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THREE DAYS before the Bears faced the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, coach Lovie Smith sat in his Halas Hall office north of Chicago and tried to explain why, unlike everyone else in the free world, he hadn't given up on Rex Grossman.
The Bears' 26-year-old quarterback had played like an MVP candidate as his team opened the season 5--0. Over the next 11 games, however, he was shockingly erratic even as Chicago coasted to the NFC North title. Grossman opened December with a 1.3 quarterback rating in a win over Minnesota and closed the regular season with as dreadful a half as a quarterback could play: 2 for 12, three interceptions and a passer rating of 0.0 in the first 30 minutes of a loss to Green Bay. Grossman was booed off Soldier Field at intermission. "To say he looked like a deer in headlights is to insult the deer," Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti wrote afterward. Grossman made matters worse--if that were possible--by saying that "so many factors," including the game's being played on New Year's Eve, had taken his focus away.
In Smith's mind, however, Grossman was his starter--regardless of performance. "I've coached Rex Grossman for three years," Smith said last week in his reassuring Texas drawl. "The first year , he earns the starting job, then goes down for the season with an injury against Minnesota. He works his way back, wins the job the next year, then goes down with an injury in St. Louis. He comes back and earns the job again. I know what Rex is about, and more important, the players know what Rex is about. And I know they think he gives us the best chance to win. There are days I've been disappointed in his play--he had a terrible game against Green Bay--but the quarterback position is different. You can't listen to public opinion. I've had Rex in this office a few times this year, and I've told him exactly how I feel. I've told him, 'I believe in you. You've had a tough go, but you're a good football player.'"
If this were Hollywood, Grossman would have gone out and thrown for five touchdown passes to lead the Bears to their first Super Bowl since the 1985 season. But this quarterback and this team do not do things so neatly. Chicago is going to the Super Bowl, all right, but its 39--14 win over New Orleans on Sunday was typical of the Bears' season: They survived some nightmarish play by Grossman before he suddenly, and briefly, rose to the occasion to pull his team out of danger. Afterward the Bears-- Grossman, in particular--showered love on Lovie for the even-handed manner with which he has dealt with them all season. "He wins," Grossman said, "because he sees the potential in his players and he believes in us."
By a margin of about four hours, Smith became the first black coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl, and he'll face off against the second--his friend Tony Dungy, his boss and mentor for five years in Tampa Bay and now the Colts' coach--at Dolphin Stadium on Feb. 4. For the first time in the league's 87-year history, a black man will coach a team to a championship. "It's a huge day in NFL history," said former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a watchdog group pushing for minority gains in coaching, front-office and ownership positions in the NFL. "A generation of kids will grow up now knowing they can be NFL head coaches if that's their dream."
Smith maintained his composure after the game but said, "I'm very choked up. Still waters run deep."
What did Smith do against New Orleans that proved to Grossman and his offensive teammates he truly believes in them? He stayed the course. With two minutes left in the third quarter the Bears were clinging to an 18--14 lead, and Grossman had completed 5 of 20 passes for 64 yards. (In the first quarter he'd missed wide open tight end Desmond Clark in the back of the end zone, because, under minimal pressure, he inexplicably threw off his back foot.) With snow falling and the passing game struggling, Smith could have told offensive coordinator Ron Turner to take the air out of the ball and start grinding it out. But he trusted Turner's game plan, and he trusted Grossman to make the throws he sees him make in practice every day.
"I never doubted Rex today," Turner said. "Lovie didn't either. Rex missed a couple of throws he should have made, but he was making good decisions, not taking any dumb chances. I told him on Friday, 'Run the offense. You get a shot to throw it downfield, take it. Read it, trust your read, be decisive, and have fun.' Late in the third quarter I still trusted him to attack and make something happen if it was there."
In a 2 1/2-minute span Grossman rewarded that trust and put the game away with four perfect throws. He lasered a 13-yarder to Bernard Berrian on an out route, hit Muhsin Muhammad on a 20-yard skinny post, fastballed another 12-yard out to Berrian and lofted a jump ball to the goal line that a tumbling Berrian caught for a 33-yard touchdown over cornerback Fred Thomas. "When the time came that we needed plays," said center Olin Kreutz, "Rex threw darts in the snow."
"Nobody, and I mean nobody, has more mental toughness than Rex Grossman," Turner said. "After the criticism he's taken this year, a few bad throws aren't going to kill him."