Perhaps it is a measure of how bad last season was, how demoralizing four lethargic, emotionless exhibition losses were, that a 24-23 loss to a Super Bowl contender such as the Jacksonville Jaguars seemed vaguely like a win.
The Bears rushed for 132 yards Sunday at Soldier Field. They intercepted two passes, forced four fumbles and recovered one, ran a kickoff back for a touchdown and had four plays from scrimmage of more than 20 yards.
Yet, when coach Dave Wannstedt was asked afterward if he could remember a more bitter defeat, Wannstedt searched momentarily for an answer, then ordered, "Next question."
Because behind all the positives was still a defeat, the 14th in the last 18 regular-season games. And all the positives could not obscure the fact that the Bears had failed to win a game that was squarely in their grasp. In the end, with chances to win, they found a way to lose.
"What hurts the most is that we had their number and they still found a way to win," said cornerback Walt Harris, victimized on a 4-yard Mark Brunell touchdown pass with 29 seconds left in the game for Jacksonville's winning points.
"I feel bad for this team. It comes down to making plays and at the end we just didn't do it."
If the Bears, who had six dropped passes in the game, had failed to make plays only at the end, there perhaps would not still be so much for them to prove. But in the first half, which ended with the Bears leading 13-7, the offense produced only two field goals off three turnovers. The Jaguars converted two second-half fumbles by the Bears into 10 points.
On the Bears' first two possessions of the second half, the field position from a 40-yard kickoff return by Glyn Milburn and 30-yard pass to Ryan Wetnight was wasted on a missed field goal. Then a drive that started with a 43-yard pass to Curtis Conway netted no points after an offensive pass-interference call on third down killed the drive.
"We just have to play error-free football," Wannstedt said. "Penalties killed us. The times we got a penalty, we punt. We drop one pass, we punt. We turn the ball over once, we're in trouble."
Finally, after driving to a first-and-goal at the Jacksonville 4-yard line, the Bears could not get into the Jacksonville end zone on three tries, then settled for a field goal that gave them a 23-17 lead with 4 minutes to play.
"We had them on the ropes but we didn't capitalize," said guard Chris Villarrial. "We've got to get the ball in. In that situation we just can't settle for field goals."
The defense, which had to that point limited one of the NFL's most high-voltage offenses to a modest 280 total yards, then was marched backward for 12 plays and more than 3 1/2 minutes. The Jaguars were put in only two third-down situations on the drive. On third-and-2, they completed a 15-yard pass, and on third-and-goal, Brunell threw 4 yards to Jimmy Smith to provide the winning points.
"I don't think anyone on the defense will disagree," said defensive end Mark Thomas. "We're on the field and we have the lead, we know it's the last drive of the game, we've got to find a way to get it done. I don't care how tired we are. Somebody's got to make some plays and we've got to find a way to get off the field."
The loss, before a crowd of 55,614 with 11,330 no-shows, left the Bears 3-3 in openers under Wannstedt. But beneath the dejection at the final score, Bears players clearly were encouraged by what they had shown, to themselves as much as anyone else.
Rookie Curtis Enis rushed for 77 yards on 12 carries in less than three quarters. The offensive line, which had struggled mightily through the preseason, protected quarterback Erik Kramer flawlessly. And Kramer, the heart of the offense, was mildly defiant that this Bears team is a bad one.
"I have a lot more confidence after this game because we didn't do anything in the preseason and coming off the season we had last year," Kramer said. "We didn't come into this game with a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence. People were down on us. Fortunately, there's a lot of character on this team and we believe in ourselves and we gave ourselves a chance to win.
"We reclaimed some dignity because nobody even gave us a shot to be in the game. Everyone was considering us with a chuckle this year and what our chances are every week. I feel good that we're going to go out and make plays. We made some mistakes that killed drives that are just not physical. So I think we're going to be a good team and that's what I take away from this."
The Bears and Jaguars each led three times. Perhaps that was one of the major pluses for the Bears was that, unlike preseason when they seldom fought back from behind. They led Sunday 3-0, fell behind 7-3, immediately came back to lead 10-7 on Milburn's TD kickoff return, trailed 14-13 late in the third quarter, then rallied on a 1-yard touchdown run by Edgar Bennett and the final 19-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal to take their last lead at 23-17.
It now falls to the Bears to use those rebounds as proof to themselves.
"A loss like this hurts, especially because we led the game for a while," Conway said. "Early on we had a lot of people nervous. I'm anxious to see what we can do next week."
jaguars 24, bears 23