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A look back at the 2006 Bears-Cardinals comeback

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In the end, we will remember only two games from 2006. One is the Super Bowl. The other is the Comeback. As part of his ongoing series on the 2006 Bears, Jack M Silverstein looks back at the legendary 24-23 come-from-behind masterpiece that encapsulated the Lovie Smith era.

Chicago Bears v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

I guess the real question is — What did Dennis Green think we were?

The assessment embedded in the late great coach’s famous postgame press conference following the legendary 24-23 come-from-behind Bears win over the Arizona Cardinals is that the 2006 Chicago Bears were, at their core, a sloppy and untalented team easily dispatched so long as they didn’t produce a historic comeback anchored by three non-offensive touchdowns.

But that’s bogus for two reasons. First, though the Bears offense was freakishly anemic against the Cards (168 total yards, 6 turnovers, 3 points), they’d been brilliant thus far, 1st in the NFL in points per game at 31.2 (with only one non-offensive TD) and 3rd in yards. So Green was off if he was dismissing Rex and co.

Second, the team was a defensive and special teams juggernaut. Fewest points allowed in 2005 with five return touchdowns in ‘05, while in ‘06 they entered the Cardinals game with a 5-0 record, 15 takeaways, and the rookie Devin Hester, to that point the league’s leader in punt return yards.

In other words, they were exactly the type of team capable of destroying your world without their quarterback.

I understood Green’s frustration though. I think everyone did, even the Bears. There has literally never been an NFL comeback like this one: a 20-point halftime deficit overcome without an offensive touchdown.

“When I think of the word team, I think of 11 guys doing one thing, not one guy doing 11 things,” Charles Tillman said last month. “That particular game was the poster child of what team is. One guy playing for the other.”

This summer, when the NFL released on YouTube full broadcasts of three great games per team, I doubt anyone was surprised that the Cardinals game was one of ours.

That epic magnificence went down ten years ago this Sunday. October 16, 2006. To celebrate, here is a look back at the game that shifted the season.

WHO’S WHO

Rex Grossman

Until the Cardinals game, no one had conceived of “Bad Rex.” The Bears QB entered the game 5th in the NFL in passing yards and 2nd in touchdowns, with a passer rating of 100.8. He was named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month in September.

The negative angle to Rex’s narrative at this point was his health, summed up by his introductory TV graphic:

In 2006, Rex Grossman played his first and only 16-game season. (via YouTube)

Matt Leinart

The forgotten star of the Comeback is the Cardinals rookie quarterback Leinart, who was aggressive, efficient, steady, fearless, and inspiring, garnering nearly opposite reviews as his counterpart Grossman.

Chicago Bears vs Arizona Cardinals - October 16, 2006
Against the Bears, Matt Leinart looked like he was back at USC.
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Bears offense

Tough game for a unit that entered Week 6 as the NFL’s highest scoring. Nothing went right. Offensive line probably had the worst game other than Rex, and of course both performances are tied together.

The starters are seen here on the game’s first play:

Along with Grossman, the Bears starters against Arizona were: RB Thomas Jones (#20 in the right slot), FB Jason McKie (behind Grossman), TE Desmond Clark (#88, left slot), WRs Mushin Muhammad (#87, wide left) and Bernard Berrian (#80, wide right), and offensive linemen from left to right, John Tait, Ruben Brown, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, Fred Miller. (via YouTube)

Brian Urlacher

Nineteen tackles. A forced fumble that led to a touchdown. Absolute havoc.

Peak Urlacher.

Bears defense

These guys produced a memorable finish on the heels of a hideous half. Along with Urlacher’s Superman routine, Mark Anderson started in place of the injured Adewale Ogunleye and made the play that began the turning of the tide, the fumble that Mike Brown recovered and returned for a score.

The Bears base defense seen at the start of the game: DEs Alex Brown and Mark Anderson, DTs Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, LBs Hunter Hillenmeyer, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, CBs Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman, safeties Mike Brown and Danieal Manning. (via YouTube)

MNF announcers

Your announcers for this Monday Night Football matchup: Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, and Tony Kornheiser, a newly formed trio that would add Charles Barkley before night’s end.

