THREE DAYS beforethe Bears faced the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, coach Lovie Smith satin his Halas Hall office north of Chicago and tried to explain why, unlikeeveryone 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 theseason 5--0. Over the next 11 games, however, he was shockingly erratic even asChicago coasted to the NFC North title. Grossman opened December with a 1.3quarterback rating in a win over Minnesota and closed the regular season withas dreadful a half as a quarterback could play: 2 for 12, three interceptionsand 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 lookedlike a deer in headlights is to insult the deer," Chicago Sun-Timescolumnist Jay Mariotti wrote afterward. Grossman made matters worse--if thatwere possible--by saying that "so many factors," including the game'sbeing 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 coachedRex Grossman for three years," Smith said last week in his reassuring Texasdrawl. "The first year , he earns the starting job, then goes downfor the season with an injury against Minnesota. He works his way back, winsthe job the next year, then goes down with an injury in St. Louis. He comesback and earns the job again. I know what Rex is about, and more important, theplayers know what Rex is about. And I know they think he gives us the bestchance to win. There are days I've been disappointed in his play--he had aterrible game against Green Bay--but the quarterback position is different. Youcan't listen to public opinion. I've had Rex in this office a few times thisyear, 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 wereHollywood, Grossman would have gone out and thrown for five touchdown passes tolead the Bears to their first Super Bowl since the 1985 season. But thisquarterback and this team do not do things so neatly. Chicago is going to theSuper Bowl, all right, but its 39--14 win over New Orleans on Sunday wastypical of the Bears' season: They survived some nightmarish play by Grossmanbefore he suddenly, and briefly, rose to the occasion to pull his team out ofdanger. Afterward the Bears--Grossman, in particular--showered love on Loviefor the even-handed manner with which he has dealt with them all season."He wins," Grossman said, "because he sees the potential in hisplayers and he believes in us."
By a margin ofabout four hours, Smith became the first black coach to lead his team to aSuper Bowl, and he'll face off against the second--his friend Tony Dungy, hisboss and mentor for five years in Tampa Bay and now the Colts' coach--atDolphin 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 NFLhistory," said former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, executive director ofthe Fritz Pollard Alliance, a watchdog group pushing for minority gains incoaching, front-office and ownership positions in the NFL. "A generation ofkids will grow up now knowing they can be NFL head coaches if that's theirdream."
Smith maintainedhis composure after the game but said, "I'm very choked up. Still watersrun deep."
What did Smith doagainst New Orleans that proved to Grossman and his offensive teammates hetruly believes in them? He stayed the course. With two minutes left in thethird quarter the Bears were clinging to an 18--14 lead, and Grossman hadcompleted 5 of 20 passes for 64 yards. (In the first quarter he'd missed wideopen tight end Desmond Clark in the back of the end zone, because, underminimal pressure, he inexplicably threw off his back foot.) With snow fallingand the passing game struggling, Smith could have told offensive coordinatorRon Turner to take the air out of the ball and start grinding it out. But hetrusted Turner's game plan, and he trusted Grossman to make the throws he seeshim make in practice every day.
"I neverdoubted Rex today," Turner said. "Lovie didn't either. Rex missed acouple of throws he should have made, but he was making good decisions, nottaking any dumb chances. I told him on Friday, 'Run the offense. You get a shotto throw it downfield, take it. Read it, trust your read, be decisive, and havefun.' Late in the third quarter I still trusted him to attack and makesomething happen if it was there."
In a 2 1/2-minutespan Grossman rewarded that trust and put the game away with four perfectthrows. He lasered a 13-yarder to Bernard Berrian on an out route, hit MuhsinMuhammad on a 20-yard skinny post, fastballed another 12-yard out to Berrianand lofted a jump ball to the goal line that a tumbling Berrian caught for a33-yard touchdown over cornerback Fred Thomas. "When the time came that weneeded plays," said center Olin Kreutz, "Rex threw darts in thesnow."
"Nobody, and Imean 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 tokill him."
"Rex made somedecisions at times this year that weren't smart," Muhammad said. "Ithink he would admit that. But down the stretch he's done a great job ofprotecting the football. That's the maturation process of a young quarterback.He doesn't have to make the dangerous throw all the time. You saw thattoday."
Winning the NFC isone thing, but a Grossman-led team beating a Peyton Manning--led team in theSuper Bowl is quite another. Who would believe that?
Lovie Smith would.After he finished defending Grossman in his office last week, the unflappablecoach, sitting in a soft chair with one leg draped over the side, consideredhis great fortune. There had been news reports of the Bears' feeble efforts tore-sign Smith long term; he's the league's lowest-paid head coach at an annualsalary of $1.35 million, and the team had offered to double that as part ofmultiyear deal. He declined, preferring to wait until after the season. Wisemove. He's probably a $5 million-a-year man now, even in an organization notedfor underpaying its coaches.
The money canwait. Smith is just reveling in the moment. "I'm the head coach of theChicago Bears," he said. "George Halas's daughter [club executiveVirginia McCaskey] is in the office right next door. This is the organizationof George Halas, Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus. It's a great footballtown. We're still playing to win a Super Bowl. How can life be anybetter?"
With that, Smithpulled up his left sleeve a few inches. "Look at this," he said. He hadgoose bumps. You may not believe in the Bears' quarterback right now, but hiscoach does. And you should definitely believe in the coach.
While the Chicago defense took care of business against New Orleans, Grossman(8) avoided fatal mistakes.
PETER READ MILLER
[See Caption Above.]