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For the last time: Don’t blame Rex

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Rex Grossman was a man built to earn Chicago’s adulation: a tough fighter with moxie and heart. Instead, he is viewed by many both in Chicago and across the country as the scapegoat for the Bears’ Super Bowl XLI loss. Please, for the love of the Navy and Orange, let’s stop this wrongheaded pettiness and celebrate a great Chicago Bear.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

With Mike Glennon rumors still in the “swirling” phase yesterday, it dawned on me that should the Bears sign Glennon and give him his standard #8 jersey, he could potentially be the latest in a disappointing string of Bears QBs to wear the sideways infinity sign.

What I did not make clear in that tweet is that not all Bears QB #8s are created equal.

During his time here, I was as big a Rex Grossman fan as there was. During Super Bowl XLI, I wore a plain white headband that I adorned with big black letters in Sharpie: GROSSMAN.

When we lost the game, the reasons seemed obvious to me: we abandoned our run game and couldn’t stop theirs. Yet as the years wore on, a vocal faction of Bears fans — and a majority of national fans — pinned the blame on one man:

Rex Daniel Grossman III.

This was scape-goating to the highest degree. Rex was not — I repeat, NOT — overwhelmingly responsible for us losing that game. In the apt yet relatively unknown words of Jack Lipnick, let’s put a stop to that rumor… RIGHT NOW.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one has watched Super Bowl XLI more times than me, either the full game or in drives and plays. Add to that the number of times I’ve read and even logged into spreadsheets the game’s play-by-play, and it’s safe to say this game has consumed more of my time than any other single game ever has. It’s my Zapruder film. The truth is out there.

And I’m here to tell you something about that truth:

Don’t blame Rex.

It’s not his fault.

If I can accomplish one thing as a writer for Windy City Gridiron, it’s convincing my fellow Bears fans to lay off Rex Grossman. To be clear, there are many out-and-out Rex appreciators and boosters among us who sing his praises and defend him to the ends of the Earth. I’m with you guys and gals!

To the rest of you, after 10 years, it’s time to accept the fact that Rex did not doom us during that rainy night in South Beach — at least not alone. The following are the true reasons that we lost Super Bowl XLI.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

1. We stopped running

In the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI, two plays after Thomas Jones broke a 52-yard run to the Indianapolis 5, announcer Phil Simms told a story.

“It’s funny, when we talked to Lovie Smith, I said, ‘You want to give us a little bit about the game plan? I want to hear something special,’” Simms said as the Bears set up for 2nd and goal from the 4, already leading 7-6.

“(Lovie) goes, ‘We’re going to run it.’ I go, ‘Well yeah.’ He goes, ‘No, we’re going to RUN it. … And none of those trick runs. We’re going to line up with a fullback back there and we’re going to run it right at them. And if we don’t have success, we’re going to keep doing it, because we believe we can wear them down.’”

That quote is as good a starting point as any to understand the team’s mindset heading into the Super Bowl, as well as why we came up empty. Another good one is the classic Lovie aphorism: “We get off the bus running.”

We did. Until we didn’t. And in Super Bowl XLI, for reasons no one on the team can articulate, we stopped running.

Simms shared another quote during the Super Bowl that is pertinent to this discussion. In the AFC Championship, while attempting to complete an 18-point comeback, the Colts faced 3rd and 2 from the New England 3-yard line. This could easily be a passing down for a team with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark.

Instead, Harrison came into the huddle with a suggestion.

“Let’s run it in,” he told them.

Manning was convinced. And Addai went up the middle for the game-winning TD.

That was in Indianapolis, in a dome, on artificial turf, with no weather to consider at all. The Bears, meanwhile, had just finished their own championship game in the snow and wind of Soldier Field, running 46 times against 12 for the Saints, and against 26 passes for Rex Grossman.

With all that in mind, take a look at the Super Bowl’s run-pass distribution for both teams:

Overall

Bears: 19 runs, 28 passes

Colts: 42 runs, 38 passes

1st down

Bears: 7 runs, 14 passes

Colts: 22 runs, 13 passes

1st down when the score was within 8 points

Bears: 6 runs, 8 passes

Colts: 18 runs, 12 passes

3 yards to go, when the score was within 8 points

Bears: 2 runs, 1 pass

Colts: 5 runs, 2 passes

That’s the game right there. In the ultimate irony, the Bears had a chance to exploit “Bears weather” in the only ill-weather battle in Super Bowl history, and instead we were beaten at our own game by those turf-treading dome-sweet-domers, the Indianapolis Colts.

