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Pass Happy
TIM LAYDEN
October 16, 2006
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
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October 16, 2006

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

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But the Bears were patient, for two reasons. Grossman is a first-round draft choice under contract through 2007, and his talent is so seductive that anyone would give him multiple chances to get healthy and succeed. "I watched college film on him before I signed with the Bears [as a free agent in 2005]," says veteran wideout Muhsin Muhammad. "I liked the way he anticipated receivers coming out 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."

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

Grossman worked long hours with Bears strength coordinator Rusty Jones in the winter and spring to strengthen his rehabbed limbs. He had heard the buzz. "They say I'm injury-prone," he told Spurrier last winter. Spurrier found it an absurd criticism. At Florida his system of complex deep routes required his quarterbacks to stand in the pocket until the last possible tick, frequently taking a big shot on the release. "Man, we killed him when he was on the scout team at Florida his redshirt year," says Bears defensive end Alex Brown, 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 just physical training. During a 23--16 preseason loss to Arizona at Soldier Field, he was booed by impatient Bears fans. Grossman, however, had already rethought his approach to criticism. While watching television early in the Bears' training camp, he heard a Chicago broadcaster rip his performance in drills that day. "That had been one of the best practices of my life," says Grossman, "so I was frustrated to no end hearing that. I decided right then that 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 [media coverage], it's because I was going to the bathroom at Halas Hall, and, you know, I needed something to read."

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

When they do talk about football, they work in a manner that reminds Grossman of his college training. Much like Spurrier did at Florida, Turner cross-references defensive schemes with likely successful play calls, to narrow Grossman's options at the line and reduce the likelihood of confusion. It's instructive to remember that Grossman is still in his professional infancy. "The best thing is that every time I come to the line," Grossman says, "I have a plan in my head based on the coverage."

This planning, combined with Grossman's skills, creates dynamic offensive options. Last Sunday the 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 the right. 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 put McGee one-on-one with Berrian on the outside, with potential help from a lone deep safety. Grossman controlled the safety with his eyes, keeping him away from Berrian, and completed a 62-yard streak down the sideline.

These completions came on a day when Turner said his play-calling was "out of sync." If so, the effects were minimal, thanks to his quarterback's preparation. Grossman arrives at Halas Hall every workday by 7:30 a.m. and leaves 12 hours later. He brings home his Dell laptop, loaded with the $6,000 worth of software he purchased to match the Bears' programs, augmenting his film study at home. He succumbs on occasion to the temptations of Madden or NBA 2K7, and teammate Todd Johnson insists Grossman has another weakness: "The boy likes to eat." The 6'1", 217-pound Grossman sheepishly admits to gaining 20 pounds while injured, all of it long since lost. During dinner last week at a suburban steak house, he picked at grilled salmon and passed on dessert, disciplined even off the field.

There is at all times around these streaking Bears a subtext of restraint, as the team constantly tries to apply the brakes to the city's premature frenzy. "It's early, man," says center Olin Kreutz, a nine-year veteran. The Bears' schedule is hardly daunting (extradivisional games remain with Arizona, San Francisco, Miami and Tampa Bay, who are a combined 4--15), and their NFC North division is painfully weak. But in a three-week stretch in November they play first the New York Giants and then the Jets at the Meadowlands, then travel to New England for the Patriots. They will emerge either daunting or merely good.

Team Grossman needs none of these warnings. Two years ago in Minnesota, Alison Miska watched her future 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 say something, 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 ominous nudge from her mother-in-law and the same words: Rex isn't getting up. Again.

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