The Bears' season went off the rails in mid-October, on their first play from scrimmage against the Cardinals in Arizona. The Bears had won their first five games easily, with quarterback Rex Grossman performing to cocksure perfection, and he opened against the Cardinals by throwing a bomb to Bernard Berrian. If Berrian had caught the ball he'd have had a touchdown easy, and I bet the Bears would have coasted to another victory. But the pass just missed.
Grossman went on to have a miserable game, and the only way the Bears were able to salvage a win was through two defensive touchdowns and a punt Devin Hester returned for a score. After that the going got rough. Grossman was erratic, and there were games that not even the Bears' defense and Hester's magic could salvage.
But despite the bumpy ride, the Bears wound up 13-3 with home-field advantage through the playoffs. And last Sunday, as they went about trying to win their first postseason game in a dozen years against the Seattle Seahawks, I had an epiphany: I like how mercurial Grossman is, how everything is all or nothing with him, how the least significant play can affect how he performs, how even the most comfortable lead feels imperiled and not even the darkest deficit hopeless, and, perhaps most important, how perfectly his even-tempered, tolerant head coach, Lovie Smith, has handled him--as horse whisperer to a skittish thoroughbred. When I understood this about myself I realized that I'd finally embraced these Bears come what may. And as Sunday's NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints approaches, I advise all Bears fans to repeat after Lovie: Rex is our quarterback.
But I might as well advise Mayor Daley not to run for reelection. Bears fans are fixed in their ways and in their mind-set, and a nervous Nellie quarterback drives them almost as crazy as a mild-mannered coach. They like defense and a rough-and-tumble running game and "Bear weather" and Da Coach and smash-mouth football, and they'd rather go down playing that way--with honor, to their way of thinking--than win some other way. But here's the thing: the Bears don't win last Sunday with a quarterback who merely manages the game. The defense isn't as sturdy as it was early in the season with Tommie Harris, and come Bear weather or not this weekend at Soldier Field, if the game with the Saints turns into a track meet, as it easily could with New Orleans's big-play talent, it will be up to Grossman to win it. I'm not saying I'm happy about that--and I'm certainly not guaranteeing victory this week the way I did last week--but I'm comfortable with it. Whether he chokes or guides the Bears to the Super Bowl in Miami, Rex is my quarterback.
Two Grossman passes to Rashied Davis served as bookends in Sunday's victory. Grossman needs a few sure-thing plays at the outset to get him going, and he hit the first, a short square-out to Berrian, but missed the second, a simple toss in the flat to fullback Jason McKie. Grossman led him too much, a hint that he was suffering from his all-too-common jitters. Then he caught a break. On a short post pattern on third and ten, Grossman didn't lead Davis enough. Cornerback Jordan Babineaux had a shot at an interception, but it went between his hands and Davis made the catch. That seemed to get Grossman thinking it was his day, and when adversity struck later on he was able to weather it. He guided the Bears to the game's first touchdown, and on his first play from scrimmage after Seattle tied the score early in the second quarter he hit Berrian with a beautiful pass, 55 yards in the air on a deep post, for a 68-yard touchdown. It was the kind of impressive throw he'd wowed fans with back at the family-night midsummer scrimmage at Soldier Field, only honed by months of practice--he hit Berrian perfectly in stride.
The Bears seemed to be off and running. But then Grossman fumbled deep in Bears territory when he was blitzed, and the Seahawks turned his mistake into a tying touchdown. Rex taketh, and Rex giveth away. Yet in the final two minutes of the half Grossman again passed the Bears into field-goal range, and Smith mixed the derring-do with basic Bears football by rejecting a field goal on fourth down. Guard Ruben Brown pulled out and led Thomas Jones into the end zone in the manner of a bodyguard ushering a Hollywood star down the red carpet. The Bears led 21-14 at intermission.
Let the record show it was the defense that squandered the lead, giving up a field goal and a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. True, Grossman did throw an interception with the Bears in range of a tying field goal in the fourth quarter. But it wasn't his fault--the pass went through the hands of Muhsin Muhammad, off his shoulder pads, and into the hands of a Seattle defender. And after Hester's apparent go-ahead TD punt return was called back thanks to a Ricky Manning Jr. clipping penalty, Grossman surprisingly kept his cool, completed a few key passes, and at the cautious Smith's urging settled for the field goal that sent the game into overtime.
The defense held on Seattle's first possession, and then Grossman completed the second of his set of third-and-ten passes to Davis. This one was a lovely timing play in the seams of the Seattle defense, and it allowed Robbie Gould to kick a game-winning 49-yard field goal.
It was a complete team effort, as Grossman insisted when he was first to the podium at the postgame media conference. But though I don't want to minimize key defensive plays by Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Tank Johnson, the Bears wouldn't have won without Grossman. "Rex played well," Smith said matter-of-factly. "He led us to our 14th victory [and first in the playoffs since 1995]. He knows how to bounce back from tough situations."
Grossman's resiliency hasn't always been apparent, but it certainly was Sunday. The odd thing is that the toughest part of Grossman's situation wasn't the game itself but the two weeks leading up to it after he played so poorly in the regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers. Grossman looked completely unprepared for the Bears' archrivals, and he later admitted that he'd regarded it as a meaningless game on New Year's Eve. For that, the press and sports-talk radio pilloried him. He responded with what might have been his most composed game, and followed it with a composed, mostly say-nothing, cliched--in short, professional--interview session. When someone asked, "How long were the last two weeks for you?" Grossman pondered and said, "It was--14 days." That's grace under pressure; that's my Bears quarterback. Bears fans, he should be yours, too.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.