Monday, September 24, 2007

Grossman only the beginning of the Bears’ “Pivot”-al woes

My favourite memory of the 2007 Super Bowl didn’t happen on the field. Attending a Super Bowl party one of my friends throws every year, I remember that after every play Rex Grossman executed came cries of either “Good Rex” or “Bad Rex” depending on the result of the play. It felt like my friends were treating Grossman like a dog (and, before I write any further, none of this article has anything to do with Michael Vick), and given Grossman’s first name, the dog-like treatment didn’t seem at all out of place. In his first year as the Chicago Bears’ starter, Grossman worked like a dog to get the Bears to the 2007 Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts, doing the offensive “dirty-work” with timely dump-off passes and handing the ball off for inside runs by Cedric Benson. He was never a big-game quarterback the way his Colts counterpart Peyton Manning was, but the former Florida Gator didn’t have to be, since the Bears’ top-ranked defence didn’t need a lot of points to get the win.

At first, the unsung hero did his work, pacing Chicago to a 14-6 lead after the first quarter that should have been the difference given the Bears’ great defence and Manning’s reputation as a choke artist in big games. However, Manning and the Colts proved capable, attaining a 22-17 lead after three quarters mainly on a Bears-style game with short passes and good inside running, this time putting the pressure squarely on Grossman’s shoulders. Given the fact he had an entire quarter to work with, Chicago’s small-ball approach should still have worked- especially considering it had worked to perfection in the come-from-behind divisional-round win over the Seattle Seahawks- but “Bad Rex” made an appearance instead, tossing two interceptions- including one Kelvin Hayden returned for the back-breaking, 29-17 score- that sealed the victory for the Colts. Calls for his head were made all off-season, but Chicago rightly stood by their quarterback knowing that the Bears were still well in the Super Bowl and that a change that big would not be necessary.

Hindsight, as it’s always said, is 20/20, and that could not have been apparent after the Bears opened 2007 at 1-2. Grossman’s Super Bowl form continued, with a drive-killing end zone interception against the San Diego Chargers in Week One and a three-interception performance in Week Three at home against the Dallas Cowboys, with a Bears-type victory against the hapless Kansas City Chiefs thrown in. In their latest loss to Dallas, the result could again be attributed to Grossman, who killed the Bears’ chances with another fourth-quarter interception- to Anthony Henry- that made the score 27-10 and put the game out of reach. To be fair, there was a lot more that happened to Chicago than just Grossman’s miscues, including injuries to defensive stars Lance Briggs and Nathan Vasher and whatever that play was from field goal kicker Robbie Gould towards the end of the second quarter with the game knotted at three (yes, it was 3-3 at halftime), but as it was in the Super Bowl, a Grossman miscue directly took Chicago out of the game. This time, Grossman even failed to learn from his mistakes, throwing the same interception to Henry in that ill-fated fourth quarter as he had in the second quarter- into great coverage. Whereas in the Super Bowl one might give Grossman the benefit of the doubt by being caught up in the pressure of a big game, his early 2007 returns won’t dispel any of his criticisms, but while they’re justified, Chicago doesn’t have any solid answers to the questions now being posed at pivot.

During the 34-10 loss to Dallas, Chicago fans started chanting “Griese, Griese”, referring to backup quarterback Brian Griese, signed in the 2006 off-season after Grossman’s knee problems the previous season created a potential hole at quarterback. Griese, like Grossman, built a career out of simply being effective, carving out a nine-year career that saw starting roles with the Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins before landing in Chicago. He does possess a Super Bowl ring (as a third-stringer for the 1999 Broncos) and a 2000 Pro Bowl berth (after taking over from the retired John Elway), but Griese’s career is marked more with failures and injuries than any sustained success. Granted, Griese never played with the kind of team Grossman is playing with, but- as NBC’s John Madden and Al Michaels pointed out on their broadcast of the Bears’ defeat- it still won’t be enough to solve the Bears’ now momentous quarterback crisis.

