Easier said than done

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith isn't the first NFL head coach to consider a late-season switch to a quarterback named Griese.

Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Don Shula's crucial decision to replace Earl Morrall with Bob Griese at halftime of the 1972 AFC championship game catapulted the Miami Dolphins to the league's only perfect season and the first of back-to-back titles.

But where Shula, who stayed with Griese in the Super Bowl, was putting an injured star and franchise quarterback in for a long-time backup, Smith faces an even bigger issue. He must balance the chance of winning a title now with the long-term future of his franchise.

And Smith, whose Bears are 10-2 and figure to have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, will face it for the remainder of the season.

Just how difficult is this problem for Smith and the Bears? Let Shula, who spent 33 years as the man in charge on the sideline, put it in perspective.

"I've always said, the hardest decision I ever had to make as a coach was to start Bob Griese in that Super Bowl over Earl Morrall," Shula said this week.

Despite Chicago's win on Monday night at St. Louis, quarterback Rex Grossman has struggled enough over the course of this season that questions about his erratic play will haunt him all the way to the Super Bowl if the Bears get that far. Waiting in the wings is veteran Brian Griese, Bob's youngest son.

Grossman could post All-Pro numbers between now and New Year's Eve (the season finale), yet the lurking question will be: When is the guy who had 18 turnovers over a seven-game span this season going to show himself again?

Many coaches have been here. This season alone, Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells had to switch from veteran Drew Bledsoe to inexperienced Tony Romo to salvage the season. In the 2001 season, Bill Belichick decided against re-inserting Bledsoe into the lineup once he was healthy. Then, when Bledsoe guided the Pats past Pittsburgh after Tom Brady got hurt, he opted to bench his veteran and start Brady in the Super Bowl XXXVI against St. Louis.

On the flipside, Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy stuck with Jim Kelly time and again despite success with backup Frank Reich, who guided the Bills to the biggest comeback in NFL history against the Oilers in the 1993 playoffs. Kelly led the Bills to a record four straight Super Bowl appearances.

"You have to have consistency at that position because you are talking about the leadership of your football team," Levy said. "My belief was always that if Jim Kelly was healthy enough to play, he was going to be out there."

Other moves have not turned out as well. In perhaps the closest parallel to what Chicago's Smith is facing, former Buffalo coach Wade Phillips made the bizarre decision to bench Doug Flutie and start Rob Johnson for the Bills' 1999 AFC wild-card game against the Titans. Johnson's only other start that season was in the season finale against Indianapolis. In the playoffs, Buffalo lost when Tennessee pulled off "The Music City Miracle."

Chicago fans understand this all too well. The Bears, who haven't had a truly great quarterback since Columbia grad Sid Luckman was talked out of taking a sales job by George Halas, have mangled the quarterback position for years. Only a decade ago, former coach Dave Wannstedt went through four different starters in his first four years on the job, ultimately leaving in infamy.

But Smith's situation is unique. When Grossman is at his best, he is both the best option for the Bears to win today and for the long-term future. He is a guy the Bears want to handle carefully, fearing that if they bench him at such a critical moment, he might lose confidence for the remainder of his career.

That said, when Grossman is bad, he is a wretched turnover machine. Even opposing coaches who like Grossman feel that way.

"I love the kid's attitude, his toughness, his arm, his mobility, everything with the exception that he's 6-[foot-]1 and not 6-4," said an AFC defensive coach. "But the fact is that he just hasn't played enough.

"He has a great future, but there's no fast-forward button in this game. You have to play, you have to see what the defense is doing. You have to learn what you can and can't do. Especially if you want to play the way [Grossman] plays."

The way Grossman plays fits what the Bears want to do. He's a big-play quarterback who can get the offense started quickly. Chicago, with its speedy, undersized defense, loves that because it can force the other team into a fast-break mode.

That said, Grossman's style can also get sidetracked in a hurry and defensive coordinators have figured out how.

"You gamble with [Grossman]. You jump routes and force him to read the secondary and then you lay back with the safeties and wait for him to just toss one up," the defensive coach said. "That's what he's done all season. When in doubt, [Grossman] is going to throw long. You saw what St. Louis did."

The coach was referring to a first-half play where the Rams jumped a slant route by wide receiver Bernard Berrian. Grossman showed great awareness to let the route develop a little more before hitting Berrian for a touchdown.

While Grossman won in that situation, it was an example of how defenses play him right now, gambling that he won't always make the right decision.

"The kid burned them on it and maybe that's a sign that he's learning," the coach said. "That's good for him. But I'll bet you see him get a heavy dose of that in the playoffs. Other teams are going to make him do whatever they can to make him hold the ball a little longer and then watch him throw it up somewhere … and once he starts doing that, he doesn't know how to settle down just yet.

"Look, Lovie knows it. He's a defensive coach. He knows the game we're all playing against him and the kid. I give [Smith] credit for being really patient, but there hasn't been a lot of pressure yet. They're still way out in front. Let's see what happens when the playoffs hit."

In fact, the pressure started to show a bit last week. After a terrible performance by Grossman in a victory over Minnesota in Week 13, Smith essentially put the quarterback on notice. If Grossman faltered, Brian Griese would come in.

Knee-jerk analysts see this as an easy call. Brian Griese has looked good plenty of times over his career and seemed to play better than Grossman in the preseason. He throws a tight, accurate pass. He runs the plays effectively.

But Brian Griese is the antithesis of Grossman because he is not a big-play threat. Furthermore, Brian Griese is not particularly mobile, has been injury-prone for his entire career and tends to hold the ball with almost Bledsoe-like lethargy.

In other words, Brian Griese is a prototype backup. He is not what his father was in 1972 – a franchise quarterback who had led his team to a Super Bowl (a loss to Dallas) the season before and had merely missed much of the season because of a broken leg.

Still, Brian Griese might be steady enough to avoid the crash that could come if Grossman goes into another funk.

"I think that's the tough part of the situation," Shula said. "There's no blanket you can throw over all these situations. Brian is a good player who's won a lot of games.

"As a coach, the thing you have to do is know all of the circumstances and then make your decision."

Sounds simple, even if it's anything but.

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