Concerns about Rex Grossman's ability to lead the Bears on a successful playoff run are warranted.
None of the quarterbacks who have played in the last 10 Super Bowls had a regular-season passer rating or completion percentage as low as Grossman's, nor did any of them have a worse ratio of touchdowns to interceptions.
Only two Super Bowl quarterbacks had passer ratings close to Grossman's 72.0. The Ravens' Trent Dilfer had a mediocre 76.6 mark in 2000 but benefited from one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history and a stellar running game, which formed the backbone of the Super Bowl XXXV champions. The Titans got to the Super Bowl a year earlier despite Steve McNair's passer rating of 78.6. But every other quarterback who started in the big game in recent years had a passer rating of over 80, and the average was 93.6, a huge jump from Grossman's present level.
"Teams have won the Super Bowl with great defense, a great kicking game, a great run game and an average quarterback," former 49ers and Lions coach Steve Mariucci said on NFL Network this week. "(Grossman) can be an average quarterback. He just can't be a bad quarterback on a given day."
But, with 10 interceptions and just five touchdown passes in the past five games, Grossman has been bad more often than not.
"He is so inconsistent," Mariucci said. "If he plays well, (the Bears) can win it all. If he plays like he's played in three or four games this year, anyone can beat them."
Almost any playoff opponent would be difficult for the Bears to defeat if Grossman turns the ball over at his recent rate, which includes 14 interceptions and four lost fumbles in the Bears' last seven games.
His slump has left Grossman with a completion percentage of 54.3. In the past five years, no Super Bowl quarterback has been below 59 percent. It might be considered encouraging that the lowest regular-season completion percentage of any quarterback in the past 10 Super Bowls belongs to Hall of Famer John Elway. He completed just 55.8 percent of his passes during the 1997 season before leading the Broncos to victory in Super Bowl XXXII. But Elway also threw 27 touchdown passes and just 11 interceptions that season.
Grossman has 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions so far this year. Dilfer (12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) and the Panthers' Jake Delhomme (19-16) in 2003 are the only Super Bowl quarterbacks in the last 10 years who didn't have at least one and a half times as many touchdowns as picks. The average touchdown-interception ratio for the past 10 years of Super Bowl quarterbacks is 25.3 to 12.
Mariucci was the 49ers' head coach during the Hall of Fame career of quarterback Steve Young, and was also the quarterback coach during Brett Favre's first four years with the Packers. He agrees with Bears coach Lovie Smith's decision to stick with Grossman despite his shortcomings.
"They have Brian Griese, a veteran guy who is not too old," Mariucci said. "Could he do a better job? He probably could play more consistently. But you can't complain about a 10-2 record. So you stay with (Grossman) and hope he becomes more consistent."
What makes the decision to dump Grossman in favor of backup Brian Griese problematic is that Grossman has, at times, played at a Super Bowl level. That has much to do with Smith's decision to stay the course. After six weeks, Grossman had a lofty passer rating of 100.8, second best in the NFL. Just five weeks ago, he was still at a very respectable 89.6 with 13 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
But that seems like a long time ago.
In his last three games, Benson has rushed 29 times for 157 yards and a 5.4-yard average. That's not enough to win him the starting job, but he's being noticed.
"By his play, he's definitely gotten our attention," coach Lovie Smith said. "I think he's gaining more and more confidence in his ability and (Sunday) he had his best game. We need both players."
Benson's 24-yard TD Sunday was his longest run of the season, as he bounced a fourth-and-one play around right end and barely made it to the pylon on the goal line with a headfirst dive.
"You would say he is more of a power runner than an outside speed runner," Smith said. "But I think he can do both, as he showed."
While officials waited several moments before signaling the touchdown, Benson took a victory lap around the back of the end zone.
"I knew I was in," he said.
When he got back to the sideline, an excited Benson fired his helmet against the wall behind the Bears' bench.
"You saw that?" he said with a smile. "I wasn't mad or anything, just fired up."
