On the Packers-Bears, the living history, and the ultimate rivalry
This story appears in the December 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Even now, even when a different team in the NFC North is the one we should be hoping to see fall on a weekly basis, the biggest cheers in Lambeau Field for out-of-town scores always come when we hear that the Chicago Bears have lost.
In particular this was the case on Sunday, October 19, when the video boards announced the Bears had officially lost at home to the Miami Dolphins. The cheer was louder despite Chicago’s struggles and erratic play, and even though the Detroit Lions had just finished up a last-minute comeback against the New Orleans Saints to keep pace with the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North at the time, a lead they’d take a week later thanks to another last gasp victory.
The cheer was still loudest, though, when the Bears lost. It is that simple: When that outcome happens nothing matters in relation. A Bears’ loss is its own distinct cause for celebration, regardless of any outside circumstances. It happened that day in that way, it has happened before in Lambeau – and by “before” we mean every other time – and it will undoubtedly happen again next time. For most Packers fans, rivalries start with the Bears and work themselves down the rungs on the ladder of importance from there. That’s the way it is, almost always has been, and for a large percentage of the Green Bay fan populus, it’s the way it always will be.
Their meeting on November 9 on Sunday Night Football was the 190th, the league’s oldest. The all-time record is 93-91-6, including a 1-1 playoff record, in the Bears’ overall favor. Since the early 1920s the Packers and Bears have met, their feet planted then in what is now the base of the mountain that became the National Football League today. The rivalry, like many even half the length of what Chicago and Green Bay have, has seen its share of dominant runs and streaks to one side. A true rivalry needs that. It needs the tension that builds up on the side on the losing end for too long. It needs new eras and stretches of time, chapters in the big book that tells the whole story.
What the Packers did in the 55-14 massacre of the Bears that Sunday night was the inflated, cartoonish encapsulation of what Packers-Bears means, and is, in this current era. In a season that has featured quick and deadly romps of the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers at home, Green Bay’s piece-by-piece destruction of a Chicago team in dire need of a win felt the closest to an early season college football game; when bad, unfocused play meets a team more than prepared to tear an opponent into unrecognizable shreds. When a game loses control of itself and spirals into the depths of a blowout.
Jay Cutler’s all-time record against Green Bay now stands at 1-11. His showings against the Packers used to be more of a surprise. At this point, after a couple more interceptions, a couple more of those sideline shots of him looking off somewhere far into the oblivion, these games almost feel scripted to go the same way each time, with the predictability of a cable network cop drama.
And yet, 55-14 was different in the extremities. In the continuing curse that plagues Cutler when he faces the Packers, and in the brilliance of Aaron Rodgers, particularly against Chicago, and how he very likely would have notched a franchise-record seventh touchdown pass of the game if he’d played later into the second half.
The current iteration of this rivalry, like many others today and through history, is often boiled down to quarterback play. And though it is simple, it’s basically impossible not to see Bears-Packers today through the prism of Cutler-Rodgers, how vast that canyon is between the two franchise players whenever they’ve gone head-to-head.
You start there in the middle and work your way out towards the perimeter. Unlike Vikings-Packers, which has seen player movement fuel the bitterness of late, Packers-Bears hadn’t had much of that. Before the Bears dumped Julius Peppers last offseason and he became a Packer, then completing the circle of life by coming around the edge, a predator that did all the prep work and was now too close to stop from the kill, destroying Cutler, forcing a fumble and, because he’s still Julius Peppers, lunging to recover his own work.
That bit of player movement added some spice to these meetings in 2014. Before that it was the evolution of Chicago, from winning with defense, special teams, and as little offense as possible under Lovie Smith to, under Marc Trestman, focusing on the offense, all-purpose running back Matt Forte, and the monstrous receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. You can say it begins and ends with Cutler and Rodgers. You can believe that this rivalry won’t be balanced as long as that’s at the heart of it. We won’t argue with you. But, stranger than Cutler’s almost assumed meltdowns against the Packers is the Bears defense, not only no longer a team strength, but a decided weakness. Again, 55-14 is an inflated result, and awesomely so, but watching that last meeting of Packers-Bears until 2015, it sure did feel like each team knew their current role in the rivalry, and played them to the highest peak and lowest valley we’ve seen in some time.
Bears-Packers is a rivalry to its bones. Just saying it conjures tried and true leatherhead football, black and blue to that idea’s very reason for being. It has the hate and the history and the historically-fantastic hate, but not necessarily always the pure bile of Packers-Vikings. The missing ingredient between those two seems to be respect. Chicago and Green Bay are different cities with different views of themselves and their foes, but even if we won’t always admit it to the other, we like having them around, like having the next meeting to circle on the calendar. The Bears give the Packers all the more resonance in the NFL, and vice versa. The begrudging nod to one another is because of the past they’ve almost always shared, and shared longer than any other pair of teams.