From left: Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser. (via YouTube)

Chicago media picks

Brad Biggs, Sun-Times: 27-10 Bears

Mike Downey, Tribune: 23-3 Bears

David Haugh, Tribune: 31-13 Bears

Melissa Isaacson, Tribune: 28-6 Bears

Fred Mitchell, Tribune: 31-10 Bears

Rick Morrissey, Tribune: 28-3 Bears

John Mullin, Tribune: 31-7 Bears

Don Pierson, Tribune: 32-10 Bears

Kent Somers, Arizona Republic: 27-10 Bears

And Joe Theismann went was on the record that the Bears would go unbeaten.

1st Quarter

14:54 remaining — Let me reiterate: when Rex Grossman took the snap to start this game, he had a QB rating over 100 and only four total turnovers. He also had four TD passes just to Bernard Berrian, three of them from 40 or more yards.

On a brilliant and funky play call to open the game, Grossman juuuuuust overthrew Berrian. Look too how left tackle John Tait nearly allows his man to get to Grossman.

More would go wrong.

14:10 — Grossman throws what is nearly his first interception of the game on 3rd and 9, either badly over-throwing Muhsin Muhammad or badly under-throwing Rashied Davis. Bears punt.

13:58 — Leinart comes out for his first series and gains 5 on an out to Anquan Boldin to start the game. If you re-watch this game, take note of how calm, measured, and decisive Leinart was. For a rookie QB in his second start, he was masterful. Still don’t understand how things went so south for he and draft classmate Vince Young.

Brian Urlacher, machine linebacker. (via YouTube)

12:18 — The Bears were 11-point road favorites for this game. When officials brought out the chains to measure a possible Arizona first down, Kornheiser said, “I think if they make this, the Cardinals ought to just stop. ... As Muhammad Ali would say, ‘We’ve shocked the world,’ and now we’re leaving the field, and you people drive home safely.”

That’s how little most fans expected of the 1-4 Cardinals.

12:06 — The Cards killed us here with a play-action bootleg, which Leinart completed for 9 yards. Leinart did this to us all night.

7:12 — Leinart to Bryant Johnson for 11 yards, and just like that, touchdown Cardinals. I remember so well the feeling of greatness being chipped away. As Kornheiser points out, the Bears had not yet allowed a touchdown in the first half much less the quarter, much less the game’s first drive.

The Bears defense, immediately before Arizona’s first score. (via YouTube)

Arizona converted five first downs and took a quick 7-0 lead. This was a huge deal. It made me feel unclean.

Score: Cardinals 7, Bears 0

Urlacher tackle count: 2

5:46 — On 3rd and 2, Grossman overthrows Rashied Davis on a pass that Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle should have intercepted. I remember thinking there was something up with Rex but that it was nothing serious.

4:13 — First appearance of Devin Hester, back deep to return a punt. I love that Hester’s first NFL touchdown was a part of Bears history.

First appearance for Devin Hester. He would return. (via YouTube)

2:42 — On 3rd and 9, Kornheiser says that Grossman “could own Chicago if he can keep throwing touchdown passes.” On cue, Grossman under-throws Muhammad and gets picked off by Aaron Francisco. Accuracy was a problem starting with the game’s first pass. It bit Rex here.

Grossman turnover count: 1

1:02 — On 3rd and 11, Leinart snags his second TD with a 26-yarder to Anquan Boldin. Boldin juked Urlacher at the point of the catch and then out-raced the defense to the endzone.

This was where I really started to feel like something was funky. A real glitch-in-the-Matrix moment. Our points allowed through five games:

Packers: 0

Lions: 7

Vikings: 16

Seahawks: 6

Bills: 7

Now the Cardinals, of all teams, had 14 points on their first two drives, still in the first quarter. It made no sense. I wasn’t worried, per se. I just thought it all unnecessarily reckless.

The first quarter ended three plays later with the Bears facing a 3rd and 3.

Score: Cardinals 14, Bears 0

Urlacher tackle count: 3

2nd Quarter

13:14 — After their drive stalled, the defense forced the Cardinals into a three-and-out. On first down, Grossman went over the middle to Berrian into double coverage and was intercepted again.

I noted the announcers in my “who’s who” above because they truly did at various points speak for the fans in their confusion and surprise.

“Intercepted!” Tirico shouted on this pick by linebacker Gerald Hayes. “What is going on tonight?”

