receivers or to Detroit safety Kurt Schulz, who intercepted McNown three times, all in Detroit territory. The more Bears defensive backs tried to gamble for interceptions, the more the Lions got free, twice for TD passes, one after a missed interception. The harder Brent Bartholomew tried to pin the Lions in their territory, the worse his six punts became, giving Detroit an average starting position at its 40-yard line.
Adding to the problems is the sense among players that there is no chemistry in the locker room, meeting rooms or on the field, the kind of intangible bond that makes players a support system for each other when things go badly. And for a team that has had six losing seasons in its last eight, they are going as badly as they ever have in the last decade.
"I think it's chemistry, identity," Walt Harris said. "I don't think we know each other well enough on defense, for instance, sometimes to trust each other, trust that a guy is going to be there at the right spot at the right time. We've got to get used to that. That's chemistry, knowing the guys and having an identity on defense, what we're good at, and continue to be good at that. We don't have that right now."
The lack of chemistry is not restricted to defense. Trying for deception and mismatches through personnel changes, the offense never used the same starting lineup in any two games last year and has had four different starting lineups in four games this season.
The offense turned the ball over five times, with McNown and receiver Marty Booker losing fumbles in addition to McNown's three interceptions. McNown and receiver Marcus Robinson turned in a 55-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter when Detroit's Ron Rice fell down, but both appeared confused at other times over what the other was doing.
At times McNown shouldn't have thrown and did, or should have thrown and didn't, signs of bad judgment from a young quarterback.
McNown badly underthrew Robinson in the second quarter when he rolled to his left and threw off his back foot far short of Robinson and right into Schulz's hands. Then as time was expiring in the fourth quarter, McNown failed to make a pass while rolling out on fourth down and was sacked in a situation where a desperation pass was called for.
"I could've just chucked it up, and probably should have. You hate to finish like that," McNown conceded, admitting that he was pressing in too many situations, which led to the interceptions. "There are times I went and tried to get it too far up the field to get too much instead of getting two or three good passes."
The Lions turned a poor punt into a touchdown on a 13-yard pass from Charlie Batch to Johnnie Morton to lead 7-0 in the first quarter. Bartholomew's last punt of the half gave the ball to the Lions at their 43 and four plays later Batch threw 36 yards to Germane Crowell for a 14-0 lead at halftime.
McNown's touchdown to Robinson was followed in the third quarter by the Bears' first points off a turnover this season. Rookie linebacker Brian Urlacher intercepted a Batch pass at midfield and McNown drove the offense for a score in six plays, covering the last 14 yards himself on a run through the middle of the Detroit defense and diving in for a tying score.
But the Lions answered with a 91-yard scoring drive that lasted 17 plays and 8:37, the longest scoring march against the Bears this season. On second down, James Stewart dived the final yard for the game-winning touchdown with 9:36 to play. Although replays indicated Stewart might not have scored, the Bears did not ask for a replay review.
The Bears had multiple chances to tie after that but found ways not to make needed plays at critical points. A McNown pass was intercepted at the Detroit 11 to end one possession. McNown threw incomplete to Robinson on fourth-and-9 at the Detroit 24 to end a second, then did not get a pass off with the ball at the Detroit 33 and 24 seconds left after two straight incompletions.
Several first-half possessions were done in by penalties, emblematic of the Bears' status as their own worst enemies.
"Today was one of those days when you're in a rhythm and moving the chains, and then the [penalty] flags start flying," said running back James Allen, who rushed for a game-high 87 yards on 19 carries. "We were playing hard, trying to make plays and things were just not going our way."
It has been that way all season and there is a sense that the hole is only getting deeper.
"It's going to be a real tough haul back," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "Right now we've all got to stick together and believe we can do that. Now the journey back is a tremendous one and it's going to take a lot out of us, but I think we can do it. I never get down on my teammates. We're young, but it's time for all the excuses to stop."
Lions 21, Bears 14