The almost always-affable Rex Grossman seemed a trifle peevish Wednesday. But that probably had more to do with some of the nonsensical questions he was asked than any nervousness he might be feeling as he approaches the biggest game of his life, Sunday's 2 p.m. NFC championship at Soldier Field vs. the Saints.
Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner hasn't sensed any irritability from his quarterback this week.
"He came in Tuesday night, we met, went over the game plan, and he seems very focused and very relaxed," Turner said. "He had a good practice (Wednesday). He seems good to me. He's ready to go."
Last week's playoff victory took a lot of heat off the Bears' quarterback, but hasn't diminished the media attention, which has grown to national proportions this week. Grossman wasn't happy with some of the questions he heard Wednesday. He sounded as if he'd prefer facing a Saints blitz when he was asked if he has had fun this season.
"Why wouldn't I have fun?" an indignant Grossman replied: "Yeah, I've had fun."
He was asked what has made it fun.
"I think it's obvious," he snapped. "I'm not sure why I have to explain (that) this is fun being in the NFC championship game, (being the) Chicago Bears' quarterback, playing with a bunch of great guys and making plays. This is what it's all about. It's not about patting yourself on the back and reading something saying you played great or you're the best or all that crap. I'm just excited about everything that has happened, and all the scrutiny is just part of it. That's part of my responsibility as a quarterback to deal with some of that."
As a long-time fan of the NFL, Grossman realizes the importance of Sunday's NFC championship game against the Saints, but he's keeping it in perspective.
"Growing up watching the NFL and being such a fan of the sport and the league, it means a great deal to be in this position," he said. "I really respect where we are at right now as far as the history of the league. I'm approaching it with a ton of intensity and focus but not trying to make it bigger than it is. It's still just a football game. We're playing at Soldier Field at home against the Saints, and (I'm) just (trying to) concentrate on that, and then everything will take care of itself."
Grossman's teammates believe he benefited from his solid performance against the Seahawks, but they insist they didn't need to be convinced of his ability to lead them to the Promised Land in Miami for Super Bowl XLI.
"I don't expect to see anything different (this week) from him," running back Thomas Jones said. "He made the plays he needed to make last week, and we expect to see the same thing this week."
Last week, Grossman completed 21 of 38 passes for 282 yards and a solid passer rating of 76.9, which is what the Bears figured they'd get from him.
"Rex always knew he could do it," center Olin Kreutz said, "so I don't want to say last time he proved he could do it, but I'm sure it helped a little bit.
"I'm sure it was a long two weeks for him, with people saying he couldn't win the game, people saying he couldn't do certain things. That's why you go out and play the game. Hopefully some people give him some credit this week."
No one knows better than his offensive line how much Grossman has overcome to get to this point, enduring injuries that kept him sidelined for 27 of 32 games in 2004 and ‘05. That and withstanding the public scrutiny throughout the current season in which he's experienced the ultimate in highs and lows, have left Grossman battle tested.
"He's shown that kind of toughness coming back from all his injuries," guard Roberto Garza said. "I think that made him a stronger player mentally and physically, and that's the kind of guy he is. He's not going to let anything get him down. He's going to continue to keep playing. He's really a great leader for us and we're really happy that he's our quarterback."
By the end of his press conference, Grossman left ‘em laughing when he was asked to compare his preparation this week to cramming for final exams.
"I didn't study really hard for final exams," he said with a grin. "But I will study extremely hard for this one, I will guarantee you that. Everything I'm doing is going after one goal and that's to win this game, and nothing else matters. It's all about getting myself prepared and getting in a good place before the game starts and just go out and take all that preparation to the field then everything will be fine. Just have fun."
SERIES HISTORY: 24th meeting. Bears lead series 12-11, but the Saints have won three of the last four meetings and five of the last seven. The Bears won the last meeting 20-17 on Nov. 6, 2005 at Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium on a 29-yard Robbie Gould field goal. In the only postseason meeting, the Bears prevailed 16-6 in a first-round game at Soldier Field on Jan. 6, 1991.
