Saturday, September 8, 2007

Gross Allegiance

For Bears fans, the NFL season starts tomorrow with a tough test against the very talented Chargers in Jack Murphy/Qualcomm. The beginning of the season is bittersweet given the loss in Miami last season and the fact that nearly all NFL commentators are chomping at the bit to denigrate the team's prospects for this season with Rex Grossman at the helm. And, certainly, given his performance against the Colts and his disastrous miscues in the preseason, this is a story that writes itself.

For football fans -- and for Bears fans in particular -- the focus on Grossman makes little sense. Like with every other team in the NFL, success or failure will largely be contingent on the health of the team. Unlike other NFL teams, the Bears' season will be substantially impacted by the type of production the squad gets out of its running back and secondary positions. Cedric Benson and, to a lesser extent, Adrian Peterson and Garret Wolfe have huge shoes to fill with the departure of Thomas Jones and it is unlikely that the running game will be nearly as effective without TJ. At safety, letting Chris Harris go and leaving the safety position to the somewhat fragile Mike Brown, Archuleta, Danieal Manning, Brandon McGowan and Kevin Payne may turn out to be a disastrous offseason move. The Bears not only gave away Harris, but also lost the underappreciated Todd Johnson and special-teams standout Cameron Worrell at safety. How Babich's Cover-2 scheme works with the Archuleta/M. Brown/Manning/McGowan/Payne combination in the Chargers game should be a good indication for what can be expected from the Bears' last line of defense throughout the season.

So why not be concerned about Grossman? Because Bears fans are used to getting little or nothing at the quarterback position, and Grossman has already proved that he can do much more than we would have ever anticipated. Last season, Grossman completed 54.6% of his passes, threw for 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also threw 20 interceptions -- 16 of those came in just five of sixteen regular season games started by Grossman last year. When he was bad, Grossman was terrible (Arizona; Miami; New England; Minnesota (2); and Green Bay (2)). And when he was good, he was phenomenal -- in the first Green Bay game, the first Detroit game, and the games against the 49ers, Giants, and Tampa Bay, Grossman was 108 for 156 (a 69.2% completion rate), for 1,388 yards, 13 touchdowns, and two interceptions.

Historically, Grossman presents a luxury that Bears fans are not used to... the ability to field a dangerous offensive team that can blow out any opponent with a suspect defense (the Bears scored 30 points or more in seven regular season games last season, in 1985 they scored 30 points or more in six regular season games). The 23 touchdowns that Grossman threw last year were the most that a Bears quarterback had thrown for since Erik Kramer's phenomenal 1995 season (60.3% completion percentage; 3,838 yards, 29 TDs with only ten picks). After that you have to go back to 1949 when Johnny Lujack threw 23 touchdowns (with 22 picks) to find as effective a scorer at quarterback. Since Sid Luckman took over as the Bears' quarterback in 1940, only four men have thrown for 3,000 or more yards in a season: Grossman, Kramer (who did it twice, in 1995 and again in 1997), Jim Harbaugh, and Bill Wade. In '97, Kramer threw 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. In '91, Harbaugh threw 15 touchdowns and 16 picks. In '62, Wade threw 18 touchdowns with 24 interceptions. At the same time, only six other Bears' quarterbacks have thrown 20 or more interceptions in a season: Vince Evans, Rudy Bukich, Bill Wade, George Blanda, Johnny Lujack (who did it twice, including the 1950 season when he followed up his 23 touchdown effort with 4 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and Sid Luckman (31 to accompany 24 touchdowns in 1947).

Grossman is being asked to navigate Bears fans through uncharted waters: he is a high-risk, high-reward quarterback that we have little to no familiarity with. And while many are quick to assert that Grossman will not win the Bears a Super Bowl, the claim misses the point that Grossman doesn't need to. Every single Bears fan knows that last year's game with the Colts is completely different if a healthy Tommie Harris lines up on the other side of Jeff Saturday. And if the team decided to recklessly roll the dice at safety, they did not do so at defensive tackle. A line featuring Harris, Dvoracek, Darwin Walker and Anthony Adams is vastly improved over what the team trotted out in Miami at the beginning of this calendar year. As such, whenever Grossman struggles, the Lovie and Ron Turner should have the ability to convert to a conservative smashmouth offensive gameplan that wins games. Grossman may not win the Bears a Super Bowl, but that observation is irrelevant to the question of whether they will win one. And in the interim, Grossman is going to win the Bears more games than he loses.

Can't wait until kickoff. Go Bears.

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