Harris was injured while tackling Vikings running back Chester Taylor on the second play of the third quarter and was helped off the field and then carted into the locker room, where he left on crutches after the game.
"We're hoping that he'll be ready to go soon," coach Lovie Smith said on Monday. "When you have a sprained knee you don't know exactly how long it is going to take, but this isn't a season-ending injury by any means."
But it's possible Harris could miss the remainder of the regular season. Harris had started 42 straight games since being drafted in the first round (14th overall) in 2004.
Hester opened the scoring in a 23-13 victory over the Vikings Sunday with a 45-yard punt-return touchdown to help clinch the NFC North title. Hester averaged 35.0 yards on 2 punt returns and 22.7 yards on 3 kickoff returns, taking over that job for the first time this season. Hester has four return touchdowns (3 on punts and 1 on a missed field goal) this season, tying the NFL record held by nine other players.
"I consider Devin our No. 1 returner," coach Lovie Smith said. "We need to get his hands on the football as much as we possibly can. I think it is safe to say we'll give him a few more shots back there."
Hester has already returned three punts and one missed field goal for touchdowns this season.
BY THE NUMBERS: Statistical changes in last week's game have given an additional sack to defensive tackle Tank Johnson and defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. As a result both had two for the game and the Bears finished with five sacks, their most since Week Four. In the previous four weeks the Bears had just four sacks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not as good a football team with Tommie Harris off the field. A lot of that was just gap discipline. We were out of our gaps at times. We missed tackles also. It's a combination of those things. We have to get it corrected." — Bears coach Lovie Smith after his team allowed the Vikings to rush for 192 yards and also lost Pro Bowl DT Tommie Harris with a sprained left knee.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
What happens — good, bad or a mix of both — in the remaining four games of the regular season probably will have more bearing on quarterback Brett Favre's decision about playing next season than how he makes it through an impending operation.
Favre said Wednesday that he's headed toward having arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle after the season ends.
"I have to kind of convince myself to do it," he said. "It's one of those things that I'll say I'll do it, and then when the time comes, I'm, ‘Ah, I can wait.' But, we'll see."
The ankle has dogged Favre not only for much of this season but since he severely sprained it in a game at Minnesota in 1995. Surgery was done on the ankle after that season to clean out bone spurs, which have resurfaced this season.
Favre, who has started 253 straight games, said if he goes through with the surgery, it won't influence his future plans.
Putting up with another dismal season is a different story. The Packers have lost a season-high three straight games and have been all but eliminated from postseason contention with the 4-8 record they take into the game Sunday at San Francisco.
The last two seasons have been the toughest for Favre because he was accustomed to successful results his first 13 seasons with the team. It took him nearly four months after the Packers reached oblivion with a 4-12 record last year to commit to playing this season.
"That was fun last (off-season), wasn't it? I had you guys (the media) just reeled right on in. I knew what I was going to do the whole time," Favre said.
As for how long he'll keep everyone hanging for "Favre Watch 2007," he hinted that the wait won't be nearly as tiresome.
"I don't think that it will take as much time," Favre said. "But, I don't know. I have no clue.
"Whether or not I'm here next year depends on whether or not they want me and whether or not I want to give to this team what I've given in the past and given this year," he added. "I'm pleased with my decision to come back. There may be some people who are not, but I'm pleased with it, and I would love for us to be in a better situation. But, it is what it is and try to make the most of these next four weeks. And, from that point, we'll see."
Favre isn't letting on that he's been affected of late by the bum ankle or the bruised right elbow that knocked him out of the Nov. 19 loss to New England and caused him to lose feeling in his throwing hand. He's in the midst of his worst three-game stretch as a pro from an efficiency standpoint — his passer rating has been in the 50s in each of them.
Favre was on a steady pace early in the season to strip Dan Marino of his hallowed league record for touchdown passes. He's had only two touchdown throws in the last three games and will need 10 in the final four games to eclipse Marino's career total of 420.