"I remember the season-opening game, and I was rooting for the Saints, too," said linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. "You watch that, and it's amazing what they've been able to do just from a morale standpoint for everybody down there. But we're not thinking about that this week. They're just another team that's between us and where we want to be. I'm happy that they've made it this far, but hopefully this is the end of the line."
Bears guard Ruben Brown isn't buying into what has more frequently been referred to as a "Cinderella" story.
"That's just stuff that you guys write," he said. "I never called them a Cinderella team; I just called them a good team.
"We understand what it means to the city of New Orleans. We're all sympathetic to that, but right now it's about trying to get to the Super Bowl and winning it. Every team in the NFL set out for this. We want it, too. Sure, it'd be good for them to win, but we want it."
Bears center Olin Kreutz said the Bears aren't counting on having any weather-related edge over the Saints, who play their home games in a dome.
"These guys are all pros," Kreutz said. "They've played football for a long time, so I'm sure they've all played in cold weather. We can't expect it to be an advantage for us. We'll see; we'll find out Sunday. You never know."
"Of course, we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so it's kind of a special day," Smith said. "On a personal note, I officially became a part of the Bears' organization three years ago (Monday), so I have a lot of good things going on, on a personal note."
"Not a good play on my part," Smith said. "Our plan was to take a timeout with more seconds (left), where they would have to hopefully punt the ball. We wanted to give Devin one more shot with a big return. That was the plan. Shouldn't have stopped it with two seconds left."
The gaffe proved harmless when Matt Hasselbeck's pass, intended for Nate Burleson, sailed well out of bounds.
BY THE NUMBERS: Last week was the Bears' first post-season victory in 12 years, and their first at home in 16 years. ... The Bears are 5-1 in the post-season as the NFC's No. 1 seed.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm black. I know no black, African-American coach has taken his team to the Super Bowl, and that's out there. That's a part of the story that you can't get away from, but I am the head coach of the Chicago Bears trying to take his team to the Super Bowl, and that's the bigger story to me." — Bears coach Lovie Smith on the possibility of being the first black head coach in a Super Bowl.
The Lions' miracle one-year turnaround simply didn't materialize.
Like just about everything else the Lions have tried for the past six seasons under team president Matt Millen, it didn't work and for the sixth consecutive season, they finished with double-digit losses. This year, there were 13 of them.
The Lions might have made some progress in their first year under coach Rod Marinelli but they never got into contention, never got back to respectability, never even got to .500.
They learned what Marinelli expects of them in terms of hard work — more than they have given in the previous five years.
They know now that if they can't match Marinelli's commitment and dedication to the game, they might want to find another place to practice their trade.
And Marinelli found out the hard way what he has and what he lacks in terms of talent. Injuries took a heavy toll and probably skewed the evaluation process; 10 full- or part-time starters finished the season on injured reserve, including three of the four defensive line starters, five players who started at one time or another on the offensive line, and Kevin Jones, the best running back.
Perhaps more telling was the fact that Marinelli and his staff — offensive coordinator Mike Martz, in particular — rejected several players that the Lions' management and personnel department thought they could build on.
Quarterback Joey Harrington, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2002 draft, was not comfortable in a locker room that hard turned against him late in the 2005 season and he was traded during the off-season.
Wide receiver Charles Rogers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft, was cut outright before the start of the regular season, unable to satisfy Martz with either his speed or his work ethic.
Wide receiver Mike Williams, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2005 draft, played in barely half the team's games and finished with eight receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown. He apparently never got down to Martz's prescribed plying weight, dropped a pass that would have won the next-to-last game of the season against Chicago and, in the final days of the season, suggested he would be agreeable to staying with the Lions if they would agree to a playing weight more acceptable to him.
Offensive linemen Ross Verba, Rex Tucker and Barry Stokes, who were brought in to shore up the front five, couldn't stay healthy. All three finished the season on injured reserve.
Defensively, the problems were not as dramatic but they were equally serious.
Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, a two-time Pro Bowl player, was slow to buy into Marinelli's demanding work, later was slapped with a four-game suspension for testing positive to a banned substance and couldn't come back from an arthroscopic knee surgery performed during his suspension. He finished the season on injured reserve.
The linebacking corps that Millen had put together in recent drafts did not play effectively. The attempt to move Boss Bailey to middle linebacker failed, Teddy Lehman missed much of the season with injuries and Paris Lenon got a lot of tackles but very few big plays. Rookie Ernie Sims was the most effective linebacker.
And, finally, the styles of long-time friends Marinelli and coordinator Donnie Henderson, clashed. Marinelli's Tampa-2 defense wasn't Henderson's cup of tea and, although they say they are still good pals, they parted company at the end of the season.
As a result, the Lions got the slow start that many expected in a new, demanding system but they never picked up speed. After victories over Buffalo and Atlanta during a three-game span in the middle of the season, they had a chance to make a statement with upcoming games against San Francisco, Arizona and Miami.
They lost all three, launching a seven-game losing streak that eventually left them with a 3-13 record and the No. 2 pick in the draft next April.
So, where exactly does that leave the Lions for the 2007 season? That would be anybody's guess.
Marinelli, looking at the bright side, said it was good to get a look at so many young offensive and defensive linemen, who were forced into fulltime duty by injuries to the regulars.
But the Lions face many, many questions in the new season.
Jones, coming off a Lis Franc injury, may or may not be ready for training camp. Some players with that injury have made timely recoveries; others have struggled for a year or more.
Quarterback Jon Kitna was tough and durable. He took every offensive snap and threw for 4,308 yards but he was intercepted 22 times, at least once in all except three of the Lions' 16 games. With a better supporting cast, he could probably prosper but it will take a major overhaul to make the Lions competitive.
Lions wide receiver Roy Williams, who topped the National Conference with a career-best 1,310 yards, was the NFC's first alternate in voting by fans, NFL players and coaches and he got the call to Honolulu when Torry Holt of St. Louis withdrew because of knee surgery.
"It's unfortunate that he can't go but I think if anybody can take his place, I think I can," Williams said.
Williams posted modest receiving numbers in his first two seasons with the Lions in the West Coast offense under Steve Mariucci — 54 catches for 817 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie season 2004, 45 catches for 687 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
In his first season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, however, Williams — despite more drops than the Lions coaches liked — produced 82 receptions for 1,310 yards and seven touchdowns.
Williams is the only player off the 3-13 Lions to be selected for the Pro Bowl.
Cullen, who was in his first season with the Lions, pleaded no contest to one count of disorderly person/obscene conduct charges and pleaded guilty to impaired driving. The charges stemmed from two incidents that occurred last summer — driving naked through the drive-up lane of a fast food restaurant and, in a separate incident, driving while intoxicated.
Sentencing was set for Feb. 13 and Cullen faces up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine plus court costs for the disorderly charges, as well as 93 days in jail and a $300 fine plus court costs for the impaired driving charge.
Kennedy, a starting safety the past two seasons, faced up to 93 days in jail after being arrested in the early morning of Oct. 6 while driving home from a nightclub. A blood test registered a .16% blood-alcohol level, twice the Michigan limit of .08 percent.
Kennedy was able to avoid jail time but was sentenced to 18 months probation, was given a $500 fine plus court costs and was ordered by the presiding judge to enter an Alcoholics Anonymous program. He will also have to perform five days of community service.
Attorney Joseph A. Lavigne noted that it was Kennedy's first offense and that he already had enrolled in an alcohol-supervision program.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I hope he doesn't leave us because we've got a good thing going. He's told me that before. Especially with a year under his offense, now we know what to expect." — Wide receiver Roy Williams on the possibility of offensive coordinator Mike Martz leaving the Lions to take a head coaching job.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Way back around the first week of December, changes on the coaching staff seemed to be all but a foregone conclusion.
The Packers had lost by double digits in three straight games, including two lopsided outcomes at home. Their record was 4-8. They labored with a defense that hadn't met a big play it could resist giving up.