Grossman turnover count: 2

13:00 — Barkley in the house! His first line: “I told y’all, Arizona is going to shock the world.”

11:21 — Neil Rackers, the All Pro kicker the year before, misses a 52-yard field goal wide left, his fourth miss of the season after going 40 of 42 in 2005. The week before he’d missed a potential game-tying field goal with seven seconds left.

8:13 — Bertrand Berry races around John Tait on the edge to bag a sack-strip on Grossman, who was hanging in the backfield a step too long on play-action on first down.

Again, the announcers were saying what fans were thinking, with Tirico shouting “Look out from behind!” as Rex was hit.

Kornheiser: “We might be looking at the biggest upset, clearly, this year in the NFL.”

Grossman turnover count: 3

4:25 — Arizona gains only 10 net yards (they lost 10 on a holding call on Boldin) and Rackers hits a 41-yard field goal. At this point I felt dazed, like I had personally taken some of the hits on Rex. I really felt dinged in the head. Battered. Befuddled. Confused.

Score: Cardinals 17, Bears 0

Urlacher tackle count: 6

2:25 — On first down from their own 37, Rex is sacked and stripped again. Yet another deep drop where Grossman did not see the pressure from his right side, with Adrian Wilson looping around Dez Clark.

Theismann: “This is an offensive line that is being embarrassed.” We all were.

Grossman turnover count: 4

0:02 — Coming off the turnover, Leinart drives Arizona to the 13 and the Cards get another field goal. “Stunning” doesn’t describe how this one felt. I didn’t think the game was out of reach — I just couldn’t tell how we would win.

Arizona’s performance didn’t seem flukey. Leinart was brilliant and Rex was brutal, and that to me told the tale.

Before the field goal, though, Barkley made his best contribution of the night: “I’m going to make a prediction: 20 ain’t gonna be enough to win this game.”

Score: Cardinals 20, Bears 0

Halftime

From Charles Tillman:

I remember Olin Kreutz came in at halftime and he got everybody together and was like, "I promise y’all, we’re going to win this game. No one’s going to get rattled. We’re going to go over our adjustments. And we are going to go out there and kick their butt. Believe that we will win this game and we will win this game."

He said something similar to that. And nobody got rattled. Nobody was yelling at each other. Our body language was very calm. Nobody panicked. And I really think he calmed us. Like, "We’re good." You have to play two halves. If we come out the second half we’ll be alright.

Chicago Bears vs Arizona Cardinals - October 16, 2006
Olin Kreutz, leader of men.
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

3rd Quarter

7:24 — The Bears opened the second half by forcing Arizona into a three-and-out, then drove to the three-yard-line on nine plays, the last of which was a 17-yard pass to Berrian. Grossman picked up big chunks of yards in the air on this drive, with passes of 12 to Clark, 16 and 11 to Davis, and then 17 to Berrian.

The next three plays were a loss of two on a run by Jason McKie followed by incomplete passes to Moose and Berrian. Robbie Gould’s 23-yard field goal finally gets the Bears on the board.

Score: Cardinals 20, Bears 3

1:52 — Look at that time stamp: 1:52 remaining in the third. This was the Arizona drive coming off Robbie’s field goal. Our defense actually forced another three-and-out, but cornerback Dante Wesley was flagged 15 yards on the punt for roughing the kicker, giving the Cardinals another chance.

Leinart then extended the drive another nine plays to the Bears 11, where Rackers converted another field goal.

Score: Cardinals 23, Bears 3

Urlacher tackle count: 8

:08 — So the Bears got the ball back after the field goal and, whadya know, delivered another three-and-out. “This is one of those games where you just get cases of game balls,” Theismann says, “and just give ‘em out.”

The game was obscene and practically hopeless. And then...

BOOM!

Anderson drills an unsuspecting Leinart, forces the fumble, and Mike Brown emerges from a defensive mushroom cloud to scoop the fumble and run it home. Brown’s heave of the ball into the stands was an explosion of jubilation. We needed it. The game was a mess.

Now, instead of heading into the 4th quarter down 20, we were down 13. The game felt manageable again. As a fan at least, I felt like we had finally showed our true selves.

