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How much would have *really* changed if the Bears hadn’t settled for Rex Grossman?

Undoing the trades that made the Bears draft Grossman in 2003 is an exercise in nihilism.

Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.

For 28 seasons — between the heydays of Jim McMahon and Mitchell Trubisky — the Bears had a quarterback problem. For nearly three decades, the apex of Chicago quarterback play was the wild swings of Jay Cutler’s boom-or-bust howitzer throws downfield. No era was worse than the stretch from 1997 to 2002, when nine different players, ranging from Rick Mirer to CFL legend Henry Burris, all earned starts at the position.

The 2003 NFL Draft was Chicago’s chance to clean up its Superfund site of a depth chart. The Bears’ 4-12 record the previous season came with the silver lining of the No. 4 pick that spring. Although that wouldn’t be enough to pry top prospect Carson Palmer away from a needy Bengals team with the No. 1 selection, Chicago had its pick among a flawed-but-interesting group of quarterbacks headlined by Marshall star Byron Leftwich.

And the Bears wanted no part of that.

Chicago traded down from No. 4, instead opting to allow the rest of the league to sort out the year’s QB crop. By the time the team finally decided to draft one down at No. 22, it settled for the fourth quarterback off the board: fading Florida star Rex Grossman.

The good news is he was the best passer available at that point. The bad news is he was still Rex Grossman.

Grossman would have only one season in which he started more than seven games for Chicago. And while that 2006 season ended with a 13-3 record and an NFC championship, the young quarterback was merely an obstacle for his suffocating defense to overcome. He completed less than 55 percent of his passes that fall, threw 20 interceptions, and completed as many touchdown passes to Colts defenders as he did his own teammates (one) in the Bears’ lone Super Bowl appearance in the past three decades.

So what if the Bears didn’t trade back in 2003?

Introducing 2004 Bears starting quarterback Byron Leftwich

It’s easy to understand why the Bears were eager to trade out of the fourth overall pick despite a quarterback carousel with the centrifugal force to turn veteran arms into mush. Palmer was a safe bet to develop into a stud, but the rest of the 2003 class was filled with high-ceiling, low-floor quarterbacks.

Leftwich was a tough-as-nails moose who completed more than 67 percent of his passes while throwing 68 touchdown passes as an upperclassman, though that came for a Marshall team that cut its teeth against unimposing defenses like Akron, Buffalo, and Bowling Green each week.

Kyle Boller looked like an NFL quarterback (6’3, 220 pounds) and could throw the ball very hard, which was somehow enough to gloss over a 47.8 percent completion rate and 48 interceptions in four seasons at Cal.

Grossman was a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2001, then regressed hard the following year to record 17 interceptions and the worst passer rating of his collegiate career.

Even so, the need for a franchise quarterback was very real for the Bears. Since 1991, they have fielded a top-10 scoring offense in only four seasons but 15 other times have fallen to the league’s bottom 10. Chicago’s 2002 team ranked 28th in the league in passing efficiency and came into 2003 with a 31-year-old Kordell Stewart and a 38-year-old Chris Chandler competing for the NFC North’s saddest starting role. Something had to be done.

That overrode the team’s desire to plug other holes. Chicago needed an edge rusher, but a poor workout seemingly took Terrell Suggs out of the running. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Terence Newman may have been the pick — Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters weren’t exactly lighting the secondary on fire.

Let’s say the Jets don’t offer a significant overpayment to move up to No. 4 and instead hang on to their 13th, 22nd, and 116th picks. Without the opportunity to overhaul an unimpressive roster with a deluge of selections, Chicago decides to address its biggest hole and add Leftwich.

It’s a modest upgrade!

Not trading back doesn’t change the Bears much, but gives them a little more hope at QB

In reality, Chicago traded down twice in the first round of the 2003 draft, moving from No. 4 to Nos. 13, 22, and 116 and then swapping the 13th pick for Nos. 14 and 193. That 193rd pick was eventually traded as well. But if the Bears decided to stand pat with their top-five draft pick, the final outcome would look like this.

Bears get:

QB Byron Leftwich

Bears don’t get:

DE Michael Haynes
QB Rex Grossman
DT Ian Scott
and a piece of the draft assets that allow them to trade up on Day 2 for WR Justin Gage

The glaring takeaway from this hypothetical is that even though it reverses two first-round trades, it’s still incredibly boring. By settling for Leftwich, Chicago wipes Haynes, Scott, and Grossman of its books. Losing Scott is a modest blow — he’d start 33 games in four seasons as a space-eating defensive tackle — but Haynes was a bust (5.5 career sacks, zero games played after 2005) and Grossman is redundant behind Leftwich.

In return, the Bears get a slightly more efficient centerpiece to an offense aching to catch up to one of the league’s top defenses.