The potential injury implications notwithstanding, the passing game has been out of whack of late for a variety of on-field reasons. The rushing attack has been inconsistent with right tackle Mark Tauscher sidelined. The defense spotted New England (21-0) and the Jets (31-0) enormous halftime leads in two of the last three games, thus putting the ball in Favre's hand more.
Green Bay's run-first mentality has given way to a league-high 38.8 pass attempts per game. That's not the recipe for Favre and the offense to flourish, particularly when his only reliable receiver now is Donald Driver. Would-be rookie sensation Greg Jennings has fallen off the radar since he suffered a sprained ankle Oct. 22 at Miami — he has all of 18 catches for 211 yards and no touchdowns in his last six games after making a big splash with 20 receptions, two 100-yard games and three touchdowns in his first five outings.
"He hasn't had the comfort that he had particularly earlier in the year as far as coming out of breaks and things," head coach Mike McCarthy said of Jennings.
Favre's trust in a gimpy Jennings seemingly has waned to the point he has blinders on in looking only one way, to Driver. Opposing defenses have caught on and are rolling two, even three defenders on Driver, who has a total of eight catches in the last three games.
"I'll say when it breaks down, (Favre) probably looks to (Driver)," McCarthy conceded. "They have a connection just like any other great tandem of quarterback-receivers that I've been around. He's had a lot of success with Donald, but we don't call plays where he's supposed to throw it (to another guy) and he throws it to Donald. That's not going on."
McCarthy acknowledged Wednesday that his year of working under San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan will come in handy for the upcoming contest with some aspects of devising the game plan and matching personnel.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to be around players or even coaches on an everyday basis, you do have insight of things you do not from the outside," McCarthy said. "They're a team that's really changed a lot, personnel wise, since I was there last year. (But) I did spend time with (his own coordinators), kind of like I always do, (but) probably a little more than normal. We're hopeful it will help out a bunch."
Mike Holmgren subsequently bolted as Packers coach for Seattle.
Corey Williams, who's primarily played inside his first three seasons in the league, took reps at right defensive end in place of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila on early downs.
Gbaja-Biamila, a Pro Bowler who's made a name for himself and lots of money off his pass-rushing skills, has struggled against the run. He was a target the last two games for Seattle and the New York Jets, who rolled up 235 and 178 rushing yards, respectively.
Gbaja-Biamila said Wednesday that the coaches told him he was doing just OK defending the run.
"There may be little techniques here and there. If there's anything that they've done to make an awareness (of his struggles), it's that Corey's in there right now," Gbaja-Biamila said. "That's the biggest communication I've gotten that they want to try something different."
Williams has started seven games this season at tackle, beside Ryan Pickett, but has as many sacks (five) as Gbaja-Biamila does. The versatile Williams moves well for his un-end-like size of 6-foot-4 and 313 pounds.
"My main thing is getting back adjusted to being out there on the edge," said Williams, who played some at end as a rookie in 2004. "I'll be good (there) by the time game time gets here. If they feel like they want to put me in to help slow down the run or stop the run, I think it's a great thing."
McCarthy was coy about any shifting of personnel for the game Sunday at San Francisco. He alluded, though, that Gbaja-Biamila hasn't been technically sound against the run.
"It's really the coordination between himself, the tackle and the line to bring a support element to that side," McCarthy said. "I don't think it's just one thing."
The Packers have to bolster their run defense because on the other side Sunday will be Frank Gore, who leads all running backs with a per-carry average of 5.5 yards and ranks third in the league with 1,217 yards on the ground.
Holiday wasn't in any meetings before practice Wednesday and then arrived to the field tardy because he was held up with his physical.
"It would help if we could get him to a meeting first before we take him to practice," McCarthy quipped.
McCarthy said consideration would be given to trying Holiday, a converted quarterback, on punt returns. Cornerback Charles Woodson, who's handled returns most of the season, and receiver Greg Jennings have been playing through injury issues the last several weeks.
Receiver Chris Francies was released to make room for Holiday. Francies, an undrafted rookie, was promoted from the practice squad early in the season and played in four games. He had only two receptions.