- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
CHICAGO -- The right guard for the Super Bowl XX champion Chicago Bears was minding his own business, getting dressed inside the locker room of his health club when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two men waiting.
Tom Thayer knew exactly what they wanted. It had nothing to do with the '85 Bears. Nothing to do with blocking for Walter Payton or playing for Mike Ditka. No, these guys wanted to ask the current Bears color analyst the multimillion dollar question on the mind of just about every single Chicago sports fan these days.
What the hell is up with Rex Grossman?
"Ten weeks ago it was how great he is. Now everybody wants to question everything he stands for," Thayer said. "It's funny -- my mom and brother own a restaurant in Joliet and Rex is always the discussion. These guys in the health club, they wanted to know about Rex's effort and commitment. It just doesn't stop."
But why should it? Perhaps no single athlete in Chicago sports history has been this polarizing, this confounding. Grossman, in his first full season as an NFL starter, was the only quarterback in the league who had a passer rating of 100 or greater in seven games. He was also the only quarterback with a rating of 37 or below in five or more games. Included in that stretch was his 0.0-rated New Year's Eve massacre against Green Bay, in which he completed more passes to Packers (three) than he did to Bears (two).
And then, three days later, there was his eye-opening explanation that he had lost focus the week leading up to the game, failing to properly prepare because the game was meaningless, he was going to play only a half and, yes, it was New Year's Eve.
With the Bears' earning a first-round playoff bye, those comments and the dreadful performance that led up to them have filled almost two weeks cracking the confidence of Bears fans, who just want to know which quarterback will show up for Sunday's divisional playoff game against Seattle. McNabb or McNown? Good Rex or Evil Rex? Whatever happens, when No. 8 jogs onto the Soldier Field turf for the first quarter Sunday, there will be enough nervous energy to light the Sears Tower for a month.
"He's created pretty much a bipolar community," said former Bears receiver Tom Waddle, who interviews Grossman every Sunday night as part of the local Fox affiliate's weekend sports wrap-up show. "The people who are for him and the people who are against him. And it's been a nauseous ride. You're in desperate need of a seatbelt this year if you're a fan of this team."
"It reminds me of a Cracker Jack -- remember the little prize they'd put in there? You never knew what was going to come out of the box each time," Chicago native and comedian Tom Dreesen said. "That's the way it is with Rex. You never know what's going to come out of that box."
But what's great for a surprise sticker inside a box of candy-coated popcorn is bad for a playoff quarterback. Of the eight remaining starting quarterbacks still alive in the playoffs, Grossman has the lowest rating (73.9) and the most interceptions (20).
In the Bears' 13 wins, Grossman has thrown for 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a quarterback rating of 86.8. In their three losses, he's thrown one touchdown and nine interceptions, with a rating of 19.3.
Which explains why, despite the Bears' entering Sunday's game as the No. 1 seed in the conference with the second-best record in football, the prevalent emotion on Michigan Avenue this week was paranoia.
There are other concerns, like a defense that surrendered an average of 26 points and 365 yards to its last four opponents, teams that were a combined 18 games below .500. But it's Grossman who's keeping people up at night.
Like Rex or not, Bears fans are smart enough to realize that the baby-faced quarterback who's as predictable as the Pick 6 in the Illinois lottery can't afford another game with a rating in the single digits, or their team will be done.
"Rex cannot take this team to the Super Bowl, but most of the city knows his crappiness can stop them from going there," said retired 10-year NFL veteran John Jurkovic, part of the "Mac, Jurko and Harry Show" on Chicago's ESPN Radio 1000. "The defense will take them there, the special teams will take them there, but Rex just needs to go along for the ride and quit being a moron."
The morning after Monday's BCS Championship Game, Chicago's ESPN Radio ran a poll asking listeners what the first sports thought that popped into their heads was when they jumped out of bed that morning.
Seven percent answered, "Is Ohio State that bad?" Twelve percent answered, "Is Florida that good?" Fourteen percent answered, "Why can't the Bulls protect a lead?" And over 60 percent answered, "Which Grossman will we get on Sunday?"
"He's been kind of a Greek tragedy this year," Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey said. "There's been this downward spiral, almost like a train wreck at times.
"With most people, it's more than gray hairs, they want to pull their hair out."
The critics haven't been confined to the airwaves and message boards. Former NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has chimed in, calling Grossman's play "frightening" while admitting he's "not a fan." Sayers said he believes Grossman's propensity for turning the ball over has contributed to unnecessary wear and tear on the Bears' defense. Chicago lost defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown to season-ending injuries earlier this year and is just now getting safety Todd Johnson and cornerback Charles Tillman back from injury.
"When a defense gets you the ball and then the offense gives it right back time and time again, it's frustrating," Sayers said. "[The defense] might not be saying anything, but in their minds, they're thinking, 'Damn, here we go again.' It just gets tiring.
"Listen, this has been a great season, but there are question marks. If Rex does not have a halfway decent game, we're going to lose. That's what I'm fearful of. That's what everyone is fearful of."
