The Bears celebrated at Soldier Field with the George S.
Halas NFC Championship trophy for the first time since 1985.
Respect. In 2006, according to the organization if the media
questioned the Chicago Bears, it was due to a lack of respect. Rex Grossman
finished a game with a quarterback rating of 0.0? No respect. The defense
staggered to the end of the regular season for the second year in a row? No
problems there, just no respect.
The Chicago Bears accomplished more in the 2006 season then
they had in the previous 20 seasons, winning back-to-back division titles for
the first time since 1988, hosting a conference championship game for the first
time since that year and won that elusive crown. In their first Super Bowl
since 1985, the disrespected underdogs were in a perfect position thanks to a
rookie phenom and a castoff defensive back. But after two possessions on the
world's greatest stage, the young Bears team couldn't totally silence their
The seeds of this 2006 disrespect may have been planted five
months prior to the season opener in Green Bay. The 2005 team's Achilles' heel
was unquestionably an offense that couldn't score a small amount of points to
keep up with their brilliant defense, that had set an NFL record for fewest
points allowed in eight games at home. Despite glaring needs on that side of
the ball, General Manager Jerry Angelo traded out of the first round and used
all but one draft pick on defense-not selecting an offensive player until
tabbing a guard in the sixth round. Critics were merciless, but Angelo would
ultimately be vindicated.
In the beginning of the free agent signing period, Angelo did
make a move that was long overdue. While resisting overpriced players Antwaan
Randle-El and Adam Archuleta, both of whom signed ludicrous contracts with
Washington, the GM signed Chicago's first legitimate backup quarterback in
almost a decade in Brian Griese. The eight-year veteran of three teams was
inked to a five-year deal, positioning him to back up the oft-injured Grossman
and take over the reigns should the starter falter.
Players reported to training camp in Bourbonnais, IL in late
July with many of the same questions dogging them as had throughout the Angelo
era. Why the lack of attention to offense in the draft? (Angelo insisted he had
a "redshirt" rookie class from 2005 that would step up as the de facto 2006
offensive draft class). Would Thomas Jones be traded, giving highly paid
sophomore Cedric Benson a chance to take over the reigns at running back?
(Trade rumors swirled, but Jones was not dealt). How would the eccentric Benson
acclimate with his teammates?
Hints of the answer to the final question came to the
forefront early in camp. Jones and linebacker Lance Briggs, both clients of
controversial agent Drew Rosenhaus, had held out of all offseason activities in
protest of playing under their existing contracts. In retaliation, Head Coach
Lovie Smith (coaching under his own outdated contract) dropped the Rosenhaus
duo on the depth chart. During a night drill in camp Benson, the default
starter, caught a short pass in a light contract drill and was sandwiched by
defenders Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown. The hit was not as hard as initially
reported by the media, but it did dislocate Benson's shoulder. Was Benson being
punished for still not acclimating with his teammates? The Benson injury,
coupled with a strained hamstring Jones suffered from, limited both runners’
work throughout the preseason.
During the preseason more questions emerged. Grossman,
entering what all hoped to be his first healthy season as a Bear, struggled
mightily in the first three games. Operating with at best his third running
back in games for which the Bears didn't game plan but their opponents did,
Grossman looked terrible. By the time backup Brian Griese entered the game
against the opponent's second team, to fans and the media it was clear that the
journeyman should be leading the offense, not the questionable former
first-round pick. Foreshadowing the remainder of the year, Smith steadfastly
defended his starter, Rex Grossman.
Chicago opened the regular season and silenced many critics
with a 26-0 pasting of the archrival Packers, only its fourth win in Green Bay
in 14 years, but Smith's third straight there. Most notable during the game
were a 49-yard touchdown completion from Grossman to wideout Bernard Berrian,
another oft-injured offensive star, and the play of the team's stalwart
defense, which looked better than the previous season's edition. And rookie
kick returner Devin Hester sealed the game with an 84-yard punt return for a
touchdown in his first game as a pro.
