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Pass Happy

Oct. 16, 2006
Oct. 16, 2006

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Oct. 16, 2006

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Pass Happy

On a Chicago Bears team known for bruising defense, the emergence of quarterback Rex Grossman may be the final piece in their Super Bowl puzzle

It's a killer view.From the picture window on the east wall of Dan and Maureen Grossman's cornercondo 28 floors above the trendy shops and bistros on Chicago's MichiganAvenue, you can look through a skyscraper canyon and see sailboats on LakeMichigan and waves lapping at the shore of a small, sandy beach. They boughtthe place three years ago after their son, Rex, a quarterback out of Florida,was drafted in the first round by the Bears, and they envisioned a decade ofafternoons like last Sunday, when all 2,200 square feet of their primeMagnificent Mile real estate was buzzing with celebratory postgame energy.

This is an article from the Oct. 16, 2006 issue Original Layout

Flat-screentelevisions mounted at both ends of the living-and-dining room showed NFLgames, and couches were filled with several dozen family and friends.("It's not really a condo--it's a sports bar," says Dan, an eye surgeonback home in Bloomington, Ind., and a former Hoosiers quarterback.) Here wasNancy Grossman, Rex's 79-year-old grandmother. There were his in-laws, Bill andGail Miska, up again from Tampa. In a far corner of the kitchen Rex was hunchedover a plate of pot-roast nachos from Mike Ditka's restaurant. (Now, there's aMidwestern appetizer.) "I've loved playing football since I was a littlekid," Grossman said. "But right now I'm really having a blast."

Two hours earlierand two miles away at Soldier Field, the Bears had remained unbeaten (5--0) inthe young season with a 40--7 humbling of the Buffalo Bills, a team that cameinto Chicago at a respectable 2--2 and left with scarcely its pride intact.

For the fifthconsecutive week the Bears defense, painstakingly built position by position byhead coach Lovie Smith to play his Cover 2, was absolutely sick, yielding 145net yards and forcing five turnovers. In five games the Bears have given up atotal of 36 points, and they've sent Chicago fans and media scurrying forcomparisons with the dominant and revered Super Bowl--champion Bears of 1985."We have a bunch of guys who run and go boom," said middle linebackerBrian Urlacher, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

They have aquarterback, too. After sitting for most of his rookie year and missing nearlyall of the last two seasons with serious injuries to his right knee (ACL) andleft ankle (explosive fracture), Grossman has suddenly fulfilled the promisethat his famous college coach saw--"He is the best pure passer I've evercoached," says Steve Spurrier, now at South Carolina--and that the Bearsinvested in. On Sunday afternoon Grossman threw his ninth and 10th touchdownpasses of the season and remained the second-rated passer (100.8) in the NFC,behind only Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb (107.2). It is October, and the Bearsare looking down at most of professional football. That's a killer viewtoo.

Another livingroom. Another flat screen. More than 13 months ago. This time the setting isthe basement of Rex and Alison Grossman's town house, down the street from theBears' training complex in suburban Lake Forest, Ill., 30 miles north ofdowntown Chicago. It is the opening Sunday of the 2005 season, and thenewlyweds--married in July--are sitting on their couch alone in front of a60-inch screen. Rex is wearing an old-school plaster cast on his badlyfractured left ankle. They order pizza and sit back to watch the Bears play theRedskins in hi-def.

"This is thelife, huh?" says Rex to his bride, a former University of Floridacheerleader. His words drip with sarcasm. Two years earlier he had watched fromthe Bears' bench through most of his rookie season, and three games into hissecond season he tore up his knee. Fully rehabbed and ready to start in Year 3,he was bulldogged to the turf in a preseason game in St. Louis, and his anklewas crushed in such a way that a metal plate and 14 screws became part of hisanatomy. ("I saw the X-rays," says Alison. "They looked likeFrankenstein.")

The Bears wouldlose that 2005 opener 9--7, accumulating just 166 net offensive yards behindRex's replacement, rookie Kyle Orton. Grossman felt so helpless and frustratedthat he went on the team's remaining road trips, even in his cast. "This isgoing to sound strange," he recalled last week, "but when I waswatching that Redskins game, I felt guilty, like I was letting the team down.There was absolutely nothing I could have done about my injuries, but I wasthinking, What am I doing here?"

Alison says,"He never complained, but you could see how much he hurt. It's hard to seesomeone you care about get his dream crushed--not just once, buttwice."

Still, the Bears'defense had carried the team to a 9--4 record by mid-December. (Chicago scoredmore than 20 points only once between Weeks 5 and 13.) Grossman returned fortwo late wins before losing to the Carolina Panthers in a first-round playoffgame in which he completed just 17 of 41 passes. With seven starts in threeseasons Grossman was still a question mark.

But the Bears werepatient, for two reasons. Grossman is a first-round draft choice under contractthrough 2007, and his talent is so seductive that anyone would give himmultiple chances to get healthy and succeed. "I watched college film on himbefore I signed with the Bears [as a free agent in 2005]," says veteranwideout Muhsin Muhammad. "I liked the way he anticipated receivers comingout of their breaks and put the ball in places where they could adjust to it.He's a big part of why I came here."

Offensivecoordinator Ron Turner joined the Bears in January 2005, between Grossman'sinjuries. "His skills jump off the film at you," says Turner."Every ball is a tight spiral, the release is quick, he has good touch onthe deep ball, and he sees the field. There's a lot to like."

