The Bears couldn’t be more different this year from last, yet their fortunes remain almost exactly the same. A year ago the Bears were a cautious team that wasn’t going to beat itself; this year the Bears are gamblers willing to risk it all on a big play. A year ago the Bears had a quarterback who wasn’t going to win many games on his own but wasn’t going to be responsible for many losses either; this year the Bears have a quarterback who loses a game and then wins a game–on the same afternoon. A year ago the Bears had a tough, proud, sturdy defense that would give no quarter; this year the Bears have a defense with a disturbing tendency to fall apart on big plays, especially on third down.

Are the Bears better than they were last season? Player for player, they sure seem to be. Yet a year ago, by playing conservatively, they won games they deserved to lose; this year, by playing more aggressively, they’ve lost games they should have won. Thus far anyway, the trade-off is a wash.

A good coach usually puts the stamp of his personality on a team, and the odd thing is that the Bears have had the same coach for this year, last year, and in fact the year before that. Dave Wannstedt is considered a good coach, but at this point a Chicago fan would be hard-pressed to describe just what his coaching personality is. He came to the team as a defensive specialist, but during the off-season the team stressed offense over defense in its personnel moves. Of course, offense had the most glaring weaknesses a year ago, but the team failed to address a weakness at linebacker–in fact, allowed former starting middle linebacker Dante Jones to depart via free agency–and that has created glaring weaknesses in the defense. At this point Wannstedt would have to be described as a pragmatist, willing and able to alter the team’s style and tactics to suit the personnel. Certainly he looked at the National Football League’s two powerhouses, the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, and saw two teams with high-octane offenses, and he has attempted to emulate them–up to a point–to make the Bears more serious Super Bowl contenders. Yet in the give-and-take dynamic that is NFL parity under the salary cap, the Bears as a whole haven’t improved, even if they have at certain positions. When a team scrambles to beat an expansion club in the final minute at home–as the Bears did Sunday against the Carolina Panthers–it can’t realistically be described as a Super Bowl contender.

The biggest and most obvious change the Bears made this season was to reinsert Erik Kramer at quarterback. Kramer, brought in from the Detroit Lions as a free agent a year ago, lost the job when he suffered through an erratic stretch last year. Steve Walsh replaced him and shepherded the Bears into the playoffs, where his shortcomings suddenly became very apparent. So the two were thrown together again in training camp in an arduous but eminently fair quarterback competition. Kramer established himself as the more talented and versatile of the two, and Wannstedt decided at the season’s outset that Kramer gave the team the better chance of reaching the Super Bowl.

The question, however, is whether the more talented player is also the more able player. Not to slip into the gray area of Terry Bevington’s talent-ability distinction, but a player might have more overall talent and yet less ability to judge the most prudent course at any given stage of a game or season. It doesn’t take any large amount of recreational drugs to see the Bears 5-0 right now instead of 3-2–just a fairly vivid imagination. Imagine this: that the Bears had scored to take the lead late in their Monday-night game earlier this season against the Green Bay Packers, and that the defense had showed more spine in their 34-28 loss to the Saint Louis Rams three weekends ago.

Was Kramer really to blame in either of those losses? Well, the Bears fell behind 21-0 to the Pack, but Kramer led the Bears back into the game; he certainly deserved credit for that. Yet when the defense, for once, presented him with terrific field position in the second half, giving the Bears a chance to seize their first lead of the game, Kramer was three plays and out with a series of miserable throws on chancy passes (offensive coordinator Ron Turner was a coconspirator in that squandered opportunity). When the Chicago defense then presented the ball to the offense right on the Green Bay doorstep, following a blocked kick near the end zone, the Bears couldn’t punch it in, with one of the failed plays being an ill-conceived timing pass into the corner. After the Bears settled for a field goal in a situation where a touchdown would have given them the lead, the Packers launched a big drive against a demoralized Chicago defense and added a field goal to clinch the victory. Likewise, Kramer’s sins against the Rams were relatively minor, but they included a misguided audible at the end of the game on what turned out to be the Bears’ final offensive play (the sort of sin Mike Ditka used to gut players for right there on the sideline).

