Rex Grossman has prominent eyebrows that give him an impish appearance even inside a football helmet. This triumph over anonymity is something Grossman shares with the Bears’ last two championship quarterbacks, Jim McMahon and Bobby Wade. A single-digit uniform number is another. Both McMahon and Wade wore number 9, and both harbored reputations for recklessness on and off the field. But it takes more than that to make a championship quarterback. Grossman’s predecessor with number 8 was Cade McNown, a mixer to be sure, going back to his days ignoring parking tickets at UCLA. But he never had the arm strength to sling his left-handed passes properly, and in the end he was chased out of town as something of a Peck’s bad boy who had none of the lovable rashness associated with that role. Grossman has arm strength to spare, and arm strength is to quarterbacks what speed is to wide receivers and height to basketball players–the essential that can’t be taught. Grossman’s relatively short and squat by the standards of present-day NFL quarterbacks, being listed at 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds, but he has the sturdy legs and wide backside of a baseball power pitcher, as well as the arm.

Held back through most of his rookie year as the Bears pretended to be playoff contenders, Grossman made a statistically unimpressive debut three weeks from the end of the Bears season, completing only 13 of 30 passes; but his ability to throw deep kept the Minnesota Vikings’ defense honest, and his ability to avoid even a single interception safeguarded a 13-10 victory, which a fellow rookie, cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, sealed with an interception of his own, outfighting dangerous Randy Moss for a pass in the end zone that would have given the Vikes a game-winning touchdown in the final minute. The following week Grossman looked altogether more comfortable. He weathered a couple of bad early breaks–a Justin Gage fumble on his first pass, a crisp slant, and an interception on a slightly overled pass tipped by Marty Booker–to throw a 59-yard touchdown pass on the Bears’ very next play from scrimmage. Grossman dropped straight back and zinged the ball on a line to Booker, who was running a straight fly pattern down the right sideline. The Washington Redskins defender got turned around and stopped running, leaving Booker to catch the ball in stride and go the rest of the way untouched. The Bears’ defense had just stymied the Skins’ offense after the interception, forcing the Skins to settle for a field goal, and the touchdown put the Bears up, 7-3. It was a beautiful play that promised–as Grossman chased Booker down to claim the ball and carry it to the sideline–many touchdown passes to come (there’d be one more before the day was done). Grossman instantly became the embodiment of the Bears’ hopes for the future.

I was watching the Skins game in a neighborhood sports bar with my old buddy Boom-Boom, and we were struck by how long it had been since we’d seen any Chicago football player make a throw like that. The Bears are known for their defense, above all for their middle linebackers, and they’ve gotten by in the past (when they got by at all) with quarterbacks who made up in nerve and guile for what they lacked in natural ability–for gritty types like McMahon and Wade. Sure, the Bears have had strong-armed quarterbacks before, but they tended to be wild and misfire. Boom-Boom and I were reminded of Bobby Douglass, because we both were privileged to be at the 1970 game when Douglass threw a pass about 70 yards in the air for a touchdown–after having suffered what was later revealed to be a broken wrist on a sack. (I remember it being one of the coldest days I’ve ever experienced, and Douglass must have had to thaw out after the game before he even realized he was hurt.) Douglass could throw a spiral through the bricks of Wrigley Field, where the Bears played their home games in those days, dragging the barren ivy vines with it, but he couldn’t feather a screen pass to a running back to save his life or earn a first down. Later on, the Bears had the old Southern Cal slinger Vince Evans (another number 8), but he was erratic and prone to interceptions. No, it was obvious in only his second game that Grossman was something else entirely. After his Washington counterpart, Tim Hasselbeck, found his rhythm and led the Skins on two quick touchdown drives, making it 17-10 Washington at the half, Grossman drove the Bears downfield to open the second half, finishing with a fluttering short touchdown toss to Gage. Having established the pass, he turned to running back Anthony Thomas on the next drive, and the Bears marched into the end zone again for a 24-17 lead, holding the ball almost the entire third quarter. Washington rallied to tie the game, and on the Bears’ final drive Grossman made a couple of rookie mistakes managing the clock, leaving Paul Edinger with a 45-yard field goal into the wind after he’d sliced two shorter kicks in the same direction wide right. But this boot went up, faded slightly, then held true. The ball dropped over the crossbar for the victory.