Except for Marion Wood. The 103-year-old resident of the Belmont Village Assisted Living Community in suburban Glenview, believed by many to be one of the oldest living Bears fans, has plenty of patience for Grossman. Although she acknowledges praying each time he throws an interception or fumbles the football, she doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
"The criticism is the thing that's terrible," she said. "You know, when somebody stumbles, you give them a hand and pick them back up. You don't kick them in the rear end. As Bears fans we need to support Rex. Give him a chance. I know he's going to have a big comeback this weekend. You can't hold him down."
A History of Disaster
The history of Bears quarterbacks is ugly. Kyle Orton. Chad Hutchinson. Jonathan Quinn. Kordell Stewart. Shane Matthews. Cade McNown. These are just some of the names who have lined up under center in the past six seasons. On two fingers, you can count the number of Bears quarterbacks to throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in a season: Erik Kramer, and now, after this season, Rex Grossman. And not since Steve Walsh in 1994 has a Bears quarterback led the team to a playoff victory.
"It's pretty interesting -- this guy has been one of the top two statistical quarterbacks in 87 seasons of Bears football and yet people are booing him," said Roy Taylor, the editor of Bearshistory.com. "I personally think it's ridiculous."
Jurkovic, a former NFL defensive lineman, couldn't disagree more. He sees the shaky track record of Bears quarterbacks as part of the problem.
"You've been eating soup and broth and beans for the better part of 20 years and all of a sudden you've got a guy who is skirt steak," Jurkovic said. "People think he is filet mignon when in essence all he is is skirt steak.
"What I'd like is a ribeye, a porterhouse, something like that. I don't need a filet mignon, but I would like something a little better than skirt steak. Just because he's the best we've had in 20 years doesn't make him better than he actually is."
Jurkovic's afternoon sports talk show is a perfect microcosm for the arguments taking over this city. While Jurkovic and fellow host Dan McNeil can't stand Grossman and think he's going to drive the franchise into the ground, the third member of the broadcast, Harry Teinowitz, believes Grossman is more than capable of taking the Bears to the Super Bowl.
Mac, Jurko and Harry estimate they've spent more than half the show arguing about Grossman this season. Especially after the preseason, when Teinowitz bet his two co-hosts $2,000 that Grossman would start all 16 games for the Bears this year. Jurkovic and McNeil still can't believe they lost the bet and made Teinowitz earn his money. Jurkovic paid him with 300 pounds of change, filled to the brim of a water cooler jug, while McNeil paid the bet in wads of singles and fives.
"Say what you will, but Rex has gotten them this far," Teinowitz said. "When they said he wouldn't play every game, I laughed. So now that they say he can't take them to the Super Bowl, I laugh even harder."
"Whatever," Jurkovic says. "He's a mediocre quarterback. That's all he is."
While headline writers have had a blast with Grossman this season, playing off his name with headlines like, "Gross, Man," "Rex-Ellent" and "The Bears are Rexed," the season has been a nightmare for columnists. Grossman's up-and-down, yo-yo-like play has wreaked havoc on the job of taking a stand in each morning's sports section.
"It's made us schizophrenic," Morrissey said. "The Bears have brought out the worst in me because of people like Grossman. You try to be level-headed and make a clear statement, but this guy makes it so hard for you to do that. Then it looks like you're waffling."
Support from Within
But for all the argument in and around the city, there is one place where Chicagoans appear to be 100 percent behind their quarterback: Halas Hall. There, his coaches and teammates can't line up fast enough to defend their quarterback.
They point to the work ethic he showed during rehab for a torn ACL in 2004 and a broken ankle in 2005 as the reasons they believe in him. They point out that on every Tuesday, the team's official off day, Grossman is always in the building, studying film and preparing for that week's opponent.
"This is a blue-collar town and everyone is curious about Rex's mental commitment, but he couldn't endear himself any more to his teammates," Thayer said. "He's a guy they have great respect for."
Just last week, Grossman's teammates voted him the 2006 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for his comeback from season-ending injuries as well as everything he's had to deal with this season.
"We all could care less if people are worried or can't sleep because of Rex," said defensive end Alex Brown, who has known Grossman since the two played together at the University of Florida. "I can tell you there's nobody worried in this locker room. We believe in him. Just wait until Sunday. That's all I'll say -- wait until Sunday."
As for Grossman, he said he's tried to do everything he can to avoid all the commotion around him. He insists that, despite his performance against the Packers, he hasn't lost his confidence and believes he'll play well throughout the postseason.
But read deeper between the lines and there might not be sleep-filled nights throughout these playoffs for Bears fans. Grossman said Wednesday there are no plans to handcuff him. No plans to dummy down the playbook. And no plans for him to stop taking chances.
Bears fans, better buckle up.
"If it's there, I'm taking it," Grossman said. "That's how you play football. If the throw is there, give it a shot. We're trying to win the game, not kick field goals."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.