Sports

Coaches come to Grossman's defense

MIAMI - Ed Zaunbrecher is old enough to mean the comparisons sincerely.

When he sees Rex Grossman control an offense, weather storms created by nature and media, then win football games, he sees John Unitas. He sees Bobby Layne.

He sees a football player only a coach could love, for at the end of most days the scoreboard reads right. He sees a quarterback fans don't appreciate until the wins start adding up to the point that style and statistics don't matter.

Now they don't: Grossman is one of two quarterbacks who will start Super Bowl XLI on Sunday. And he has the same number of Super Bowl appearances as Peyton Manning.

"People underestimate him," said Zaunbrecher, Purdue's offen sive coordinator and Grossman's former position coach at Florida. "You see this guy who doesn't look like the prototype pro guy. They see this little guy waddling up there and don't think much, you know? They see him and tend to underestimate his physical skills. But his arm strength and delivery and mechanics and everything else - he can get it out of there pretty good."

"He had the quickest release of anybody I ever coached," Zaunbrecher added.

A list, we should note, that includes Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, Jim Miller and Tommy Hodson, NFL quarterbacks all, plus Chris Leak.

Still, smart money at midseason was he might not be long for the starting job in Chicago. Long before the media and fans took their shots at him en masse, Grossman's skin already was as thick and leathery as that of a South Beach retiree.

The man had Steve Spurrier as his first college coach. That meant daily peppering, not only in practice but often in public when Spurrier felt like venting through the media. The theory was that, eventually, no defense could wreck a quarterback who'd already been torn down and rebuilt by his own coach.

"One wonderful thing about Rex is that if you jerked him out of a game, he wouldn't pout," Spurrier told The Associated Press this week.

Seven seasons later, Grossman's emotional deflectors are ever tougher. Verbal grenades? Lob them if you want.

"I'm kind of numb to it," he said. "I've had it so much."

Plus, he never doubted himself. He couldn't afford to.

"You have to have a certain swagger about yourself," he said, "or it's just not going to work."

Teammates like that he never gives up, that he keeps coming back.

"He fights as hard as we do," offensive tackle John Tait said. "People have been down on him, but he's never been down on himself. He always believes good things are going to happen."

Sunday marks the end of Grossman's fourth season in Chicago. He won the starting job at the end of this rookie season, but that status lasted only three games into Year 2, when a torn ACL ended his 2004 season.

A year later, Grossman broke his ankle in an exhibition. He returned for the final two games of the regular season and the divisional playoff loss to Carolina.

This season, in 18 games, Grossman had 12 games he's proud of and six "that are bad."

"The previous three seasons I'd only played three games per season," he said. "I was able to finally put together a full season, and I'm in the Super Bowl. That's a pretty good achievement. I'm proud of it."

Bears Coach Lovie Smith has for weeks stood tall and patiently explained why Grossman is his starter and how that's not going to change. His patience wore thin Wednesday, the first heavy day of Super Bowl practices.

Asked whether Grossman will have a short leash Sunday if he doesn't play well, Smith was darn near incredulous.

"I'm just wondering if Peyton Manning will be asked that question. Probably not. And Rex Grossman should not be asked that question. I shouldn't be asked that question," Smith said in his customary calm tone.

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