Rex Grossman was the first Bears player to leave the locker room after halftime of last month’s game against Atlanta. Seeing him run out onto the field ahead of his teammates piqued the interest of the fans in Soldier Field, and when he began to warm up they went wild. Other Bears emerged to find the crowd in an uproar and Grossman getting ready–it was as if he’d sneaked out without telling them he was going to start the second half–and they got excited too. Then the rest of the team came dashing out, and in the moments before the kickoff the players and the fans were all jumping up and down and screaming with anticipation.

On his first play from scrimmage, Grossman zinged the ball to Muhsin Muhammad on a deep square-out. It was a pass thrown with more zip and better timing than Kyle Orton had shown all season long. The Bears were transformed before our eyes from a plodding, defensive-minded behemoth to a total football team.

That’s not to diminish what Orton achieved after Grossman went down with a broken ankle in an exhibition game. As a rookie quarterback, he’d been asked to avoid mistakes and play well enough to give the Bears’ dominating defense a chance to win. Aside from a miserable game against the Cincinnati Bengals in which he threw five interceptions, that’s exactly what he did, and there was a stretch of eight straight victories. But if Orton’s performance made the Bears contenders for the Super Bowl, it didn’t necessarily make them Super Bowl contenders. Like major league baseball at the moment, the National Football League finds itself imbalanced, with one conference far stronger than the other. Behind a stern defense and a one-dimensional, run-oriented offense based on Thomas Jones, the Bears could hope to knock off even the Seattle Seahawks and make it to Super Bowl XL. But then they’d face certain annihilation at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts, or the AFC team scrappy and lucky enough to beat the Colts. Most of the AFC playoff teams would be favored in the Super Bowl whomever they meet, including the Seahawks. The Super Bowl is going the way of the World Series, in which the last two National League champions were swept by vastly superior American League teams.

Grossman instantly changed our sense of what the future could hold. His rifle arm and–even more important–his moxie and derring-do, suggested by those impish eyebrows that all but jut out of his helmet, gave the Bears a passing game to go with Jones’s running and made the offense three-dimensional and unpredictable. It wasn’t just that he guided the Bears to convincing victories over the Falcons and then the Packers in Green Bay on Christmas Day. It was the way he did it, with passes zipping through traffic and delayed runs to Jones that worked because the opposing defense had been expecting the pass. Against Orton, the other teams always played to stop the run.

It was also the way coach Lovie Smith made the change. There’s a truism in football that fans always find fault with the quarterback and root for the backup to go in, but once the change is made are soon clamoring for the original starter. Bears fans certainly rooted for Grossman, especially as Orton’s struggles worsened over the season. But there were some in the stands and in the media who insisted Smith couldn’t make a change, even with Grossman healed, as long as the Bears were winning. What Smith eventually did confounded both sides. He didn’t change quarterbacks while Orton won, but neither did he make a desperation move when Orton lost. He switched quarterbacks from a position of relative strength, with the Bears ahead 6-3 midway through the Falcons game. TV commentator Joe Theisman was highly critical, but he ate his words when the Bears opened up behind Grossman like a blossoming flower. Local media “experts” humiliated themselves as well, notably the Tribune’s Mike Downey, who flip-flopped on whether Grossman should have replaced Orton and then wrote more columns ineffectually trying to explain himself.

This is not to make myself out as all knowing. If it had been my decision, I’d have inserted Grossman the week before, at halftime of the game the Bears lost in Pittsburgh. My thinking was that Grossman’s arm would give the Bears a better chance of coming from behind. Yet in hindsight Grossman, playing in swirling snow against a Steelers defense protecting a lead and therefore keying on the pass, would have been set up for failure. The following week, inheriting a lead, an impassioned home crowd, and his own fired-up teammates, Grossman was set up to succeed.

He could still fail. Thanks to three major injuries, he’s actually had less game experience in his three years in the NFL than Orton’s had in one. Because of his inexperience, and also because his immense skills encourage him to take risks, he will at some point have a bad game in which those risks catch up with him. Maybe it’ll be this weekend in the playoffs, when the Carolina Panthers try to exert the same pressure that forced the New York Giants’ Eli Manning into three interceptions last Sunday.

Yet Grossman’s unharnessed abilities also mean the Bears could peak exactly when they need to. Grossman himself is fond of citing the example of Doug Williams, who became the Washington Redskins’ starting quarterback with two games left in the 1987 regular season, guided them past the Bears in the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl with a hot hand against the favored Denver Broncos.

Smith kept Grossman out of the meaningless last game of the season, the Bears having already clinched a playoff spot and a week off as one of the top two teams in the NFC. He rested much of the defense as well, accepting a 34-10 defeat that brought a moralistic harangue from the Sun-Times’s Rick Telander. In exchange for the precious game experience Grossman missed out on, he remained that much more of an unknown quantity for the Panthers to deal with. Another columnist will have to eat his words if the Bears, and Grossman, play as well as they’re capable of playing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel|Getty Images.