ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.—So much for the quarterback controversy.
For that matter, so much for the rest of the season.
Jim Miller tore his left Achilles' tendon Sunday afternoon in the second quarter of Buffalo's 20-3 victory over the Bears, it simplified one potential dilemma for the Bears while shredding perhaps the last thread of hope for a team that had done an admirable job of suspending disbelief.
Miller's season-ending injury leaves the 2-8 Bears with two quarterbacks in Shane Matthews and Cade McNown who are 3-13 in their last 16 starts, and that's giving credit to McNown for a Green Bay victory last season for which Miller was largely responsible.
Miller's injury, which is sure to keep him in rehab at least until training camp next summer, also eliminates a potential quarterback controversy that has been brewing between the savvy veteran and second-year starter McNown.
The pop of Miller's Achilles on a 2-yard rollout around right end permanently stunted a Bears offense that was about to score its first three points and seemed to be finding itself against an unorthodox 3-4 defense.
To Miller that seemed as discouraging as the prospect that he won't be able to play football again for at least six to seven months. "It's just extremely frustrating because I felt we were figuring out what they were doing," Miller said. "They had a good little blitz package for us, but we figured it out and started to move the ball at the end. They're a good defensive team, but I do think it affected the outcome of the game."
We'll never know. Just as we will never know if Miller would have done enough in the next several weeks to force the coaching staff to choose between him and McNown. Just as we may never know how good Miller would have been.
What we do know, however, is that a rusty Matthews, with three interceptions and a fumble that led to the Bills' final touchdown, all in the last 16 minutes, was not able to get the job done. And that even if he does show dramatic improvement and a high level of competence by next Sunday and in the weeks that follow until McNown's shoulder injury heals, Matthews has said he does not see a future in Chicago beyond this season.
As for Sunday, Matthews was hard on himself, refusing to accept the alibi that, like Miller relieving the injured McNown three weeks ago, he had barely practiced with the first-team offense.
"That's no excuse," Matthews said. "I pride myself on being ready to play every week, and I just went out there today and stunk it up."
The Bears' running game performed admirably for the second straight week, with James Allen rushing for 87 yards in 16 carries. And the Bears' defense, save for the Bills 13-play, 70-yard Doug Flutie-engineered touchdown drive to open the second half, played well enough to win.
Even in that drive, the Bears, who limited Buffalo to 3-of-15 on third-down conversions, forced the Bills to take four plays inside the 5-yard line and three inside the 1 to reach the end zone on a Flutie bootleg.
No, in the end, it was the inability of the offense to move the ball with any regularity. The offense had six three-and-outs and, down by 10 points, gave away a last-gasp chance when Matthews fumbled at the Buffalo 39-yard line after being sacked by Sam Rogers with 2 minutes 56 seconds left in the game.
Buffalo linebacker Keith Newman recovered the fumble and then fumbled himself at the Bears' 35 after a 25-yard run and tackle by receiver Eddie Kennison. But given the kind of season it has been for the Bears, cornerback Daryl Porter scooped up the loose ball and took it the rest of the way for the touchdown and the finishing touch on the 20-3 victory.
"After [Miller's injury], we just didn't do enough," said Bears coach Dick Jauron. "You score three points, you're not going to win a lot of games. We just didn't make enough big plays."
The one Bills turnover--an interception by Walt Harris at the Bears' 28--gave the Bears' offense possession only as long as it took Matthews to turn it back over with the first of two interceptions by Buffalo safety Keion Carpenter.
Another notable opportunity squandered by the Bears' offense came when Matthews was called for intentional grounding at the Bills' 38 with 12 seconds left in the first half, pushing the Bears out of field goal range.
If the pressure is off the Bears, who have virtually no mathematical chance at the playoffs, it is back on Matthews.
"Who knows what the future holds?" Matthews said. "In my situation now, I'm the guy that's going to be playing next week so I have to prepare like I do for every Sunday and just go out and play well. Not only myself, but everybody else on this team is playing for a job, so I need to play well, much better than I did today."
Clearly, the Bears lost more than a quarterback when Miller went down.
"It does take the wind out of you when you lose a guy like that, a guy who loves to play the game, and it hurts you spiritually because he was a vital part of this team, even when he wasn't starting or playing," Allen said. "That's a bad break for him. Really down deep inside, when you lose a player like that, you want to go out and get a win for them. But we couldn't even do that for him."
In a little less than nine quarters, Miller had seemingly instilled a confidence in his teammates that they were sorely lacking. "It's relaxing for us to have him back there," James Williams explained, "because we know what's going on behind us. He's one of the few that when he comes to the ball, he knows what every single person is doing, and that makes us all feel confident."
Against Tampa next Sunday, somehow their alliance will have to shift. "You should be able to adjust," Marcus Robinson said. "You have to adjust, no matter what happens. You have to trust that the guys who are lining up are going to play."
With another week of practice, vowed Matthews' teammates, he will be better. "You saw how Jim looked with a couple weeks of practice," said Olin Kreutz. "It helped."
The only question is that at 2-8, what do they have to play for?
"How about going 8-8 and see what happens?" said a somewhat riled Bryan Robinson. "I don't know what's going to happen. But how about just playing your [butt] off and whatever happens at the end, happens, point blank?"