Last Sunday Kramer again played well after a slow start (at one point he had completed only 6 of 14 passes). Yet where Walsh used to muddle along and put the Bears in a position to win, Kramer kept finding ways to put the Bears in a position to lose. He put the Bears up with a 41-yard bomb to wide receiver Curtis Conway, who has thrived under the Bears’ renewed emphasis on throwing the ball downfield. But then the Chicago offense went nowhere while the Panthers responded with a field goal and a touchdown bomb of their own to take the lead. Kramer then led a well-executed drive, finishing with a nicely lofted pass to tight end Keith Jennings, who made a terrific catch on a ball that had no chance of being intercepted (and, in fact, little chance of being caught), but enough time was left for Carolina to set up a field goal, making it 14-13 Bears at halftime. Kramer drove for another field goal in the third quarter, but he fumbled the ball on the Bears’ goal line in the fourth quarter and Carolina lineman Greg Kragen rolled over on it for a touchdown to put the Panthers up 20-17.

In his best sequence of the afternoon, Kramer then drove the Bears for a go-ahead touchdown, finishing with yet another play-action pass to the tight end, this time the wide-open Ryan Wetnight. But at a time when the Bears needed to control the ball Kramer contributed to a three-and-out series, and the Panthers returned the ensuing punt for a touchdown to go ahead again, 27-24. Finally Kramer carried the day by engineering another long drive, this one under time pressure, with Robert Green scoring on an exceptional run, extending the ball to break the plane of the end zone even as a Carolina player was trying to wrench his helmet off by grabbing the face mask.

Bears win in a shoot-out, 31-27. Yet most Chicago football fans don’t like shoot-outs; it gives them the feeling of having scored with a partner who was drunk. That creates a problem, because the Bears at this point are a shoot-out-oriented team.

The Bears made the National Football Conference playoffs last season in a four-team logjam with their Central Division rivals Green Bay, Minnesota, and Detroit. When tiebreakers were considered, however, the Bears were rated fourth, and that gave them a great advantage in this season’s schedule. The Bears are a playoff team playing a schedule designed for a fourth-place finisher. Foremost among its advantages is three weeks off in the middle of the season–weeks off, that is, if you add two straight games against expansion teams, last week’s Panthers and this week’s Jacksonville Jaguars, to the earlier bye. So the Bears, while 3-2, have squandered an opportunity to get out in front before the pivotal three-week stretch of the season–games at Minnesota and Green Bay sandwiched around the Pittsburgh Steelers at Soldier Field.

The most discouraging thing about the Bears’ start has been the erratic play of the defense. Throughout the first five games the Bears were generally back on their heels in attempting to stop the other team, and even all-pro cornerback Donnell Woolford was affected, giving up a 99-yard touchdown–on third down yet–in the loss to the Packers. The Bears were so woeful on third down that they brought back Richard Dent to pad the pass rush, in a move that warmed a Chicago fan’s heart.

The Bears and owner Michael McCaskey have long been utterly unsentimental in disposing of players (think of Otis Wilson after his knee injury). Dent may have a worth beyond mere sentimentality, but to see him welcomed back with few if any hard feelings is a revelation. If he can make any difference at all in spackling the weaknesses on third down–or even in simply restoring some defensive pride–maybe the Bears will become Super Bowl contenders.

In the meantime every game is a shoot-out, and the Bears are living and dying with their quarterback. It has been 20 years since anybody could say that about the Bears, since the days of Bobby Douglass and Jack Concannon before him, and then it was only true because the defense was so awful, not because Douglass and Concannon were exceptional. When Kramer looks sharp the Bears look dangerous. When he goes sour there’s not a duller sporting event in the city, not even the White Sox when Jason Bere can’t find the plate. Chicagoans like tough defense and cold weather, big hits and a spiked thermos. The Monsters of the Midway recast as fraternity lotharios just trying to get lucky–this is going to take some getting used to.