|Jeff Roberson/Associated Press|
|Rex Grossman (left) and Kyle Orton are in a tight battle to start at quarterback for the Bears.|
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. - Rex Grossman gets the next audition, in Chicago's Saturday night preseason game at Seattle, but regardless of how it turns out, this seems to be one of the strangest quarterback competitions in memory.
Consider that Grossman's 19-11 record as an NFL starter, combined with Kyle Orton's 12-6, equals a winning percentage exceeded by only six active quarterbacks, a group that includes Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb.
Still, it seemed like everyone in Chicago spent the offseason clamoring for another choice at quarterback once the Bears, NFC champions in 2006, hit the skids in an injury-challenged 2007.
But since the "everyone" did not include general manager Jerry Angelo, here are Grossman and Orton competing to start for a team that seems to want a quarterback only to stay out of the way so the defense can dominate games and the running game can provide the defense an occasional breather by holding onto the ball.
Instead of replacing them, Angelo gave both quarterbacks new (albeit, short-term) contracts, and his stand-pat answer was grounded in logic, which doesn't go far with the public in a sound-bite world.
"Tell me who?" he said in an interview in his office as training camp wound down. "Everyone says get (a quarterback), and I say, 'Who?' Who should we get? Who's letting a quarterback go that they feel real good about?
"History tells you there are a lot of guys in the league playing very good football at that position, winning football, that if you were patient with them, you got good results."
The Bears have certainly been patient with Grossman, who is starting his sixth year with the team and generally has the reputation of a turnover (43 in 30 NFL starts) waiting to happen. They're hoping that a 2007 benching, after three games, will cure his inconsistency, and point to slightly improved play when he regained his job later in the season.
"It definitely humbles you," Grossman said. "I only played three games, I'd yet to settle into the season. It was a quick hook, but it was a situation where I got a chance to get back in there and play, and I just wanted to be a good soldier and do exactly what they wanted me to do with the football and not create anything ... I'm working on just managing the offense and doing exactly what the coaches ask."
"I think Grossman's learned," Angelo said. "He understands there can't be the highs and lows. He's got to be more consistent, he's got to protect the ball. When he came back off his little 'sabbatical' last year, I think we saw that."
Neither quarterback was impressive in the first preseason game against the Chiefs but neither was awful, either. Significantly, they had no turnovers. In the past, Orton has been generally more consistent -- read that, more careful with the ball -- than Grossman but outside of injury, this is his first shot at earning the No. 1 job.
"The last couple of years, I was stuck at No. 3, and really not getting any reps," he said. "Not only do I have a chance to become the starter, but my game's gotten so much better just because of all the reps and the practice time."
The Bears have given no indication when a winner will be declared, but offensive coordinator Ron Turner acknowledged he'd like to have a starter in place by the third preseason game, because that's the game in which the starters usually get the most playing time of the summer.
"Obviously," he said, "time's running out."
The same, apparently, cannot be said for the team's defense, which slid last year from fifth in the NFL to 28th. Injuries are an oft-cited explanation, but linebacker Lance Briggs, one of 10 veterans who signed contract extensions during the offseason, is having none of that.
"It's more than injuries," Briggs said. "We didn't execute. We had a lot of missed assignments. We weren't in our gaps when we were supposed to be, and we were doing it often. And it showed. It was a breakdown of discipline."
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, another Pro Bowl player who earned a contract extension, goes a step beyond.
Like a scout, Harris ticks off the qualities he says will give Chicago a dominant defense again. He calls Briggs "the toughest guy I've ever met in my life," saying he has seen him land on his neck "and bounce right up." Linebacker Brian Urlacher "looks at these places the ball is going to be before it's even there." Cornerback Nathan Vasher "plays in space and understands where the ball is." Cornerback Charles Tillman is "aggressive and big," and safety Mike Brown is "the heartbeat of the defense."
"All these special guys, I don't see how anybody can beat us," Harris said. "I have that much faith in our team that, if we are healthy, I don't see how anybody can stop us.
"You bring all those guys back and you have the Super Bowl team."
Which is exactly what the Bears are trying to do.
The Bears rewarded more than just Pro Bowl players like Briggs, Urlacher and Harris in the offseason. Others receiving contract extensions included Rashied Davis, a rising wideout, kicker Robbie Gould and Devin Hester, the amazing kick returner now ticketed for a leading role at wide receiver, too.
"It speaks well of the talent that's out on the field," Harris said.
"Obviously, you have confidence in the players in terms of their talent and how they fit... and then we buy into them as people, too" Angelo said.
The quarterbacks don't like the perception that they are merely caretakers, but the fact is that the Bears' chances of success rest mostly with their defense and running game, and even the general manager obliquely acknowledges that.
Angelo says, "You can't have 22 all-stars, and if you don't have a franchise quarterback, what I believe is keep your strength your strength, and our strength has been our defense. That's been our philosophy. That's who we are."
Of course, a good running game helps a defense by keeping it off the field, and that's where second-round draft choice Matt Forte is expected to contribute. Chicago's ground game disappeared last season, finishing 30th in the league in yards per game and ranking last in average yards per carry.
"We're going to make a big effort to run the ball, but we also know we've got to make plays and, when the quarterback has an opportunity to make them, we need to make them," Turner said.
In the next few days, we at least ought to learn the identity of that quarterback.
Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.