To break these numbers down even further, consider that our two back-breaking plays — the pick-six for Kelvin Hayden and the interception Rex threw on the next drive — both occurred on 1st and 10. On the Hayden play, we trailed 22-17 and had just picked up 22 yards and a 1st down on a pass to Muhsin Muhammad. Instead of going back to the ground game, we dialed up another deep pass to Moose. You know the rest.

So now we’re down 29-17, and now you might say, “Well, we have to start throwing here, we’re down two scores.”

But wait! We had more than 10 minutes on the clock when Rex threw the next pick, the one to Bob Sanders. That’s about as much time as the Patriots had in XLIX when they were down 10 and began their comeback against Seattle. And no, I am not trying to compare Rex Grossman to Tom Brady. But that’s even more reason to grind out a touchdown drive with Thomas Jones, keep the passes short, and give your defense another chance at a stop or even a score.

That would be true at any time, but especially with a defense that could do this:

And with a running back who could do this:

Instead, on another 1st down play, we went play-action to Jones, and for the final time all season Rex unleashed the dragon, heaving one down the middle to Bernard Berrian, who had a corner trailing him and a safety in front of him. The safety, Sanders, came up with the interception.

In the end, the Bears could not sustain any offense, in part because we couldn’t (or really, didn’t) run. Over the years, Desmond Clark, Rashied Davis, Thomas Jones, Jason McKie, and Nathan Vasher have all told me that we win that game if we just keep running. Before the Hayden pick-six, our longest drive of XLI was five plays in the 3rd quarter capped off by a Robbie Gould field goal. Up to that same point, seven of Indy’s 10 drives were at least five plays, including a 12-play drive to open the 3rd quarter. On a 2nd and 1, down 19-14, Rex dropped back to pass and was sacked for a loss of 11. You know, that sort of thing.

Of everyone affected by that game, the playcalling decisions were probably hardest on Thomas Jones, who became the first running back to run for 100 yards in a Super Bowl and then get traded. Jones wanted to run and run and run that game. He described the gameplan as taking “a mind of its own.” I’ll give him the final word of this section:

Every couple of series, we’d rotate. I’d go two series and (Cedric Benson) would go in two series, which was great. We wore defenses down and it helped us get all the way to the Super Bowl.

But in that game, I remember I came to the sidelines and I knew that the next series would be my series out, and I said, “Don’t take me out.” I just remember saying, “Don’t take me out, don’t take me out.”

I was in this zone. I had figured out what they were doing on defense. I had broken this long run. I’d watched so much film during the week that I understood exactly what they were going to do. They were going to come up the field — and I was going to tell the coaches, “Run this play, run this play.” There were two or three plays that I wanted to run. And the coaches have to make their decisions. They’re the coaches. I play, they coach. I really felt that was going to be a game where I would go for 200 or 250 or something crazy.

Sometimes as a running back you have this special feeling in a game that, “No one can stop me.” And if you get taken out of that space and the game gets out of hand, and then the play-calling has to fit the way the game’s going, you get out of that space. And I think that’s what happened to me.

We gave them a chance to figure out what was going on by not letting me continue to attack them. Even the linemen — I went up to Olin and Ruben Brown and Tait and Garza and Fred Miller and said, “We’re gonna kill these guys.” And they were looking at me like, “We know.” I was like, “Run draw and inside zone. Draw and inside zone. Draw and inside zone. We’ll kill them.”

(Pause) But it’s in the past. Hindsight’s 20-20. That might not have worked. Who knows? That’s just what I felt. So I would never throw anyone under the bus. We all did the best that we could to help our cause and it just didn’t happen for us for whatever reason. And it sucks, because that’s one thing that I’ll never get over. Every year around playoff time you kind of get a little depressed subconsciously. I haven’t watched the Super Bowl since we lost. It’s too hard to watch.

2. We couldn’t stop the run

Take everything from section one and flip it to the defense for section two. Same story.

In an interview with Jeff Eisenband of thepostgame.com, Brian Urlacher laid it all out on the table.

“We played Cover 2 pretty much the whole game. We tried to keep the ball in front of us if we could. We couldn’t stop the run that game. Peyton had a good game. He put up a touchdown and like 250 yards (Ed. note: 247). We just got ran through.”