Despite what many might think, Chicago’s offence has a lot more talent than they’re given credit for. The team possesses two standout wide receivers, Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian, the always reliable Desmond Clark at tight end, the effective power-running combination of Benson and Adrian Peterson and the game-breaking abilities of kick returner Devin Hester. The pieces are all there for what should be a dynamic offensive machine- the only thing that’s missing is the motor. It is precisely the reverse of the situation the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady found himself in last year- whereas Brady had no one to pass the ball to, the Bears don’t have anyone to pass the ball to them. If Grossman could not do the job in the long run, there’s no way Griese- who is essentially the same quarterback- can do it either. In 2006, the Bears got away without their motor because their defence played out of its element- however, as the Cowboys and Chargers proved this year, at some point the offence needs to pick up the slack because as good as the defence may be, they can’t be expected to bail out an offence that is comically out of sync.

If the Bears need any inspiration- at least for what *not* to do- they can look at the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens in 2000 were built much like the Bears- Baltimore possessed an all-world defence anchored by Tony Siragusa and Ray Lewis and a smart, capable offence built around the small-ball led by the simply-effective Trent Dilfer. Unlike Chicago, Baltimore won their Super Bowl appearance that year in a defence-propelled, offensively-challenged 34-7 victory over the New York Giants that saw 17 punts in the first half alone. However, in the years ahead, the Ravens’ lack of offence caught up to them with early playoff exits punctuated by outright misses in 2004 and 2005. Only after Steve McNair- who proved his worth in his tenure with the Tennessee Titans- came aboard in 2006 did the Ravens’ fortunes turn for the better. Baltimore’s offence still isn’t exactly the explosive machine that is the Colts’ or the New Orleans Saints’, but with McNair running the ship efficiently, the Ravens were able to quickly rebound back into the National Football League’s elite.

That is, granted, small solace for the Bears this season, given no proven game-breaking quarterback exists on their roster and no game-breaking quarterback- save maybe for Tampa Bay’s Chris Simms and, if he has any gas left in the tank, Arizona Cardinal Kurt Warner- whom they could acquire before the trade deadline. Plan B- Griese- really isn’t much of a plan at all, given that after a few weeks of him we’ll all be at this again crying about how ineffective Griese has been pulling the Bears out of another logjam of a game, at which point it may be too late to save Chicago’s season.

It is here that I’d like to formally suggest a rather unlikely Plan C- Kyle Orton. Madden and Michaels made passing references to him in the quarterback discussions, never mentioning anything about him except for the fact that he’s there. Orton isn’t a popular choice among Bear fans given his problems in 2005 in relief of Grossman, but Orton is two years younger than Grossman and does possess a 10-5 record as a starter. He didn’t exactly ooze potential in 2005 but, unlike Griese, he’s still young and thus has time to develop into the game-breaking starter that Grossman and Griese have proven not to be. Not only that, he does have winning experience in the NFL and that can’t be underestimated, because at his age he can only build upon it. This is still a long shot in terms of success for Lovie Smith and the Bears but given the debacle in Dallas, Smith has no choice but to make a change at pivot, and Orton, at his age, deserves a second chance.

Perhaps I sit here today, typing away, making too much of the Bears’ problems- after all, 1-2 isn’t the worst of records to bounce back from- but Chicago’s problems at quarterback stretch longer than just this season or even the season prior to that. The past three seasons have seen the Bears build a potentially dynamic offence without anyone there to fuel it and while the defence has been stellar enough to mask those problems, the Cowboys’ emphatic win and the Ravens’ follies after their Super Bowl triumph show that it is a laurel the Bears can’t afford to rest on. Grossman has had his chance and blown it and Griese, being the same kind of quarterback and nearing the twilight of his career, won’t be anything more than a stopgap, leaving the young Orton, who does have a winning record as a starter and thus deserves a second shot as the starter, unless the Bears pull a rabbit out of their hat and find another quarterback out of nowhere. Out of all the uncertainty in the Bears’ quarterback ranks is one certainty- unless Chicago fixes the problem soon, the weather won’t be the only cold reception that greets the Bears this winter at Soldier Field.