Maybe the weirdest part of that long lineage, though, is how the Packers and Bears have this deep, lasting relationship, and between a roaring start and the recent past, spent decades missing each other near their respective bests. Two ships passing, usually one happily watching the other sink.
The first meeting between the Packers and Bears – the sides met in 1921 when Chicago still went by the Staleys – came on Sunday, October 14, 1923 on Bellevue Field in Green Bay. Bellevue Field, according to the team’s media guide, was built in a hurry, under three weeks, after the park at Hagemeister was torn down to make way for East High School. Bellevue was made from the same wood. The team only used the field from 1923-24 before moving over to City Stadium. Chicago won the first game 3-0 on a 15-yard field goal by Dutch Sternaman in the second quarter.
Until the team’s first postseason meeting, the Western Division playoff, on December 14, 1941, Green Bay was 18-21-4 against Chicago. Each team entered that showdown at 10-1 and, en route to a league championship, George Halas’s Bears beat Curly Lambeau’s Packers handily, 33-14, at Wrigley Field.
From the ‘20s through to the end of the Lambeau era in Green Bay, meetings with Halas’s Bears almost always had something on the line. From ‘23-1949, Lambeau’s last season with the Packers, each franchise won six league championships. After the Packers three-peated the first time with titles in ‘29, ‘30, and ‘31, the Bears responded by reeling off two straight in ‘32 and ‘33. When the Packers won in ‘39, the Bears won in ‘40 and ‘41. Chicago won in ‘43, Green Bay in ‘44.
The games also had so much importance because fans instantly latched on. While Chicago was dismissive of the little city (some things don’t change) up north, it didn’t take long for them to realize the team’s following was something special. Bears games were weekend-long events in Green Bay whether they were home or not. Pep rallies when the team left for Chicago, welcome parties when they returned, long nights for all if they got a win. Trains just for fans were organized and sent to Chicago packed, starting with that first game against the Staleys in ‘21. In the book, “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers rivalry,” by longtime Wisconsin sportswriters Cliff Christl and Gary D’Amato, it’s said that one train car was for drinking patrons only. Chicago newspapers at the time were left impressed by the passion and energy shown by visiting Packers fans.
Right away these games meant a lot. But the young rivalry sprung real legs in the form of Lambeau and Halas and their paranoid Cold War-style fear of tampering, and general messing around, from the other side. Halas didn’t let his players talk to anyone on gameday weekends in Green Bay, nervous everyone and anyone could be a Lambeau spy. In “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths,” Lambeau was said to think Halas sent men up to Green Bay during the week to infiltrate the local scene and get advance news on the team. It has always had that touch of crazy, that air of “this really means a lot, maybe too much, but we’re not sure or won’t admit where that line is, or if we’ve crossed it.”
But again they liked having each other to pick on, like they were flirting in grade school. When the Packers were booted from the league after the ‘21 season for playing college players illegally, Halas, already a respected league presence, wanted the figurative book thrown up north at them. And then before the following season, Halas supported the Packers’ reinstatement when it came to a vote of league owners. Not before, however, he signed all three of the Notre Dame players caught a year ago playing in Green Bay, now fresh out of school and eligible.
When, in 1956, Green Bay was getting set for a referendum on whether or not to approve funding for a new football stadium, Halas came up to speak to the people of his rival city, imploring them to build a new stadium and keep the team in Green Bay. “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths” also notes that Halas was instrumental in making sure television revenue was shared league-wide, a valentine for the small market team he loved hating.
The Packers and Bears have had their own successes, certainly maintain their own distinct histories. They’ve each used the other expertly, from the start, to generate fan interest and investment, so much so that even down seasons can be softened if you’re at least able to beat the Bears.
Halas retired from coaching in 1967, the same year Vince Lombardi’s reign of dominance ended in Green Bay. Lombardi went 13-5 against Chicago with the Packers. The middle of Lombardi’s tenure started the missed connections spanning decades between the Bears and Packers. Both teams were rarely good at the same time and, in retrospect, this may have fueled the rivalry all the more, jealous fanbases letting the hate foster even deeper because of the other’s success. “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths” says that from ‘63 to 1994, the Packers and Bears never played a game where both teams had records above-.500 in the second half of the regular season.
The 1970s and ‘80s made up a good chunk of the Gory Years in Green Bay, but the Packers still managed a 16-22 overall record against Chicago, demonstrating the importance of, if nothing else, trying to find a way to beat the Bears despite everything else. A couple of the series’ most memorable moments on Green Bay’s side – Chester Marcol’s touchdown scamper, Don Majkowski and the Instant Replay Game – came from a period in team history when, maybe, they were able to stand out even more.
The ‘80s belonged to the Bears under head coach Mike Ditka, winning five consecutive NFC Central division championships from ‘84-’88, a run of eight in a row over the Packers, and their lone Super Bowl title in 1985. Green Bay started the ‘90s much the same as the prior decade, losing five straight until 1992. Not coincidentally, “The Bears Still Suck,” the polka-tailgating hit popularized by The Happy Schnapps Combo, made its way into every Packers fans’ brain in the early ‘90s. Probably because that is what was needed at the time.