No kidding. While the Bears could not roll with a two-back set since Benson was knocked out of the game in the 1st quarter with a knee injury, the Colts gave Rhodes 21 carries and Addai 19, while also giving Addai a game-high 10 catches. He was targeted 10 times, second in the game to Harrison’s 11. Rhodes gained 113 yards and a touchdown, and Addai added 143 total yards.

The Colts moved the ball. We didn’t. When we lined up for the play that ended in the Hayden interception-touchdown, the Colts had gained 21 first downs to our six. Indy ran the ball five times on 3rd and 3 or less in a one-possession game — they converted two 1st downs and scored once.

In short, they were what we think we are and we were what we think they are.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

3. We didn’t adjust to circumstances (and they did)

Other than the loss, the main knock on Rex’s Super Bowl performance are the turnovers. He threw two interceptions including the pick-six, lost a fumble, and recovered his own fumble on a 3rd and 12, (the play after the 11-yard sack, actually). But I put some of the blame for those plays on the coaching, because we did not adjust to two simple circumstances:

  1. Wet ball
  2. Quarterback with small hands
Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

This game was a slippery affair, with six fumbles between the two teams. Even Peyton Manning had one on a missed handoff broken up by Alex Brown. Rex had eight fumbles in 2006, not to mention 20 interceptions. As much as I appreciated his skill, heart, and moxie, he was a turnover-prone quarterback playing in the biggest game of his life, and in the rain.

The year before, the coaches adjusted to Kyle Orton’s situation (a rookie thrusted into the starting job by injury) and running 488 times against 418 passes. In 2006, we passed 514 times against 503 runs. This was just the wrong game for Rex Grossman, and while that speaks to his limitations it is also the coaching staff’s responsibility to recognize them and adjust accordingly.

Same thing with running the ball: it’s raining, we’ve got a great offensive line, we’ve got a great running back, so let’s use that to our advantage.

The reverse of this is Tony Dungy, who made two key adjustments. One, they went heavy on the run after going heavy on the pass in the AFC championship game.

Two, after breaking their own rule not to kick to Devin Hester, they returned to that rule, giving him only one more touch the rest of the game, a punt return for three yards in the 1st quarter.

Here is Dungy explaining the switch:

4. Peyton Manning had an underrated terrific game

Peyton Manning was named MVP of XLI. He should not have been. That honor far and away belonged to Addai and Rhodes.

But Manning was another kind of MVP: he adjusted his game and actually turned into what we might call a “game manager,” rather than the gunslinger we’re used to. His only touchdown came on a busted coverage. Remove that play, and his longest pass was 22 yards, the same as Grossman’s.

Here’s Urlacher again, from the Eisenband interview:

“(Manning) is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, if not the greatest. Nothing he did surprised us. He's him. He always makes great plays. He gets the job done. He works his tail off. He prepares, so in those situations, he doesn't get rattled.”

5. Okay fine, Rex struggled

One of my favorite probably-worthless stats that I used to pull out in a rage of petty revenge against Rex bashers was that he completed 71.4% of his passes in XLI, a total that was, at the time, the fifth highest in the game’s history.

But fine, yes, Rex had a bad game. He threw two very bad balls that were intercepted. That’s on him. And yet, while this was his fourth season, it was his first full season as a starter. The quarterbacks who won the Super Bowl in their first full season as an NFL starter are all Hall of Famers: Staubach, Montana, Warner, Brady.

That’s the whole list. So let’s not kill Rex for making mistakes in the biggest game of his life when he was relatively inexperienced. His opposition, Manning, went on to have arguably the greatest QB Super Bowl stink bomb of all time against the Seahawks in a season when he, Manning, was MVP of the league. Shit happens.

Instead, I hope we reach a point where we celebrate Rex for his toughness and talent, and his role in leading (yes, leading) the Bears to their second ever Super Bowl appearance. I hope we learn to salute Rex, a great Chicago Bear who overcame injury after injury and never gave up.

And since I’ve said enough, I’ll let Mr. Urlacher take us home:

"Man, I love playing with Rex. Every quarterback, when you have turnovers or don't play as well as the media thinks you should, they're going to be hard on you. We were 13-3 and he took us to the Super Bowl. We just didn't get the job done."