Roller-coaster QB drives Bears

The Baltimore Sun

Chicago -- When he's good, he's very, very good. And when he's bad, half the city of Chicago wants to take him behind the woodshed.

No one has nicknamed Rex Grossman "Train" yet, as in Train Rex. But that doesn't mean a few people aren't thinking about it.

He is the enigma of the NFL playoffs this season, the one starting quarterback who is as unpredictable as rolling dice.

Brilliant one week, disastrous another. Brilliant one play, disastrous another. A precocious young man of enormous talent and with an exasperating predilection for harebrained decisions.

Even in his more cogent performances, at least one crazy and perhaps fateful Grossman foul-up seems inevitable, and that will be one of the many keys to today's NFC championship game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orelans Saints.

Near the end of the first half of the divisional playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, swift Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson was swooping down on Grossman. Instead of tucking the ball away and taking the sack, he tried to outrun Peterson, holding the ball well away from his body.

Sack, fumble and recovery by the Seahawks at the Bears' 26-yard line. Five plays later, Seattle scored a touchdown to tie the score at 14.

At the end of that day, when Grossman's mercurial play weighed in on the scales of football justice, he was a hero, having led drives that tied the score with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter and that won it in overtime.

"I don't know if he needs it," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said of how Grossman deals with adversity. "But when it happens, he focuses in and gets ready to go. When he doesn't play well, it's usually him more than anything else."

From the moment Grossman entered the University of Florida, coach Steve Spurrier knew he had a diamond. He's not a commanding presence at 6 feet 1 and 217 pounds. But the ball comes out of his right hand with high velocity in an unwavering spiral, and he throws a deep ball with uncommon accuracy.

His NFL career curtailed by injuries in his first three years, Grossman has started all 17 games this season, and, though his inconsistency has been confounding, his demeanor has been regularly upbeat.

At a final news conference Friday, he was asked if he reads the Chicago papers or listens to TV analysts who have dissected his 14 wins and three losses.

"I have before," he replied, playfully. "If you listen to too many people's opinions, it can be distracting, so I try to limit that. I take criticism from our coaches. I don't pay much attention to media criticism. I'd just like to not talk about that."

Grossman's quarterback rating has been 80 or above 10 times, including in seven of his first 10 games. He threw 18 touchdown passes during that stretch.

He has thrown six since, plus 10 interceptions.

Grossman played extraordinary football in consecutive games against Seattle and the Buffalo Bills early in the season, then followed with a four-interception flop against the Arizona Cardinals.

He was 6-for-19 for 34 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and, in the final game of the regular season, against the Green Bay Packers, he seemed nonchalant -- 2-for-12 for 33 yards with three interceptions, a lost fumble and a quarterback rating of 0.0.

Later he said: "It felt like I was going to play about a half [against the Packers]. It's the last game, New Year's Eve and there were so many factors that brought my focus away from what is actually important."

Perhaps that attitude didn't surprise coach Lovie Smith and Turner, but it was astonishing he would say it publicly.

If he has a love-hate relationship with fans, there apparently is nothing less than supreme admiration from the men with whom he works.

"I think I'm his biggest fan," said Bears defensive end Alex Brown, who played three years with Grossman at Florida.

Smith tried to look at his quarterback objectively on Friday, but he certainly wasn't going to sling even veiled criticism at Grossman two days before the NFC championship game.

"I like him leading our team," Smith said, "and I have all the confidence in the world he can get the job done."

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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