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If only he could see the future

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002

JACKSONVILLE -- He was told to listen to his heart. The way it turned out, you have to wonder if Rex Grossman and his heart still are on speaking terms.

It has been 10 months since Grossman ignored his first instinct and decided to return to Florida for his junior season. So much has gone wrong, Grossman now might have no choice but to return as a senior, too.

He once was among the country's most acclaimed players. He broke records and defied conventions. He was to be the first Steve Spurrier quarterback to make NFL teams take notice.

Then Grossman decided he still had stars to chase at Florida. There was the SEC title Florida let slip away in 2001. The Heisman Trophy he nearly won. The national title that would affirm his legacy.

Instead, Grossman is here. Chasing a Georgia defensive back after an interception Saturday and wondering where it went wrong.

So you are unhappy with Florida's season? Skeptical about Ron Zook's place on the sideline? Fearful the worst is still ahead?

Then try imagining you are Rex Grossman.

Not only has the team stumbled, it has fallen on top of Grossman's reputation.

Once considered a possible first-round pick, Grossman might not even be picked on the first day if he elects to come out for the 2003 draft. Which means a player who was ready to bolt after his sophomore season soon could decide he needs to redeem himself as a senior.

This is the hangover that comes from being too closely associated with Spurrier. The coach's legend is not merely his success, but his success with mostly pedestrian quarterbacks. Now Grossman is being lumped with the rest.

In his 15 seasons as a college coach, Spurrier had six quarterbacks lead the league in passing nine times. And not a one has been a high draft pick.

If it was Grossman's intention to disprove suspicions he was merely a product of Spurrier's genius, he has helped make the prosecution's case.

As a sophomore, Grossman became the first quarterback since Steve Young in 1983 to lead the nation in pass efficiency (170.8) and total offense per game (354.9).

Without Spurrier, Grossman's pass rating entering this weekend (116.7) was the worst in the SEC, and no one in the nation has thrown more interceptions.

It would be easy to make the case of a quarterback who has been exposed. It also would be a narrow interpretation.

Some of the fault rests with Grossman. There were rumblings he was slack in his preparation during the preseason, and he has been slow to grasp the new offensive system.

But if you are looking to assign blame, there are better targets on offense. You can say Grossman sometimes throws off the wrong foot, but you have to admit he often ends up on his back. You can say he has forced the ball into coverage, but you have to admit his receivers do not get separation.

Florida's offense has been so inconsistent and Grossman so prone to mistakes, the coaching staff has grown conservative.

In the past two games, Grossman has not had as much freedom to call audibles and been told not to take as many shots downfield.

This is not what Grossman had in mind when he decided at the last minute to give Zook and the 2002 Gators a chance.

He was on vacation in the Bahamas in January when a television screen in a restaurant informed him Spurrier had resigned. Grossman's initial reaction was to follow Spurrier out of Gainesville.

The best guess of NFL officials was Grossman would be a late first- or early second-round pick if he declared for the draft. Grossman sought Spurrier's counsel and was told to follow his heart.

His family flew in from Indiana to help Grossman pack up his apartment, and they ended up talking deep into the night about the pros and cons of leaving.

Zook made his final pitch during a phone call the next day, when he put new offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher on the line.

They convinced Grossman this could be a marriage of convenience. Florida could remain a power with Grossman in control, and the quarterback could further his reputation with Spurrier out of the picture.

Grossman decided to stay, but the story line has changed. The Gators are struggling to maintain an identity, and Grossman is working to restore credibility.

At times, Grossman has looked as accurate as ever. He was sensational at Tennessee and nearly as good against Auburn. He was awful at Ole Miss and a non-factor against LSU.

In a way, Saturday's game was the perfect sampling of his season. Grossman hit on 19 of his first 22 passes but mixed in two interceptions in the red zone.

So did he make the right decision to return? Grossman avoids being drawn into a debate.

He acknowledges the season has been a disappointment but says he does not want to look backward. Before Saturday's game, he said his only real goal was to stay in contention for the SEC East title.

Still wondering if he made the right decision?

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