The Bears opened their home schedule the following week with a 34-7
pasting of the Detroit Lions, despite a guarantee of a Lion victory by the
visitor's brash receiver Roy Williams. Harris again sparked his team to a
victory with a strip of Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna on the opening series of
In week three, Chicago traveled to Minnesota to face the
Vikings. As had happened early in the 2005 season, Smith made a change in the
defensive backfield, installing rookie Danieal Manning at free safety to
supplant Chris Harris, who had replaced Mike Green early in the '05 season.
Harris took his demotion positively, correctly guessing that in the long season
many things change. In the Metrodome Grossman struggled a bit, tossing an
interception returned for a touchdown by the Vikes that kept the home team in
the game. The signal caller redeemed himself late in the fourth quarter,
delivering a laser strike to slot receiver Rashied Davis for the game's winning
score. The score would not have happened were it not for a disruptive play by
defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who knifed into the backfield and caused a
fumble recovered by Adawale Ogunelye. The recovery led directly to the winning
score, which would be the first of several clutch, game-winning receptions on
the season by Davis.
The Detroit and Minnesota wins put Chicago in the driver's
seat in the division, with three straight wins against their rivals in
September. But their statement game was square ahead of them.
On October 1st, the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks
came to Chicago, in just the type of game Chicago had difficulty winning since
the 1980's. The Bears responded by thrashing Seattle on national television,
winning 37-6 and completely demoralizing the visitors. Harris earned his second
straight NFC Defensive Player of the Week honor, and Grossman looked to be
flaming his critics with a 232 yard, two touchdown performance.
The utter destruction of opponents continued the following
week, as former Bear coach Dick Jauron delivered his Buffalo Bills on a platter
for a 40-7 roasting. The Bears led 40-0 with just minutes left in the game, but
a Benson fumble positioned the Bills to score a garbage touchdown at the end.
Chicago defenders put it on themselves and declared they wouldn't let such a
breakdown occur again.
With one game left before the bye week, the Bears were 5-0,
with a stifling defense, the NFC's highest scoring offense, and were piloted by
the NFL's hottest quarterback. Certainly an undefeated season was within reach.
On October 16th, Chicago traveled to the desert for its first
Monday Night Football appearance in three seasons. Their hosts, the Arizona
Cardinals, would be starting rookie quarterback Matt Leinart for the first
time, and national pregame shows focused on the juggernaut Bears and the sure
impending pummeling of the neophyte.
Then the game started. Leinart led his team on successive long
touchdowns, and his Cardinals embarrassed the visiting beasts. At halftime, the
score was 20-0 Arizona and Grossman's performance was abysmal. And
worse, it didn't get better in the second half, as "Bad Rex" finished the game
throwing four interceptions with a quarterback rating of 10.2. However,
Brian Urlacher, the defense, and the rookie phenom picked the offense up and
carried it on their collective shoulders. First, Leinart was drilled by another
Bear rookie phenom, fifth-round defensive end Mark Anderson, fumbled, and the
fumble was walked into the end zone by safety Mike Brown. Later, Urlacher
yanked the ball free from Cardinal running back Edgerrin James, and the fumble
was returned for another score by cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman. Finally,
late in the game Hester broke free on an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Undoubtedly thousands of Bear fans left the game that night, only to wake up
and again realize that one should never quit on a Bears game early. Chicago
turned a one-time 23-3 deficit into a 24-23 miracle victory.
The miracle victory at Arizona further bolstered the legend of
the 2006 Bears. Despite Grossman's terrible performance in the desert, insane
fans predicted it was a one-time aberration, and equally predicted an
undefeated Bears finish. For one more week, following the team's bye, it looked
as if the team may prove those predictions true. Chicago rolled up 41 points in
the first half against San Francisco, tying a team record, and won 41-10.
Grossman silenced his critics as well, bouncing back with a strong performance
(137.4 rating, three touchdowns).
The following week, misguided fans that had predicted the sure
undefeated season saw their hopes blow up in their faces, as Grossman had his
second terrible outing of the season, throwing three interceptions and
finishing with a 36.8 quarterback rating. The Bears lost 31-13 to a Miami
Dolphin team roundly called the worst team in football at that point in the
The Miami loss came on the eve of the season's most difficult
stretch: a three-game road trip to New York and New England. Chicago's
quarterback started shakily in the first game at the New York Giants, but
rebounded to lead the Bears to a 38-20 win against a suddenly reeling Giant
team. The Giant win was reprised the following week with another win in the
same stadium against the Jets. Then on November 26th, the 9-1 Bears traveled to
New England for a matchup with the 7-3 Patriots. In a tough game the Bears
kept it close, but on their final offensive play, Grossman underthrew a
streaking Davis for an interception, ending the game with a 17-13 loss.