Score: Cardinals 23, Bears 10

4th Quarter

15:00 — On a play that no one noticed at the time, Mike Brown damaged ligaments in his foot during a pile up. Watch him limp out of the pile at the end of the play, upper right corner of the screen. That was his final play of the season.

9:25 — On 4th and 10, a desperate Bears team attempts a pass that is batted and intercepted by Darnell Dockett. Rashied Davis makes contact with Dockett, who slips and lands on Davis, gets up, and runs in for an apparent touchdown to give the Cardinals a 29-10 lead.

But wait!

Lovie challenged the play, saying Dockett’s knee was down. It was, and the play was reversed. A huge break for the Bears, who then held Arizona to another three-and-out.

Grossman turnover count: 5

9:17 — Okay, this is where Urlacher really started to get rolling. Back-to-back tackles on Edgerrin James set up a third and long that got the ball back to the offense.

Urlacher had a wonderful quote after the game to explain his success:

“First of all they weren't blocking me,” he said. “So that was easy.”

Urlacher tackle count: 13

Also...

Chris Zorich Jersey Alert!

Zorich jersey! (via YouTube)

5:59 — The Bears force another stop, get the ball back, pick up a first down, and then... BAD REX ALERT! Grossman is intercepted by Robert Griffith.

Grossman turnover count: 6

5:11 — And here we go! Second and 11 and Urlacher catches James as he bangs into the pile, holds him up, rips the ball from his arm as if he were starting a lawnmower, and then watches as Tillman scoops it up and runs it back for the touchdown.

I love Kornheiser chuckling as Tillman runs it back, then adding, “How stupid could I possibly look?”

Score: Cardinals 23, Bears 17

Urlacher tackle count: 14

3:23 — The Bears stiffen up and force Arizona to punt. Before the unsuccessful third down conversion attempt, Theismann said that “You get the sense Denny Green really has them pointed in the right direction.”

Kornheiser: “Not if they give this lead up in this way.”

At this point I thought we could drive, get a field goal to go down 23-20, get another stop, get another field goal, and then win in overtime. When we forced Arizona to punt instead of somehow scoring a third defensive touchdown, I was actually worried. Can you believe that?

3:17 — DEVIN. FREAKING. HESTER.

This was Hester’s second career touchdown. Look at how he went back inside the punter Scott Player at the end instead of going outside. This guy made two cuts faster than opposing players could react to one.

I watched this game with my parents at their place, and my mother had gone into her room around this time to take a phone call or something, and I went bombing over to her door shouting that “WE DID IT! WE DID IT! WE’RE WINNING!”

Second favorite moment of this return is the shot of Urlacher on the sideline immediately after the touchdown saying, “We got this now!”

“We got this now.” (via YouTube)

Here is the closeup reply of Hester’s return.

Score: Bears 24, Cardinals 23

Urlacher tackle count: 14

1:52 — Okay, here is the great forgotten portion of this game: Matt Leinart actually diced up the Bears defense again! On this third down play, Leinart hits a receiver out of the backfield while Urlacher pushes the ball carrier out of bounds. This was an Urlacher v. Leinart showdown and Leinart didn’t blink.

1:46 — Urlacher lays wood on Anquan Boldin on another completion. This is where Urlacher became an absolute terror, getting in on tackles on the first five of six plays on the drive. The Bears stuffed James on third down to set up the field goal.

Urlacher tackle count: 19

:52 — Rackers lines up for the game-winning kick as Theismann notes that Rackers has not missed this year inside 50. This was a 40-yard field goal, and he hooked it.

Tirico described the kick as “leaking.” “It’s no good!” he shouted. “He missed it to the left!” Big hugs on the Bears sideline as Tirico continues with the line of the night:
“The Chicago Bears are about to leave the desert with thievery — a six-turnover, no-offensive-score win.”

You’re damn right.

Postgame

From Charles Tillman:

Oh man, it was like Mardi Gras in there. Everyone was celebrating. It felt like we’d won a Super Bowl or some type of championship. Everybody was so excited. There was this disbelief that, "Damn, we just won this game — that’s crazy! You know what? We can do anything." You know? "I don’t care how much we’re down by. We can win any game."

That game made us feel invincible, that we could do anything. It was a great confidence booster for the rest of the season. I think that game right there set the tone for the entire season.