It can be said safely that Shane Matthews's value as an NFL quarterback never has been higher than his last two weeks on the sideline.

And the Bears' offense never has been more vulnerable this season.

His anticipated return from a hamstring injury Sunday in Washington is expected to be the antidote as both Matthews and Bears Coach Dick Jauron said they were "very optimistic" he would be ready to start after practicing Wednesday.

But is Matthews alone enough to restore life to an offense that has managed just one touchdown over the last five quarters and one in the last nine under the direction of Cade McNown and Jim Miller?

"I think it's asking a lot," Jauron said. "That's also assuming that's the sole reason that we didn't click for the last couple of weeks, and it's not."

To be sure, the Bears' problems on offense go beyond quarterback.

Place kicking, with Jeff Jaeger, Brian Gowins and Chris Boniol, has had a hand in at least three losses--to Seattle, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

When Curtis Conway sprained an ankle at Minnesota Oct. 10, both Conway and the Bears' offense were at their peak. Conway was coming off his best game of the season--eight catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans. The Bears are 2-10 in games over the last three seasons without Conway, who is doubtful again this week.

And despite coaches' insistence to the contrary, the running game, while steady, has not been enough of a weapon, with Curtis Enis averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, to keep defenses honest.

Arguably, the Bears' offense never has been better than in its 20-17 opening-day victory over the Chiefs. Their scoring efficiency has not gone above the 36 percent they registered against the Chiefs. The 20 points also were the Bears' second-highest point total (they scored 24 against Minnesota, but 21 points came off five turnovers).

The Bears penetrated the Chiefs 20-yard line six times in the opener and have not reached the red zone more than three times in any game since. They've been inside the 20 only three times combined the last two games. And their third-down efficiency has gone steadily downward since they converted 10 of 18 for 56 percent against Kansas City.

The Bears' defense, after registering a league-leading 15 takeaways resulting in 38 points in their first five games before Matthews was hurt, has had only two the last two weeks, both against Philadelphia and leading to just three points.

The presence of Matthews, who was third in the NFC with a passer rating of 86.9 when he went down, cannot be underestimated, and Jauron does not try.

"He's calm, things don't rattle him. He understands what he's trying to do with the offense and what he's capable of doing inside our offense, and he also understands what the opponent's trying to do," Jauron said. "That doesn't come easy in our league."

If Matthews is not able to go Sunday, McNown will again be the starter with Miller third-string. If Matthews does play, McNown will come in for one or two series as he did before Matthews was hurt.

But Wednesday, Matthews was as eager to return as the Bears are to have him. "It's been tough because I felt I could have made a difference," he said. "I don't know if that's true or not . . . but I just want to get back to playing. We had a little rhythm going before the injury. We let a couple games get away the last two weeks, and we've got to get back on the winning track."