The Bears won their next four games of the regular season. The
first, at home against Minnesota in negative-windchill weather, ended with a
23-13 Bears win. However, "Bad Rex" again emerged as he finished with a 1.3
rating and three interceptions. Also, All-Pro defensive tackle Tommie Harris
was lost for the season with a torn hamstring. Harris' injury coupled with that
of Mike Brown, who was lost for the year in the Arizona game, created a
noticeable difference in Chicago's once #1 ranked defensive unit.
Again, as he did all year, Grossman bounced back with a solid
performance the following week at St. Louis, and Devin Hester tied and broke an
NFL record with his fifth and six kick return touchdowns on the season.
Against NFC doormats Tampa and Detroit in the following two
weeks, the Bears were on the ropes late but pulled out wins. And in the season
finale on New Year's Eve, moved to a night game at the behest of the NFL, the
Bears were obliterated by Green Bay, who had nothing to play for. Grossman and
teammates admitted to not treating the game as seriously as they should have
given the circumstances, but questions lingered if another playoff collapse was
Due to a botched chip-shot field goal by Dallas, Chicago drew
the Seattle Seahawks to come to Soldier Field in the divisional round of the
playoffs. Unlike the previous "statement" annihilation of the Seahawks by the
Bears, this time Seattle kept the game close. It took a game-winning Robbie
Gould field goal in overtime to put the visitors away and vault the Bears to
their first NFC Championship game since 1988.
Entering the championship game, the Bears were favored by as
little as two points, despite New Orleans pulling out a squeaker in the
divisional round against the Eagles. Given the old adage that the home time is
given three points, the odds makers basically favored the Saints. And the
national media, in love with the darlings from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans,
completely wrote the Bears off. Indeed, all seven "expert" prognosticators from
ESPN chose the Saints to win.
The Bears jumped out to a 16-0 lead until shortly before
halftime, when New Orleans scored a touchdown. Momentum swung the Saints' way
in the third on a Reggie Bush 87-yard touchdown reception, at the end of which
he leapt into the endzone and taunted a trailing Brian Urlacher. At about this
time, the snow began to fall as it did in Chicago's previous NFC Championship
win. Punter Brad Maynard pinned the Saints inside their five-yard line, and the
Bear defense forced Saint quarterback Drew Brees into a safety. The Bears then
scored 20 unanswered points, and Bears matriarch Virginia McCaskey received the
George Halas trophy at midfield.
Doubted by everyone, to a man claiming to be respected by no
one, the Chicago Bears won their fourth conference championship and the first
in 21 years. But in the locker room following the victory, Head Coach Lovie
Smith reminded his team that his final goal-a World Championship-was still
The Bears left freezing Chicago in late January to trek to
Miami and face the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 41. With Smith and good
friend Tony Dungy, the game would be the first matchup of African American head
coaches in NFL history. Rex Grossman, the Bears, and their coach faced unending
questions about which quarterback would show up in the game: the Bears' best
passer in eleven years (Good Rex, seven games), one of their worst in history
(Bad Rex, five games) or "somewhere in-between" (four games). Grossman tired of
answering the questions, and Smith steadfastly stood behind his starter.
On the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl, the one and only
Devin Hester scored a touchdown on a 92-yard return. On Indianapolis' first
possession, the Chicago defense rushed and stifled legendary Colt quarterback
Peyton Manning, forcing an interception grabbed by the once-forgotten safety
Chris Harris (now starting opposite rookie Danieal Manning). Then things
changed. Grossman fumbled snaps from center, stumbled for losses, and the Bear
defense gave up the short play in order to prevent the big play. Peyton Manning
and his teammates marched down the field methodically and the Chicago offense
couldn't answer through the air, despite a solid 112 yard rushing performance
by Thomas Jones.
In the end, the Bears lost their return trip to the Super Bowl
29-17, and vowed to return in 2008 to earn that last bit of respect.