The last time an NFL season opened and Rex Grossman took the field as a starting quarterback was four years ago. He was 27, coming off a 13-3 season and a Super Bowl appearance. Were he any other quarterback in any other city, billboards might have carried his likeness; jerseys would have flown off the shelves.
Chicago could have been Grossman’s town. It was not.
“A lot of people look back on the Rex Grossman era,” said former Bears wide receiver Tom Waddle, now a sports-talk radio host in Chicago, “and they feel a little bit unfulfilled.”
Take another sports-talk radio host, and take that a step further.
“I think the fans here, they remember him as a punch line,” said Mike Mulligan, a Chicago native.
So when Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan uttered the following words on Monday — “The starting quarterback will, obviously, be Rex” — nowhere did it resonate more than in Chicago. Not in Bloomington, Ind., where Grossman set records as a stud high school player who was recruited nationally. Not in Gainesville, Fla., where he quarterbacked Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators and became the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
In Washington, Shanahan’s pronouncement that Grossman had beaten out John Beck to start Sunday’s season opener against the New York Giants was met with some measure of debate and curiosity, but not much passion. In Chicago?
“People are totally snickering. That’s the word,” Mulligan said. “Is it unfair to him? Sure. But it is absolutely what’s happening. There’s no respect given to him in Chicago. People are like, ‘Rex is starting in Washington? Ha.’ ”
No one in the 91-year history of the Bears has thrown more postseason passes than Grossman, who was a first-round draft pick by Chicago. Since the franchise won its only Super Bowl championship, following the 1985 season, 34 quarterbacks have attempted regular season passes for the Bears. Only one has done so in another Super Bowl: Rex Grossman.
“Not everybody makes it to a Super Bowl,” Grossman said last week, his only public hint of bravado. “But I do not want to talk about Chicago any more.”
Grossman’s experience in Chicago, where he was once a first-round draft pick and the hope for the future, will help shape his experience in Washington. Since he left there after the 2008 season — after 31 starts, 33 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions — he served as a backup in Houston for one season and a backup with the Redskins for another until he took over for Donovan McNabb to mop up a disappointing 2010. The road to winning a starting job, then losing it painfully, then winning it again will inform what happens next.
“I think you’re hardened any time you play the position of quarterback in the National Football League,” said Shanahan, himself a Chicago native. “I think you get hardened very quickly. There’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure, especially in Chicago. . . . There’s always a lot of pressure, because they do have tradition.”
Grossman’s career in Chicago ended, in effect, on Sept. 23, 2007. That night, the Bears hosted Dallas, their third game of the season. The expectations in Chicago were a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, this time with a win. Excuses need not apply.
To that point, Grossman had thrown one touchdown and three interceptions, and the Bears were 1-1 — which, to fans, meant not good enough. His status as the team’s starter had been something of a week-to-week referendum even in 2006, even as he started all 16 games, even as the Bears won the NFC championship. The situation was so combustible that Bears Coach Lovie Smith’s weekly status update — “Rex is our quarterback” — disappointed so many fans it eventually appeared on T-shirts.
“That’s a lot of pressure on a young kid,” former Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “I would say that some of that pressure probably got to Rex. I can’t say 100 percent, but if you compare how he played in the first six, seven games of 2006 to 2007, there’s just an obvious change.”
In September 2006, Grossman was named the NFC’s offensive player of the month, and the Bears rolled to a 7-0 start. The stops and starts that had marked his career — a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2004, a broken ankle in 2005 — were behind him. A city that knows everything about ferocity at middle linebacker and little about stability at quarterback suddenly seemed like it had its man.
But in the sixth week of that season — in a game that’s actually still remembered because Dennis Green, then the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, bellowed at members of the media afterward, “The Bears are who we thought they were!” — Chicago won 24-23 on the strength of two fourth-quarter returns, one of a fumble, one of a punt. Grossman, though, threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles. In Chicago, fans rapidly became familiar with two personalities, distinctly different: “Good Rex” and “Bad Rex.”
“I knew he could get hot,” said Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who was with Houston when the Texans brought Grossman in for 2009. “I also knew he could get cold. I think that was a time where he kept both teams in the game.”
On Sept. 23, 2007, Grossman did not keep the Bears in the game. Against Dallas, in prime time in front of a national audience, he completed 15 of 32 passes for 195 yards. He threw three interceptions. He was sacked three times. The Bears lost, 34-10. After that game, Smith did not say what he had said so often: Rex is our quarterback.
“Chicago, it’s a tough town for quarterbacks,” said Pep Hamilton, who took over as the Bears’ quarterbacks coach in 2007. “In a lot of instances, I honestly think it was unfair to put all of the responsibility of the team’s shortcomings on Rex Grossman. But that’s what happened.”
Said Muhammad: “Patience, in that town, is not a virtue.”
Three days later, before Smith announced his decision, the Chicago Sun-Times published an editorial that ran under the headline: “Benching heart-stopping QB important for city’s health” and read, in part, “we were on the verge of calling our alderman to see if there was some kind of ‘detrimental to Chicago’ clause that could get Rex benched.”
“I was kind of the lightning rod,” Grossman said last week. “What’s going to happen?”
Later that day, Smith replaced Grossman with journeyman Brian Griese. Grossman reappeared later in the season, but the Bears finished 7-9. The next season, Kyle Orton was Chicago’s starter. The next year, Grossman was gone.
“You never got the sense that he thought he was treated unfairly,” said Waddle, who hosted a Sunday night television show during the season on which Grossman made a weekly appearance. “You could have never asked a guy to be more professional. He had a very up-and-down career here, but you always had a constant of him off the field. He was very professional, and he never complained.”
On Wednesday morning, in the Redskins’ locker room at the team’s Ashburn training facility, Grossman stopped before he walked past rookie running back Roy Helu, who sat on the floor, stretching. Grossman had a question about the route Helu liked to take before he received a handoff on a specific play. The two worked out the kink, and the starting quarterback of the Redskins walked back to his locker, shuffling in his flip-flops.
“That’s Rex,” veteran wide receiver Jabar Gaffney said. “That’s how he is. He doesn’t really give a care about how anybody thinks.”
A decade ago, Gaffney and Grossman were teammates at Florida during a tumultuous time when, as Gaffney said, Spurrier’s philosophy was, “Get the job done, or it’ll be musical quarterbacks.”
So when Gaffney arrived in a trade from Denver prior to the season, he took one look at his old buddy, and thought the Redskins’ quarterback race just might be over.
“As soon you saw him, you could tell he had that confidence,” Gaffney said. “You could tell it was gonna be his job.”
Grossman’s last start for the Bears came in November 2008, and it was only because Orton was hurt. His starts for the Redskins last year came mostly because McNabb struggled so mightily in Shanahan’s offense that the coach wanted to see someone else — anyone else — grab the reins.
Now, Grossman has been in the same offensive system for three straight years. (It is, notably, not the straightforward scheme run by the Bears, which one Redskins’ official referred to as “Neanderthal.”) He beat out Beck, whose ability Mike Shanahan has raved about, because he was better in three preseason appearances.
Four years have passed. Chicago is gone. And whether Bears fans believe it or not, Rex Grossman is a starting quarterback in the NFL once again.
“I feel like I’m a better quarterback than I was then, and I like my chances going into this season a lot better than I did then,” Grossman said. “I’m a much more grounded quarterback and confident in my abilities. . . .
“I didn’t take it for granted in Chicago. But any time something gets taken away from you and you get it back, you have a different outlook, a different type of approach and respect to the position you’re in.”