Payton says Grossman has arrived

Published 7:22 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A former quarterback himself, Saints coach Sean Payton was not about to discount the abilities of the erratic Rex Grossman.

Especially not after some of the throws he saw the embattled Chicago signal caller make in ousting Seattle from the playoffs.

“With the weight of a lot of people on his shoulders and playing in his first playoff game this year, I thought he was outstanding,” Payton said Monday as the Saints prepared to play Chicago in next weekend’s NFC title game. “It’s a funny business because you’re graded each week on your last performance.”

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Although the Bears (14-3) have the best record in the NFC, the Saints (11-6) seem to have a decisive advantage at quarterback. Drew Brees threw for a personal-best and NFL-leading 4,418 yards during the regular season while directing the league’s No. 1 offense.

The New Orleans quarterback threw 26 touchdown passes, compared to 11 interceptions.

Grossman threw for 3,193 yards, 23 TDs and 20 interceptions during the regular season. He was harshly criticized as inconsistent and derided for admitting he had not prepared as thoroughly as he normally would for the Bears’ regular-season finale. Grossman completed only two passes and threw three interceptions before being benched with a 0.0 quarterback rating in that game, a 26-7 loss to Green Bay.

In last Sunday’s second-round playoff game, he threw his 21st interception and lost a fumble on a sack that led to a Seattle touchdown, but he otherwise played well enough to lead the Bears to their first NFC title game in 18 years.

He completed 21 of 38 passes for 282 yards, including a 68-yard TD pass to Bernard Berrian.

The Saints’ secondary has been hurt by such big plays recently, such as Donte Stallworth’s 75-yard TD in Saturday night’s playoff game. They also gave up a 55-yard touchdown pass to the Giants’ Plaxico Burress three games ago.

Payton said he was particularly impressed by Grossman’s 30-yard completion on a third-down play in overtime to set up the winning field goal.

“You’re talking about a team that finished as the No. 1 seed in the NFC and, you know, that position (quarterback) always seems to carry a little bit more criticism or applause than sometimes necessary,” Payton said. “Certainly in a big city, that’s always a challenge, and he’s shouldered that well. … What’s most important is those players have a belief in him. Everything else outside of that is unimportant, and he came up big.”

Rashied Davis, who caught the long overtime pass from Grossman, agreed.

“Rex is a great player, very resilient,” Davis said. “People tear him up, but I think people tend to overdo it when it comes to him.”

Payton is familiar with the type of scrutiny quarterbacks can face in Chicago. He went to junior high and high school in nearby Naperville, Ill. He played college football at Eastern Illinois — also Tony Romo’s alma mater — from 1982-86. He then played for the Arena Football League’s Chicago Bruisers in 1987 before getting a brief shot in the NFL that same year as a replacement player for the Bears during a players’ strike.

He appeared in three games. His last pass, he recalled, was an interception during a 19-17 loss to the Saints.

He’d like to think Grossman will suffer a similar fate next Sunday, but he’s not counting on it. In fact, Payton went so far as to mention Grossman in the same sentence as Tom Brady, who at 12-1 in his postseason career is arguably the best playoff quarterback in the NFL.

“Getting good quarterback play figures into winning,” Payton said. “You saw New England with one of the best quarterbacks in the league and the significance he has on that team. … You watch a guy like Brady in a game like that and there’s confidence, and so obviously, at that position it’s important that he plays well and you saw it with Grossman as well. I thought he played outstanding in a big game with added pressure on him.”