Grossman workedlong hours with Bears strength coordinator Rusty Jones in the winter and springto strengthen his rehabbed limbs. He had heard the buzz. "They say I'minjury-prone," he told Spurrier last winter. Spurrier found it an absurdcriticism. At Florida his system of complex deep routes required hisquarterbacks to stand in the pocket until the last possible tick, frequentlytaking a big shot on the release. "Man, we killed him when he was on thescout team at Florida his redshirt year," says Bears defensive end AlexBrown, a former Gator. "He always just bounced back up."

Stronger than ever,Grossman found in the summer that there would be more to his rebirth than justphysical training. During a 23--16 preseason loss to Arizona at Soldier Field,he was booed by impatient Bears fans. Grossman, however, had already rethoughthis approach to criticism. While watching television early in the Bears'training camp, he heard a Chicago broadcaster rip his performance in drillsthat day. "That had been one of the best practices of my life," saysGrossman, "so I was frustrated to no end hearing that. I decided right thenthat I wasn't going to let things outside the team affect what I was doing,even if that meant not watching or reading anything. If I've seen any [mediacoverage], it's because I was going to the bathroom at Halas Hall, and, youknow, I needed something to read."

Conversely, hisfilm-room study has been tireless. Between 2001 (his third year at Florida andlast under Spurrier) and '05 Grossman worked with five different offensivecoordinators and five different offensive systems. Now he has been in Turner'smodified West Coast system for nearly two years, studying and working withTurner long before he was healthy. Quarterback and coordinator have created ahealthy synergy, a bonus that doesn't always define the relationship at the NFLlevel. Grossman has been a guest at Turner's house, and Turner was at theGrossmans' postgame party on Sunday, the only coach in attendance. Says Turner,"There are times when we can get together and not talk about football atall."

When they do talkabout football, they work in a manner that reminds Grossman of his collegetraining. Much like Spurrier did at Florida, Turner cross-references defensiveschemes with likely successful play calls, to narrow Grossman's options at theline and reduce the likelihood of confusion. It's instructive to remember thatGrossman is still in his professional infancy. "The best thing is thatevery time I come to the line," Grossman says, "I have a plan in myhead based on the coverage."

This planning,combined with Grossman's skills, creates dynamic offensive options. Last Sundaythe Bears faced third-and-seven at the Buffalo eight-yard line in a 6--0 game.Turner called for three wideouts to the left and only Bernard Berrian on theright. Grossman was supposed to go left, but the Bills showed an obvious blitz,leaving Berrian alone with corner Terrence McGee. He beat McGee to the inside,and Grossman put a fastball on his hands for the game's first touchdown,Berrian's fourth of the year. Later in the same quarter the Bills again putMcGee one-on-one with Berrian on the outside, with potential help from a lonedeep safety. Grossman controlled the safety with his eyes, keeping him awayfrom Berrian, and completed a 62-yard streak down the sideline.

These completionscame on a day when Turner said his play-calling was "out of sync." Ifso, the effects were minimal, thanks to his quarterback's preparation. Grossmanarrives at Halas Hall every workday by 7:30 a.m. and leaves 12 hours later. Hebrings home his Dell laptop, loaded with the $6,000 worth of software hepurchased to match the Bears' programs, augmenting his film study at home. Hesuccumbs on occasion to the temptations of Madden or NBA 2K7, and teammate ToddJohnson insists Grossman has another weakness: "The boy likes to eat."The 6'1", 217-pound Grossman sheepishly admits to gaining 20 pounds whileinjured, all of it long since lost. During dinner last week at a suburban steakhouse, he picked at grilled salmon and passed on dessert, disciplined even offthe field.

There is at alltimes around these streaking Bears a subtext of restraint, as the teamconstantly tries to apply the brakes to the city's premature frenzy. "It'searly, man," says center Olin Kreutz, a nine-year veteran. The Bears'schedule is hardly daunting (extradivisional games remain with Arizona, SanFrancisco, Miami and Tampa Bay, who are a combined 4--15), and their NFC Northdivision is painfully weak. But in a three-week stretch in November they playfirst the New York Giants and then the Jets at the Meadowlands, then travel toNew England for the Patriots. They will emerge either daunting or merelygood.

Team Grossman needsnone of these warnings. Two years ago in Minnesota, Alison Miska watched herfuture husband dive into the end zone for a touchdown against the Vikings,unaware that he had torn up his knee on the play. "I turned around to saysomething, and all of a sudden Rex's mom is nudging me in the ribs and saying,'Rex isn't getting up,'" says Alison. Less than a year later, in St. Louis,Alison looked away before a play was finished and felt the familiar ominousnudge from her mother-in-law and the same words: Rex isn't getting up.Again.

So every play nowis not just a step toward another Super Bowl, long overdue in the shadow ofDitka and Sweetness and McMahon and the Fridge, but also a gift in itself."I'm healthy and playing quarterback for the Chicago Bears," saysGrossman. "You can't help but appreciate that." And you just know itbeats the daylights out of pizza and a flat screen.

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There is around these streaking Bears a subtext ofrestraint, as the team tries to apply the brakes to the city's PREMATUREFRENZY.
PHOTOPhotographs by Bob RosatoARMED AT LAST Grossman's stellarform--he's ranked second among NFC QBs--has Bears wideouts Davis (81) and Muhammad (87) justifiably joyful.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See Caption Above.]PHOTOPhotographs by Bob RosatoMONSTROUS Urlacher (54) and company are playing with a ferocity that recalls--dare it be said?--Chicago's legendary '85 defense. PHOTOPhotographs by Bob RosatoDEEP THOUGHTS Berrian has benefited from Grossman's long-ball ability, with four TDs and a 21.7-yards-per-catch average.