I remember shivering through a Sunday night game at Soldier Field in December 2005, a night so cold your beer turned to slush, and watching as the Bears offense turned in its typical performance that year: three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out. The team was miraculously in playoff contention late in the season, but frustrated fans started to boo the offense and rookie quarterback Kyle Orton.
Then came what fans had been waiting weeks for: Rex Grossman, out since the preseason with a broken ankle, trotted on the field to replace Orton, and promptly completed a laser down the middle for a first down.
From my seats in the south end zone I had a perfect view of Rex letting loose with that pass and the receiver then coming into view and gathering it in. First down! About 60,000 of us let loose with some primal screams that had been pent up for three months.
We had a quarterback!
Rex led the Bears down to the goal line on that drive and then gave us a glimpse of what was to come over the next few seasons. He threw a bad interception but, amazingly, the defender fumbled and the Bears recovered: first and goal again. This time they scored and went on to beat a good Falcons team led by Michael Vick.
I think of that game and many others as the Bears get ready to wave goodbye to Rex. He'll be a free agent by the end of the day—a clock on the Chicago Tribune Web site was counting down to the second he's gone—and Chicago doesn't want him back. Like many fans, I won't miss him. He can go torture some others teams' fans, if there's a GM and coach willing to give him a shot.
Still, I must admit to some mixed feelings. While he had to have been the most wildly inconsistent quarterback in the history of the game, he was OUR wildly inconsistent quarterback. There is basically no such thing as an in-season blockbuster trade in the NFL, so at a certain point you had to accept that the Bears, for the season you were in, were living or dying with Rex.
Of course, the team could have brought in a better backup to press him, or simply given up on him earlier and moved on. But when it gets to late fall, and your team somehow keeps winning and is leading the division, and the quarterback occasionally rips off a pass that takes your breath away, you're kind of locked in for the season.
In 2006 there were many fans calling for backup Brian Griese, a competent veteran, to take over. With a strong running game and superior defense, they argued, Griese could shepherd this team to a Super Bowl title. Maybe. I doubt it. Griese later proved himself to be somewhat less than competent, and that Bears defense was dragging in the second half of the season.
Rex was the man until the (very) bitter end. I actually got into a screaming match with another Bears fan at the Super Bowl over it. The guy was sitting in front of me and complaining all game about Rex and yelling at Lovie Smith to bring in Griese. I finally told him to shut up, that it was way too late to make a change, and that he was killing the Bears' karma.
Ends up he might have been right. Oh well, that was life with Rex.
As for that Super Bowl, Rex had two bad interceptions, a fumble and a stumble, but also threw a dart to Muhsin Muhammad for a score and finished the game 20 of 28 for 165 yards. Sports Illustrated recently ranked the 10 worst Super Bowl performances by a quarterback, and Grossman wasn't on the list. He had as much to do with the loss as a defense that couldn't stop Peyton Manning (25 of 38 for 247 yards) and a game plan that abandoned the run way too early.
Earlier that season Rex won NFC Player of the Month in September as the Bears charged out to a 7-0 start. Of course, that seventh win was the game at Arizona where he threw four interceptions and finished with a QB rating of 10.2. The following game, against the 49ers, he tossed three touchdowns with no picks and had a rating of 137.4.
That was Rex.
Besides that dart he threw on that cold December night in 2005, there are other moments I'll never forget: a long touchdown pass at Green Bay in a season-opening blowout that had fans muttering, "Hey, we got a squad this year!"; the bomb he tossed to Bernard Berrian for a score in the playoff game against Seattle, and a laser in overtime that set up the winning field goal; any number of 15-yard down-and-outs that most quarterbacks in the NFL didn't have the arm to complete.
The dude had an arm.
I'll also never forget when, on the final play of the NFC Championship game that sent the Bears to the Super Bowl, Grossman took the snap at mid-field and heaved the ball about halfway up the west grandstand. It was an incredible emotional release, and in that moment, I understood.
Of course, there were just as many and probably more plays that had fans pulling their hair out. So sayonara, Rex. Bears fans can only hope they'll never see another like you again.