Grossman was the Bears’ future incarnate. The question was whether he’d be taking coach Dick Jauron into the future with him, and this was answered before the end of the Bears’ final game last Sunday in Kansas City. Some said Jauron’s fate had been decided before that game, and by any statistical measure, the decision seemed obvious. Jauron came in with a career regular-season record of 35-44, and only a single winning season in his five years. Every conceivable break went the Bears’ way as they finished 13-3 in 2001, and the result was a first-game playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, the Bears seemed more often than not in disarray, even if they did an admirable job this year of attaining respectability after a 1-5 start. And although in my mind it would have been hard to fire Jauron if the Bears had won Sunday against the playoff-bound Chiefs to finish 8-8, general manager Jerry Angelo, who inherited Jauron two years ago, deserved a coach of his own choosing for next season, the final year of his contract.

And so it was that Jauron headed for the exit, officially removed from his duties on Monday. The day before, the Bears gave no one any good reason to retain him. Following a game plan that must have called on him to stay mobile in the pocket and make his own decisions, Grossman bombed away as if to show what a strong arm he had–especially after the Bears fell behind 14-0 in the second half. But he couldn’t hit anything long. When his right middle finger apparently snagged a Kansas City lineman during one wild heave, Grossman was done for the game and the season; it was hard not to see that finger as symbolic of a last gesture toward the Jauron era. The Bears’ coaching staff gave backup quarterback Kordell Stewart little help in adjusting to the game, and he badly mismanaged the clock as the Bears drove deep into Kansas City territory just before halftime. A running play left the Bears inside the 10-yard line with 12 seconds to go, and instead of taking the field goal and going to the locker room, the Bears opted to squeeze in one more play. Stewart did the one thing he couldn’t do. Given an auxiliary receiver on the sideline to throw over if he needed to avoid a sack and a grounding call, Stewart instead threw the ball straight to him, and Bobby Wade made the rookie mistake of making the catch, staying in bounds, and running out the clock. If nothing else sealed Jauron’s fate, that did. The Bears did march for a field goal to open the second half, but this was the last exhibit of respectability they had to offer this season. Even their determination to play hard no matter what went awry toward the end, when overexuberant pass-interference penalties on Tillman and Jerry Azumah and an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on R.W. McQuarters for arguing the calls led to a Kansas City field goal on the way to a 31-3 finale.

It was somehow fitting that the Jauron era ended not with a bang but a whimper. He was nothing if not calm, understated, and professional–a class act to the very end, if also an illustration that nice guys do indeed tend to finish last. And if he avoided the debasement of a Jim Dooley or an Abe Gibron or even the “we gotta make plays” delusion of a Dave Wannstedt, he didn’t get much more done than those failed Bears coaches did during their tenures. Now Angelo gets a chance to win on his own terms, and he can enjoy the added security of a (dubious) contract extension through 2008 by team president Ted Phillips, who tacked a few years onto his own deal while he was at it.

Jauron at least left his successor with a solid nucleus to build on, even if most of that nucleus was brought in by Angelo with this season’s impressive rookie class, which includes Tillman, Gage, and linebacker Lance Briggs, as well as capable fill-ins like Joe Odom and Brock Forsey–not to mention first-round picks Michael Haynes and, of course, Grossman, who both remain largely promises. Put them together with players like middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who once again showed flashes of brilliance on Sunday, and you have a young group of players who might well be exceptional if coached correctly. In Grossman and Urlacher the Bears appear to have exceptional leaders on both sides of the ball for the next several seasons. The Bears need a coach who’ll find a way to release this talent, instead of tying it down with a system built to avoid losing but not built to win.