Bears counting on big things from Grossman
The Bears added some talent on offense in the offseason. But how much the offense improves rests squarely on the shoulders of Rex Grossman.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- For the Bears to have any chance of rising in the NFC North, Rex must defeat "The Hex."
|Inside Bears camp|
Is Charles Tillman on the verge of a Pro Bowl year? Who was Chicago's biggest offseason acquisition? Those are just a few of the things John Clayton touches on in his observations from Bears camp.
• Inside Bears camp
It's Year 3 of the Grossman Era, and not much more is known about him now than when he was the 22nd pick in 2003. He has started just six games and he's thrown only 156 passes. Last year, a knee injury in Week 3 ended his season.
Square one might not be a bad thing for the Bears. General manager Jerry Angelo took a different approach this offseason. As a franchise, the Bears are all about defense. But this offseason, Angelo took a methodical approach to rebuilding the offense. At wide receiver, he signed a sure thing, Pro Bowler Muhsin Muhammad. With the fourth pick in the draft, he took Texas halfback Cedric Benson to be the workhorse, over USC wide receiver Mike Williams. The Bears brought back Ron Turner, who had been head coach at Illinois, as the team's new offensive coordinator. Turner held the same post with the Bears from 1993-96 and led some of Chicago's most productive offenses.
But it all fails if Grossman isn't the right quarterback. The Bears' prospectus is that simple.
"I was here for four years, and we had four different starting quarterbacks," Turner said. "The history of the Bears has been quarterbacks and coordinators. It's a good question why that's been the case. I don't know. I don't have an answer."
To Turner and Muhammad, it looks like Grossman can be the answer. They just need to see more. Grossman might not tower above the line of scrimmage because of his 6-foot-1 frame, but he commands the line of scrimmage. Grossman threw himself into rehabbing his reconstructed knee last year, and by December he was throwing passes. He hasn't stopped since. His right arm looked in midseason form during the first days of Bears training camp.
|“||I'm in between a rookie and a veteran. Last year was my year to establish myself as a quarterback. It was cut short, so I'm in the same position. I'm back to square one. ”|
|— Bears QB Rex Grossman|
"He reminded me a lot of young Steve Beuerlein," Muhammad said. "He's not really big in stature like Kerry Collins. But he's accurate. And he really throws a nice, soft, catchable ball. He has a quick release and that helps him. But it's his touch and anticipation that works. When I'm running the slant or a post, I have to be ready because he gets the ball there as I'm turning. I just have to snatch it out of the air."
Turner, the brother of Raiders coach Norv Turner, is bringing the West Coast offense back to the Bears. Grossman likes the system, but he, like most Bears offensive players, has become numb to change. In his final two years at Florida, Grossman had Steve Spurrier's Fun-'n'-Gun, followed by a spread-type offense Ron Zook borrowed from Marshall.
In Chicago, Grossman has been in the Run-and-Shoop (of former offensive coordinator John Shoop). Last year, Terry Shea brought the Kansas City-St. Louis offense to Chicago. For Grossman, the offense worked. But then in Week 3, pop went Grossman's knee and so went the Bears' season.
"Over, over, the season was over once Rex got hurt," running back Thomas Jones said. "Our receivers were young, inexperienced guys. We never got in a groove. It was definitely tough for us to run the ball."
|Fantasy focus: Mushin Muhammad|
Muhammad had a career season in 2004, but there are too many reasons to expect a big dropoff in '05. He will no longer be playing for a new contract like he was last year, and Bears' QB Rex Grossman won't be as successful throwing downfield as the underrated Jake Delhomme can be. Plus, Muhammad doesn't have a solid complement, although Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian are candidates to possibly blossom this year.
Yes, Muhammad will slip statistically, but don't expect a completely terrible season, either. A healthy Grossman will continue to improve, and has already developed a good on-field relationship with Muhammad in early workouts. Grossman might not be able to start for your fantasy team, but he'll throw often enough to keep his top receiver quite busy.
Muhammad has often proved in the past that he can produce well with extra defensive attention. Muhammad might not deliver top 10 fantasy receiver numbers this year, but will still be a very good starter. He should get over 1,000 yards and might catch between 7 to 9 TD passes.
Enter Turner, who put together the most sound offense run by the Bears in the past decade. From 1993 through 1996, the Bears averaged 25 points per game under Turner's play-calling. His West Coast system features a Mike Shanahan-like running emphasis, which helped the Bears average 482 runs and 491 passes during his tenure despite using four different starting quarterbacks.
"I told the team that the biggest thing is that we have a plan and that we are going to stick to it," Turner said. "We've got to be able to run the football. It's not that we are going to run it 70 percent of the time. But when we run it, we need to run it effectively."
That's where Angelo's building blocks in the offseason might work. Last year's offensive changes didn't fit the talent. The Bears had big receivers and tried to put them in a system that features smaller, quicker receivers. The Priest Holmes-running scheme that Shea brought from Kansas City looked promising for Jones, but the Bears didn't have the kind of blocking to make it work.
"Last year we ran more counters and outside runs," Jones said. "If you can't get guys hooked on the corners, then you have to run straight to the sidelines. In Kansas City, they obviously have great guys on the edge to hook guys and let Priest get to the outside. I don't know if our personnel fit the offense."
Muhammad fits in the West Coast offense because he's 6-2, 215 pounds and not afraid to block a linebacker or defensive end. Jones and Benson fit the plans to run more inside one-cut plays behind zone blocks. Grossman, though short, has a quick release and is accurate, working well in three- and five-step drops.
The question is whether the Bears have enough talent on offense. Last season, the Bears did a marvelous job of revamping their front seven on defense. They added quick defensive tackles such as Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson. Adewale Ogunleye provides 10-sack potential at left end. Lance Briggs developed into a tackling machine at weakside linebacker. Brian Urlacher has Defensive Player of the Year skills at middle linebacker.
"Defensively, as far as the starters at the 11 positions on defense, we feel like we have the right guys," coach Lovie Smith said. "On the defensive line, you have to have good inside players and great outside players. We like our four linemen across. At linebacker, you need to have two high-level-type linebackers. We have that in Brian and Lance."
But there aren't as many sure things on offense. In terms of skill-position players, Muhammad at flanker, and Jones and Benson at halfback, are pretty much it. On the offensive line, the Bears have more than $9 million per year invested in tackles John Tait and Fred Miller, and Olin Kreutz is one of the game's best centers.
After that, there are question marks, and Grossman is clearly the most important one.
"At Carolina, we went from 1-15 to 7-9 to being in the Super Bowl," Muhammad said. "A couple of pieces added to the puzzle could change the whole scope of what you have as a team."
The Panthers did it with Jake Delhomme. Grossman came to Chicago with more fanfare. Rex just has to beat The Hex.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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