Rex Grossman vs. Byron Leftwich: their first four seasons

Player G Record Cmp% Yds Yds/G TD Int QB Rating Y/A Adj Y/A Rush Yds TD
Player G Record Cmp% Yds Yds/G TD Int QB Rating Y/A Adj Y/A Rush Yds TD
Rex Grossman 24 17-6-0 54.4 4496 187.3 27 26 72.4 6.7 5.7 49 1
Byron Leftwich 46 24-20-0 58.7 9042 196.6 51 36 80.5 6.7 6.3 364 8

Slightly more efficient. Leftwich wasn’t any great shakes in Jacksonville, though there’s an argument he’d have been better with Chicago. While Leftwich would spend the start of his career throwing passes to an aging Jimmy Smith and a handful of retread and never-was wideouts like Matt Jones and Ernest Wilford, the Bears could offer Marty Booker, Bernard Berrian, and Muhsin Muhammad. The Bears also boasted Pro Bowl blockers like Ruben Brown and Olin Kreutz up front; the Jags failed to send any of its offensive linemen to the NFL All-Star Game over that same span.

The bigger issue is whether the Bears could have kept Leftwich healthy — injuries limited him to just 11 starts in 2005 and six in 2006. He was effectively done as a starter after that. Better blocking in Chicago would have helped, but the not-especially-mobile Leftwich also struggled with injuries in college, most notably the broken leg he toughed out in a loss to Akron in 2002.

Since his 2005 season was cut short after breaking his ankle while being sacked, he probably would have stayed on the field longer with the Bears’ more stable offensive line. That’s not what we’re interested in, however. The main question about this what-if scenario is whether a young Leftwich would have provided enough offensive firepower to carry Chicago to its first NFL title since the 1985 season.

And he would not have.

Leftwich would have been a boon, but not the steady hand the Bears needed

Leftwich was good enough to get Chicago to a Super Bowl, just like Grossman did. But if you gave him the 2006 Bears’ swarming defense and spotted him a 7-0 lead in the big game, would he be able to derail Peyton Manning and the Colts’ quest for their first NFL title since 1970? Probably not.

So what about the 2005 season — the one where the Bears overcame a 1-3 start to rally to the NFC North title before bowing out to the Panthers in the Divisional Round? Could he have delivered a championship parade to the Windy City then?

It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.

Chicago won a division crown despite forcing a 23-year-old Kyle Orton into the starting lineup for 15 games after Grossman suffered a broken ankle. The two combined to throw 10 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, and post dueling 59.7 quarterback ratings for a team that scored 19 points or fewer 12 times and still won seven of those games.

Leftwich, meanwhile, was in the middle of a breakout campaign where he went 8-3 as a starter and recorded career bests in touchdown rate (5.0 percent) and yards per attempt (7.0).

Byron Leftwich vs. Bears QBs, 2005

Player Record Cmp% Yds/game TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Adj. Y/A Rate
Player Record Cmp% Yds/game TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Adj. Y/A Rate
Bears QBs 11-5* 52.4 137.6 11 2.6 15 3.6 5.3 4.2 61.5
Byron Leftwich 8-3* 57.9 193 15 5 5 1.7 7 7.3 89.3

Again, not great numbers, but there’s a clear edge in production for Leftwich, who would probably turn an 11-win team into a 13-win one. Even if he was awful in his lone postseason start (18 of 31, 179 yards, 1 INT against the Patriots in ‘05), that was still slightly more efficient that Grossman’s performance in the aforementioned loss to the Panthers (17 of 41, 192 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT).

There are several interesting hypotheticals in the Leftwich-Bears universe. In the real version of January 2006, the Bears entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and lost their first game. However, Leftwich’s presence could have been enough to push them to the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a Divisional Round game against a Washington team it held to only nine points in Week 1 of the actual 2005 season.

Could he have done enough to advance the Bears to the next weekend? Could he outstrike the league’s top scoring offense in a potential conference title game against the Seahawks? Could a young, caretaker quarterback have beaten the Steelers in the Super Bowl?

The Bears’ odds are slightly better with Leftwich in the lineup, but they’re still not favorable. With or without those first-round trades, it’s tough to see things in Chicago improving too significantly.

Whoooo. Well, after all that, I effectively called the Bears’ 2003 first-round trades meaningless, which sorta gives this whole exercise a nihilist feel, doesn’t it? Things don’t work out much better for the Jaguars, who either don’t get a top prospect quarterback that year or settle for one of the inaccurate trebuchet duo of Boller/Grossman instead.

Either way, Chicago and Jacksonville both find reasonable but unsustainable success behind unreliable quarterbacks and have to hit the reset button on the position again.

The Bears could have waited on a more promising crop of quarterbacks by passing on Grossman and hoping someone from the Eli Manning/Philip Rivers/Ben Roethlisberger Class of ‘04 would fall to them, but that wouldn’t have worked either. A lineup of journeymen passers in 2003 was good enough to strand Chicago in no-man’s land, giving the team a mid-round draft pick that would have come too late to select any of those decorated quarterbacks.

The lesson here, other than that the 2003 draft was kinda butt for quarterbacks, even with the presence of Cardinals Ring of Famer Carson Palmer atop the list? If you need a franchise quarterback, you’re probably better tanking your way into a top-three pick rather than trying to polish a flawed late-first or mid-round quarterback into a diamond. At least the Bears seemingly figured that out, 14 years later.