Sunday, November 9, 2008
It was October 16th, 2006. The Bears were 5-0 and coming off 26-0, 34-7, 37-6, and 40-7 blowouts against the Packers, Lions, Seahawks, and Bills, with only a 19-16 squeaker against the Vikings having made them look even remotely human at that point in the season. The Arizona Cardinals were 1-4 and rookie Matt Leinart and the crabs he'd gotten from Paris Hilton were making their second career NFL start. Barack Obama had teased the country by announcing before the game on ESPN that "he was ready...for the Bears to go all the way," fueling the rumors swirling around a possible presidential run. But most of all, Rex Grossman was on fire, averaging nearly 250 yards per game with a 61% completion rate, 10 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions, and was the recipient of the NFL's Offensive Player of the Month Award for September, an award the Bears see about as frequently as Terrell Owens sees the need to keep his mouth shut on a given subject. A packed University of Phoenix stadium crowd gathered for what was assumed to be a Bears rout.
But it was not to be.
The Cardinals came out fired up, Matt Leinart became one of the first, though as anyone who has watched the Bears this year knows not the last, quarterbacks to exploit the soft zones in the Bears coverage schemes with short passes, and the Bears offense started atrociously, with the offense limited to just 168 total yards in the game, the Cardinals jumped out to a 20-0 lead at halftime and began the end of Rex Grossman's career in Chicago. Pressured and panicked, Rex threw for only 144 yards and 4 interceptions. The Bears overcame Grossman's shortcomings and scored two defensive touchdowns and a punt return from Devin Hester to pull out 24-23 win that prompted Denny Green's famous "the Bears are who we thought they were!" rant. While pundits had field day with Green's meltdown, the line "the Bears are who they they were" has turned out far more prophetic in the case of Rex Grossman.
Denny Green had found Rex's weakness, and the NFL was quick to copy it. Team's went out of their way to pressure Rex, to force bad decisions, to take advantage of his lack of mobility and clog his passing lanes, leading to more tipped passes than any of us care to remember. Rex hit a wall, and for the rest of the season he was a less than impressive 155-291 (53%) for 1,806 yds (180.6 ypg), 13 tds, 13 ints, and a McNownesque 68.6 rating. The up-and-down roller coaster that he was throughout the Superbowl run and the disaster of last season is well documented. The question is, why?
Rex struggled with pressure, what quarterback didn't? He was short, but short quarterbacks have been successful elsewhere (Drew Brees is actually listed as one inch shorter). Something in Rex Grossman snapped that day against Arizona, and never again was he the same quarterback he was before. There are many theories as to what forever stalled his development and kept him from progressing beyond that wall, but yesterday's Titans game most likely represented the finale in Chicago for a man who once bore the city's biggest dreams on his shoulders.
I for one point to the knee injury and ankle injury that kept him off the field for the vitally important second and third years of his career. 2004 was meant to be Rex Grossman's first full season, a year where growing pains were expected and an up and down season like the 2006 would have been viewed as far more of a success. 2005 was to be Rex's rebound, but the ankle injury which kept him out until the 15th game of the season kept him from even practicing new coordinator Ron Turner's offense, which represented his 5th new system in 5 years going back to his sophomore year of college. For whatever reason, some perfect storm of injuries, lack of proper training within the system, poor coaching, and fan hostility shattered the pysche of Rex Grossman, and left him the schizophrenic Rex we know today. Though the Good Rex/ Bad Rex debate lasted throughout 2007, more or less it had become Bad Rex/ Atrocious Rex, and yesterday's game was a microcosm of that. A 75 yard drive perfectly executed against the league's best defense followed immediately by a forced pass that was intercepted. Three full quarters of offensive ineptitude. In the end Grossman walked off the field to the boos that have long since beaten down even his most ardent of former supporters (read: Me).
I'm not a big believer in "what might have been." I don't sit and ask what Rex Grossman could be right now without the injuries, or with a better offensive line, or if that Arizona game had gone much differently. I am concerned only with what was, and what is. What was a quarterback who'd responded to two years of frustration with a 5 game stretch the likes of which Chicago had never seen, a quarterback who seemed to stand at the precipice of greatness and a certain championship, is now a broken down bust, a kid whose once astounding confidence in himself and his arm is now gone, no matter how he talks to the press. Kyle Orton is this team's franchise quarterback, and for that I am grateful. He's put up the kind of numbers we'd once believed Rex capable of. He does it with far less flash than Rex did in his best moments, but with far more consistency. For what its worth I'll not forget who Rex Grossman was in those first five games of 2006, even if I've long since moved on.
In closing, I'll say only this: no player in Bears history bore the kind of scrutiny that clung to Rex with every breath. Some of it was warranted, most of it was not. He may not have earned the ire and malice fans reserved for a Cade McNown or Dave Wannstedt, but he certainly chafed under the highest expectations. On countless opportunities he could have succumbed to the temptation to lash out and swear back at the doubters and naysayers who plagued his every move. At times the media seemed be trying to provoke him into it, as if hoping for an outburst that would perhaps alleviate their hidden guilt at attacking him with such abandon. If his 19-12 record as a starter didn't attest that he was, at least, a winner in one regard, one can point to the fact that he never gave into the press's determination to destroy his dignity. In that way at least, it can always be said that they never beat Rex Grossman.