It isn't easy to be a starting quarterback for a winning team in the National Football League.
Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman is learning all too well the pressure that comes with being the offensive leader of a team expected by many to go to the Super Bowl.
After Grossman was on the verge of being benched after a month of poor play, he rebounded with a strong performance on Monday night, throwing two touchdown passes in a win over the St. Louis Rams. For a young quarterback, Grossman must have a felt a tremendous sense of relief.
The questions about why he was playing poorly were endless. Even when the Bears would win, the question would be why didn't Rex play better.
After a 10-0 win against the New York Jets last month, Grossman was asked "Rex, some consider you the weak link on this team, how did you respond to that?"
Rex's response was simple. "I never heard that."
Grossman is trying to play well while ignoring the doubters that consider him the only problem with a very talented Bears team.
"There really is not a feeling in Chicago that he is the weak link," said Bears columnist Mike Nadel. "But the pressure is especially tough from the national media."
Grossman has led a relatively conservative offense that at times takes shots down the field. The Bears have been able to score more than 20 points nine times this season and Bears coach Lovie Smith never threw his quarterback under the bus, choosing always to emphasize the positives.
"Rex is our quarterback," insisted Smith after a loss to the Patriots in which Grossman threw four interceptions.
The challenges for a first-year starter are many. The NFL is simply a much faster game than college, the defensive schemes are much more complex, and receivers that seem open when a quarterback throws the ball are often covered by the time the ball gets there. Defensive backs can make up space very quickly in the NFL.
"There are a lot of factors that go into adjusting to life in the NFL," said Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly. "The speed and complex schemes are two of the biggest factors that a quarterback like Rex faces when trying to make the game slow down, which is ultimately the key for a young quarterback."
For first-year starters, the other big challenge is to have patience.
Sometimes receivers are simply not open and a quarterback must learn to throw the ball away to avoid an interception. Grossman, however, has made the mistake of throwing too many balls into tight coverage.
"Even if his receivers are not open [Rex] would still throw the ball to them believing they would come down with the ball," noted Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs after the Bears defeated the Patriots 17-13 last month.
Privately, coach Smith began to tell his quarterback that he wanted him to be more relaxed in the pocket. When asked if Grossman's problem was mechanical, e.g. throwing off his back foot instead of stepping into the pass, Smith responded, "Those phrases sound all nice and good, but I am going to say their defensive backs made great plays."
"Every young player goes through that transition period in this league.
You just learn from week to week," said Hobbs, a young player himself.
There is no question Grossman wants to be good and has the support of his teammates, who like both his personality and work ethic.
If Grossman can play like he did on Monday night against the Rams, then Bears fans should be pretty excited about the playoffs.