Monday January 22nd, 2007

Planet NFL -- that's you, me, our neighbors, Howie Long and anyone with a blog -- has spent the autumn and much of the winter analyzing Rex Grossman. We have examined his touchdowns, his picks, his fumbles, his passer rating (which ranged from 148.0 in one game to 0.0 in another, a spectacularly wide spread which suggests it might not have been the same person playing quarterback on both occasions) and even the manner in which he threw his passes: Off his back foot, sidearm, kneeling.

All of this evidence was used at first to praise Grossman as the savior of offensive football (emphasis on the first syllable) in Chicago, crowning him the perfect complement to the Bears' mighty defense. Then, as Grossman began to struggle, he was cast as the anchor holding back the Bears from their rightful place in NFL history, alongside Vince Lombardi's Packers, Chuck Noll's Steelers and Bill Belichick's Patriots.

Five weeks into the season, Grossman had thrown eight touchdown passes and just three interceptions. The Bears were 5-0 after trouncing Buffalo, 40-7, on a Chamber of Comerce afternoon alongside Lake Michigan. That day I went with Grossman to his parents' condo in a downtown Chicago high-rise, where folks took celebratory drinks from longnecks and munched pot roast nachos from Ditka's restaurant. It was a crowning day of sorts for Grossman. He had come back from two horrible injuries and now was entrenched as the quarterback of the unbeaten Bears.

It turns out that was probably the high point for Grossman. Over the rest of the season, his poor games outnumbered his good ones. He carved out a reputation as an unreliable gunslinger who could win a game with his lethal right arm.... or by god, lose it trying.

"He made some decisions at times this year that weren't smart decisions,'' says Bears' veteran wideout Muhsin Muhammad. "I think he would admit to that.''

(Actually, Grossman is reluctant to admit to any such thing. He is tough and prideful and supremely, unrelentingly self-assured. "Nobody lost confidence in me,'' he says. "I never lost confidence in myself.'')

The most significant point is this: Grossman has been slow to embrace the value of the neutral play. That is, the play that doesn't advance a drive, but doesn't kill it -- or worse. Maybe that comes from playing for Steve Spurrier, who never met a high-risk throw he didn't love. Although I suspect there's a good deal of gambler in Grossman's own DNA.

On Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, where the weather ran the Midwestern meteorological gamut from rain to freezing rain to sleet to snow, the Bears beat the Saints, 39-14, to reach their first Super Bowl since the legendary '85 Bears shuffled their way into history.

Grossman's most memorable contribution to a game in which his numbers at the end were not great (11-for-26, 144 yards and one touchdown) was a brilliant five-play, 85-yard drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters. Four of the plays were passes, including Grossman's 33-yard touchdown to Bernard Berrian, giving the Bears a 25-14 lead on the second play of the fourth quarter.

And it was a terrific drive, showcasing Grossman's gifts. "We needed plays, and he threw darts in the snow,'' said Bears' veteran center and locker room leader Olin Kreutz, a little slice of O-line poetry.

It was this drive that killed the Saints. (Although if this is true, a healthy assist goes to Bears' punter Brad Maynard, whose two terrific kicks -- 51 yards and out-of-bounds on the Saints' 5 and 66 yards into the end zone, literally crawling down the sideline preceding the Grossman drive -- kept field position firmly in the Bears' favor).

But in a much larger sense, it was Grossman's play in the 42 minutes before he began completing passes that told the story of his performance and his growth.

Before the four-completion drive, Grossman had completed just five-of-20 passes for 74 yards, abysmal numbers. He had overthrown and underthrown, and in his defense, he had endured drops, as well. But more importantly, he had not forced anything where it would not fit.

Three times the Bears kicked field goals in the first half, en route to a 9-0 lead. They scored a touchdown for a 16-0 lead on an all-ground drive just before the Saints finally got on the board just before halftime.

At this point Grossman had completed only three of 12 passes for 37 yards. However: No interceptions, no fumbles lost.

I talked to Grossman in the Bears' locker room as he dressed to leave. His back was turned to much of the crush. Here came an admission that could not have come easily.

"The whole thing today was take care of the ball,'' Grossman said. "Maybe, as a result of that, I played a little conservatively,'' -- he spoke this word not angrily, but almost resignedly -- "but it was important to take care of the ball. Even if we wind up kicking up some field goals, that's OK.''

It is OK. "That's a maturing quarterback talking,'' said Kreutz.

"I'm never worried about whether Rex can make the throws, it's just a matter of making the right decisions,'' said Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who has stood ramrod-stiff in his season-long public support of Grossman. (The same can be said for Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who endlessly repeated, "Rex is our quarterback.'').

Muhammad said, "Rex doesn't always have to make the dangerous throw.'' Sunday's game was evidence that Grossman is beginning to understand that. Or perhaps he embraced this new conservatism only because the stakes were so high. "My process is always in the flow of the game,'' said Grossman. By extension, his thought process is in the flow of the season, as well. The Bears are an unusual bunch, resisting conventional descriptions. They are strong on defense, but hardly immovable. They are effective enough on offense, but hardly unstoppable. Yet they are in the Super Bowl, NFC Champions at 15-3. They win games and invite analysis.

Grossman mirrors his team. He is not an efficiency machine, like Drew Brees had been for the Saints or Peyton Manning has so often been for the Colts. He will never admit to questioning himself, and quite possibly that is because he just doesn't do it.

Remember: No interceptions, no fumbles. And four straight completions on the drive that sealed the game. "At that point, plays had to be made,'' Grossman said. "So I made them.''

Translation: Take your worries elsewhere. Grossman is just fine. And getting better.

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