Other than wiffle ball, touch football, and an occasional game of H-O-R-S-E, my contact with sports has been mostly limited to spectating. And with the self-promotion of so many athletes today (think T.O. and Kobe) and growing responsibilities with the job and family, my interest has pretty much disappeared like the overpaid “A-Rod” in crunch time.
But quarterback Rex Grossman is changing all that. Coming back from three injury-plagued years, this season Grossman has tossed 10 touchdowns for the 5-0 Chicago Bears, who are suddenly the talk of the NFL. He’s thrown so many bombs to streaking receivers that we might as well call this formerly Neanderthalish bunch the “Air Bears.”
A decorated high school athlete from Indiana, Grossman brought his rocket arm and short (6-1) stature to the University of Florida (disclosure: my alma mater) to learn the craft of quarterbacking under the excitable Steve Spurrier. Grossman performed well, even after Spurrier left Gainesville for the pros, and one year was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Three years ago, the Bears drafted Grossman in the first round, hoping this confident, stocky kid could turn around their moribund offense.
At the end of the first year, with an anemic offense and the season lost, the Bears inserted Grossman into the starting lineup. For a rookie, he played well, but a finger injury ended the experiment in his third game.
The second year, Grossman started well. Trying to rally the Bears against a good Minnesota team, Grossman made a hard cut and dove into the end zone for a touchdown. But Grossman couldn’t jump up and celebrate. The cut, on the unforgiving artificial turf, tore up his right knee. It was Grossman’s third start. Without a solid backup, the Bears’ season, like his knee, was in shambles.
After rehabbing like a maniac, Grossman was ready to resume his career last year. Instead, he shattered his left ankle in a preseason game. It was a crushing setback, but the Bears, now with a dominant defense, kept a roster spot open for Grossman, who again worked hard both mentally and physically to overcome the grisly injury. Grossman didn’t pout and instead continued studying and participating in team activities. The creaky offense, with rookie Kyle Orton at the helm, played conservatively and relied on Chicago’s ferocious defense to win most games.
Toward the end of the season, Grossman’s effort paid off and he returned to the field, beating superstar quarterbacks Michael Vick and Brett Favre in consecutive games. Suddenly it looked as if Chicago had an offense to go with its defense.
The Bears earned a home field playoff game at Soldier Field, and observers wondered how Grossman, who had only a handful of pro starts, would handle it. The answer: Not well. Grossman had a horrendous start, along with Chicago’s defense. But Grossman kept slinging it, and in the second quarter, the offense began to click. Suddenly moving the team up and down the field, Grossman threw for one touchdown and set up two more. But he threw a late interception, and the Bears’ comeback fell short.
Before the 2006 season, no one knew if Rex Grossman had a future in Chicago. Was he injury-prone, or just snake bit? Deciding not to roll the dice another year, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo finally signed a capable backup quarterback, Brian Griese, whose career statistics dwarfed those of any Bears quarterback, including the inexperienced Grossman’s.
During the 2006 preseason, Griese performed like the polished veteran he is, while Grossman (perhaps feeling the pressure) threw some bad interceptions and struggled to move the first-team offense. Whispers that Griese should be the starting quarterback turned into shouts, both in the media and in the stands. Why had the Bears handed the job to Grossman when Griese was clearly better?
One Chicago sports radio talk show host launched a “dump Rex” website. People began to use the B-word: They said Grossman was a bust. The nadir for Grossman came one night when he was booed off Soldier Field in a game against Arizona.
Grossman handled all the criticism with class, agreeing he was not playing well and vowing to get better. Head coach Lovie Smith stood by Grossman, as did the team. Gradually Grossman’s play improved, but the first real test would come when the regular season started.
The Bears’ first opponent was Green Bay, led by the legendary Favre. With the Packers stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run during the Bears’ first possession, Grossman faked a handoff, rolled out on the bright green turf of Lambeau Field, and delivered a 49-yard strike to a wide-open Bernard Berrian for a touchdown. Just like that, Grossman had served notice that he was the best quarterback on the field and that this team was not going to run a “three yards and a cloud of rust” offense. The Bears, with a suffocating defense and a punt return for a touchdown, cruised to a 26-0 win over the shell-shocked Pack.
Grossman’s many critics, however, were not convinced. They wondered how Grossman would handle the Detroit Lions, who had nearly upset Seattle, the defending NFC champions. The answer? Just fine. Grossman hit 20 of his first 25 passes and threw for four touchdowns (including three to the tight end position, something unheard of since the days when Mike Ditka was not the Bears’ coach, but the tight end). The game wasn’t close, and Grossman was pulled early, now to the cheers of Chicago fans. Observers were starting to call Grossman a “gunslinger” who reminded them of a young Favre.
Next up for Grossman and the Bears were the undefeated Minnesota Vikings, who boasted an aggressive, swarming defense. How would he do this week, and would he get through this, the third game of the young season, without injury? (The Metrodome, remember, was where he had injured his knee two years before.) Facing constant pressure and struggling to make himself heard in the noisy Metrodome, Grossman threw a poor first half interception and failed to get the Bears into the end zone.
But at the start of the fourth quarter, Chicago still held a slim 9-6 lead. Then disaster struck. Near his own end zone, Grossman dropped back to pass. Feeling pressure up the middle, he hurriedly flicked a pass toward running back Thomas Jones in the flat. The ill-advised pass was errant, however, and a defensive back stepped in front, picked it off, and trotted into the end zone. This time it was Grossman who looked shell-shocked, as the Vikings grabbed a 13-9 lead.
Grossman got the ball back and doggedly marched the team back down the field for a field goal. Minnesota, however, answered with one of its own. With just a few minutes left, Chicago still trailed, 16-12. The Bears needed a touchdown, not a field goal, but the Vikings had the ball and time was running out.
Then Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris made a play. Harris knifed (if a 295-pound man can knife) through the Vikings line and blew up an attempted handoff. The Bears recovered the fumble, and Grossman had his chance. First Grossman made a critical third-down conversion. Then, after the two-minute warning, Grossman dropped back, looked defenders off his primary target, and arched a perfect rainbow into the arms of Rashied Davis for a touchdown. Despite erratic play and lots of pressure, Grossman had delivered in the clutch, and the Bears remained undefeated.
The next test? The 3-0 Seattle Seahawks. Grossman fired a couple of touchdowns, moved the offense like a veteran, and let the defense harass the opposing QB into a miserable night. With the game in hand, Grossman again left early, and the Bears won 37-6. Chicago fans began talking about making reservations for the Superbowl in Miami.
The 2-2 Buffalo Bills were next. Grossman and his receivers weren’t their sharpest, but he still managed to throw two more touchdowns (including a beauty off his back foot right in the heart of the Buffalo defense) and a 62-yard strike to Berrian. Buoyed by a resurgent running game and a dominating (and often downright frightening) defense, the Bears settled for a 40-7 win. Grossman, reviled by many just weeks before, is now the toast of the town.
Rex Grossman has persevered through injury, bad luck, and opportunistic (and sometimes mean-spirited) criticism to become the NFL’s second-rated quarterback (behind only Philadelphia’s amazing veteran, Donovan McNabb). Sports Illustrated even profiled this supposed “bust.” Enjoying his newfound (but hard-won) success, Grossman has been quick to credit his coaches, receivers, and offensive line. Remarkably, he hasn’t gloated.
Tomorrow night, Grossman and the “Air Bears” take their explosive act to the desert to battle the disappointing 1-4 Arizona Cardinals. Win or lose, Grossman has proved he’s a winner. As long as he keeps playing, I’ll keep watching. And so, I’ll warrant, will a lot of former skeptics.