Fans were calling for and the media was speculating on the dismissal of defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer.
Then, the defense cured itself; the Packers won their next four games to finish with a record of 8-8. When all was said and done, the only coaching move to come about was replacing Jeff Jagodzinski as offensive coordinator after he took the head-coaching job at Boston College.
Head coach Mike McCarthy filled the vacancy Jan. 15 by promoting offensive line coach Joe Philbin. In doing so, along with a few other job-title alterations brought on by Philbin's promotion, McCarthy insinuated that one ‘c' word (continuity) is imperative for his team's pursuit of another ‘c' word (championship).
"Consistency was something that, quite frankly, we did not have as a football team, particularly the first half of the season," McCarthy said. "This enables us to continue to build."
Keeping the staff mostly intact will mirror the makeup of the team in 2007. All 22 preferred starters could be back, though quarterback Brett Favre has yet to commit to another season and running back Ahman Green is without a contract.
Calling on Philbin for the coordinator post was a logical move by McCarthy. Although McCarthy calls the shots on offense, he didn't want to run the risk of disassembling the structure that is in place by hiring from outside the organization.
Just as Jagodzinski immersed himself in the nuances of the zone-blocking scheme while working alongside guru Alex Gibbs in Atlanta, Philbin was a sponge when Jagodzinski brought the system with him to Green Bay last season. Thus, the transition should be seamless for both the new coordinator and his well-versed charges in the running game, which will be Philbin's primary domain.
"We invested a lot of time in it, a lot of repetitions, a lot of practice time. We think it's good," Philbin said. "Yet, we want to get better at it and improve at it. We'll start kind of finding ways to do that."
Likewise, McCarthy was encouraged enough by the defense's turnaround late in the season that he slammed the door shut on the possibility of bringing in a fifth coordinator in as many years for its veteran players.
The embattled Sanders was given a vote of confidence, though the promotion of linebackers coach Winston Moss to assistant head coach suggested otherwise.
"Bob Sanders is the coordinator, will continue to be the coordinator," McCarthy emphasized, "but Winston Moss, he'll be my right-hand man."
Moss will continue coaching the linebackers and said Sanders would have the overriding say on the defense. Moss characterized the new role as a sounding board for McCarthy.
"He's shown a lot of trust and a lot of confidence, and I appreciate that," Moss said of McCarthy. "Whenever he needs to bounce something off of (someone) or get a second ear on, I'll be that person helping him out."
Head coach Mike McCarthy told Wisconsin reporters Jan. 15 that he hadn't spoken to Favre in at least a week and was awaiting an answer.
"We'll find out sooner than later," McCarthy said. "I really have no feeling what Brett's intentions are right now, but hopefully, we'll have a decision soon."
Linebacker A.J. Hawk, the team's first-round draft choice, and the second-round duo of guard Daryn Colledge and receiver Greg Jennings were the honorees.
That makes four all-rookie picks in Thompson's first two years at the helm. Safety Nick Collins earned a nod in 2005.
McCarthy bestowed the title on linebackers coach Winston Moss on Jan. 15. Green Bay was one of just nine teams that didn't have an assistant head coach last season.
At 41, Moss is presently the second-youngest assistant head coach in the league. Cleveland's Jeff Davidson is 39.
Five other assistant head coaches previously worked in Green Bay: Houston's Mike Sherman, Denver's Jim Bates, Miami's Charlie Baggett, New Orleans' Joe Vitt and Philadelphia's Marty Mornhinweg.
The field will be a hybrid of natural grass and synthetic fibers. Denver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also have the DD GrassMaster surface at their stadiums. The Packers have a similar surface at one of their practice fields, which is primarily used during training camp.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Right now, he's still the coordinator. I'm still the linebackers coach. He will break all ties. I will still coach the linebackers once again and help (head coach) Mike McCarthy with whatever he needs." — Winston Moss on how Bob Sanders will continue to coordinate the defense, even though Moss was given the added title of assistant head coach Jan. 15.