FOXBOROUGH, MASS. – Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman stood in front of a media throng Sunday and attempted restraint. At one point, he patted his hands twice on the surface of a podium, clearly frustrated with repeatedly being asked about a second-quarter turnover that wiped out a scoring opportunity at the New England Patriots' 5-yard line.
"A center-quarterback exchange fumble," Grossman said, with an annoyed undertone. "That's as far as I'm going to talk about it."
Unfortunately for Grossman, the rest of the world isn't going to follow suit. Not after the Bears quarterback turned in yet another four-turnover game (his third this season) in Chicago's 17-13 loss to New England. And certainly not after Grossman's performance moved Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox analyst Troy Aikman to suggest to a national television audience that the Bears quarterback was "the only thing that's holding this team back right now."
Grossman's growth has become a pertinent question for this franchise. Specifically, whether the Bears can survive through what has become a maddening week-to-week learning process that looks eerily reminiscent of the second-half nosedive experienced by Giants quarterback Eli Manning last season.
It's a maturation that hasn't been made any easier by the existence of backup Brian Griese on the roster – a player who was signed in the off-season to give the Bears a Plan B in times of emergency. And yes, Griese is on minds in Chicago. So much so, Bears coach Lovie Smith didn't get two minutes into Sunday's post-game press conference before asserting that Grossman's job wasn't in jeopardy.
"We didn't complete the job tonight, but Rex is our quarterback," Smith said. "Rex is our quarterback. We'll make the necessary corrections, which we have done in the past. We're 9-2 right now with Rex leading our football team. Rex is our quarterback and we'll go from there. He had a couple bad passes tonight. I made a lot of bad calls – we made a lot of bad calls."
Even for those who have preached patience with Grossman, his performances the last six games have been alarmingly inconsistent. Since throwing 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in his first five games, he's thrown eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his last six.
What's more, he's lost four fumbles in his last six games and managed a completion rate of 50-percent or less in four of those outings. In that time, he's developed a reputation as being scattershot under pressure – a player who relies too much on deep passes and has trouble when coverages and blitz packages change consistently.
"We go into every week with pressuring a quarterback as our main goal, but it was even more so this week," Patriots defensive end Ty Warren said. "He's a player who throws it up when you get in his face and looks for guys to bail him out down field. So that's what we did to him. If it wasn't myself, it was Vince (Wilfork) or (Richard) Seymour – somebody was always in his face. Or Rosey (Rosevelt Colvin) was hitting him. Whatever we had to do to put our hands on him, that's what we did to be successful."
The Patriots managed only one sack Sunday, but their cornerbacks suggested the pressure made Grossman's flaws easier to expose. Several times, he unleashed deep balls under pressure and against man coverage. Decisions that paid dividends in some situations (including a pair of long pass interference penalties) but also led to cornerback Asante Samuel jumping the game's decisive route – a game-clinching interception meant for Chicago wideout Rashied Davis at New England's 38-yard line.
"Some of his passes, it's almost as if the guy is covered and he's just throwing the ball up," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Rex, a lot of times, looks at those guys to come and bail him out. … We knew what type of offense they were, what type of offensive style they are. That's obvious."
A passing style Patriots safety Artrell Hawkins painted as "throwing the ball up and either they're going to make a play on the ball or hopefully get a pass interference call."
While that may not be entirely accurate, clearly Grossman's struggles have become pronounced. At times, he throws deep balls off his back foot, leaving them high and short. It’s a reality that led the Patriots to design a game plan that would force Grossman to either throw it deep under pressure or throw out-routes, which several Patriots players suggested have proven to be a weakness on film.
"(Rex) did some good things, and obviously some things that we have to do better," Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We can't turn the ball over three times. But, again, I thought he made some good throws and did some good things.
"It wasn't like some of the interceptions he had earlier this year, where he got pressure or something and just kind of threw it – or didn't have pressure and just threw it up or was just careless with the ball. I don't think he was careless with the ball tonight at all on any of those picks. They were good plays. One of them wasn't the best throw, but they were all good decisions."
Yet, the Bears appear to be faced with two realities. On one hand, they have a player who they've dubbed their franchise quarterback. Grossman can't be benched without some threat of long-term damage nor is there a guarantee that Griese will perform better under the same circumstances. On the other hand, the Bears know that they should be peaking both offensively and defensively in the month of December. It was an imbalance that killed them in the playoffs against the Panthers and it's a similar lack of reliability that threatens to prematurely end their postseason run once again.
Not that they're pushing the panic button.
"We've got to correct everything," center Olin Kreutz said. "Everything that went wrong, we've just got to keep correcting and keep improving. We have all of December left. … We didn't win today's game, but we're 9-2. All of our goals are still right there. We're still No. 1 in the NFC and we're still No. 1 in the NFC North. We're trying to get in the playoffs and we're trying to get home-field advantage."
"Only an idiot would panic right now."