And then Brett Favre became the Bear killer, and the Packers rattled off 10 straight wins over the Bears like it was always supposed to be that way. The first came, maybe appropriately for Bears fans, on Halloween night ‘94, as Green Bay routed Chicago 33-6. It could be said that this game, and its ensuing run of Packers victories, has set the course for the rivalry as we still see it today. And that is that while still the richest, oldest, most meaningful rivalry in the league, it feels like something of an upset today if the Bears win.
That’s a result of conditioning that started when Favre’s reign of terror took charge over the Bears. That’s the result of that graphic you’ve seen in countless Bears-Packers games, the one that shows all the quarterbacks that have started in Chicago since Favre, and now Aaron Rodgers – who has kept the unbelievably fortunate Packers ahead in both wins and fans’ well-being – pushed the Packers out ahead. They had the most important position on the field figured out, so they were starting closer to the finish line.
The records are still close – Green Bay finished against Chicago 13-7 in the ‘90s, 12-9 from 2000-’10 – because upsets will happen when so much emphasis is put on two games, and when it is a true rivalry. But after the Bears won the Central in ‘90 the scales gave way to a Green Bay flood of successes: Back-to-back-to-back division titles, a Super Bowl win.
In 2004 Chicago tried to even things back up, hiring Lovie Smith as head coach. That season the Packers wrapped up their third NFC North championship in three years, but the rivalry was going to change again under Smith, who made sure everyone knew that he understood what it was he was trying to accomplish.
The fourth phrase on a Google search of Lovie Smith is “Lovie Smith vs Packers.” Smith, who was fired in 2012, began his nine-year tenure in Chicago with this famous quote on the day of his hiring:
“The No. 1 goal is to beat Green Bay. One of the first things (then-Chairman) Michael McCaskey said to me, he gave me the history behind the Green Bay-Chicago rivalry and the number of times he wanted us to beat them. I understand that. I feel the pain.”
It doesn’t have to be said when Packers-Bears are concerned, but say it, and people remember. To Smith’s credit he made life painful for the Packers with a ballhawking defense, devastating special teams game with world-destroyer Devin Hester, and vanilla offense usually quarterbacked by Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, ensuring that any loss to Chicago felt extra wrong.
Smith’s Bears won 7 of the first 10 showdowns with the Packers, Chicago getting some measure of revenge against Favre-led teams that had terrorized them for so long. After the strong start, though, the rivalry made its second-to-last veer in a new direction with Rodgers and Cutler taking over each team’s respective quarterback spots. In their first head-to-head meeting, the 2009 season-opener at Lambeau Field, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for a 50-yard touchdown with under two minutes to play. It’s funny, in hindsight, to see the hierarchy set itself so instantly.
The rivalry came to a boil not felt since 1941 in 2011. The Packers needed a win to get in the playoffs, surviving a 10-3 win over the Bears in the final week of the 2010 season, sealed with a Cutler interception, before embarking on their wild run to the NFC title game. The Bears, NFC North champions, would host the Packers for a right to go to the Super Bowl, the first time in 70 years the foes ran into one another in the postseason. It is sort of crazy, still, to remember these teams played for a Super Bowl berth three years ago.
That and the Packers winning 11 of the last 13 meetings is all recent history. The current Packers are the solid ground now, the established and proven year in-and-out contender. The Bears are on the backend of a transition from defense and special teams to creative offense and weaponry, but they’re still very much in flux, still a couple paces behind the team they grew up alongside with.
It is that recent history that has, perhaps, skewed some into thinking that Bears-Packers isn’t Green Bay’s premier rivalry at this point. That because of the results of the Mike McCarthy/Rodgers era, the Bears just don’t have the same feeling, that the loud screams for attention from Minnesota have supplanted Chicago and Green Bay’s relationship. Vikings-Packers may have been the more passionate rivalry a few seasons ago, but what the Packers and Bears have, and will always have, is as real as a rivalry can be. They know one another better than anyone else, and though they don’t have to like one another, it’s impossible to picture them very far apart. They’ll always be connected by a short distance and long history. In the other they can each look and see a survivor, a champion, an old foe with more common ground than either would care to admit. The Packers and Bears have always been there to showcase the other in the frame, while not-subtly also trying to nudge them off a cliff.
“History is the thing that makes it different,” Cliff Christl, now the Packers team historian, says. “There are a lot of rivalries in the NFL that are similar to the Packers versus the Vikings. I think it’s a mistake for Packers fans to make that argument.
“Because if you stick to your guns and say Packers-Bears is the best rivalry or greatest rivalry in the league, I don’t think anybody can argue.”
All those seasons and games, and it took the 190th edition for the Packers to break through specific rivalry statistics, hanging on Chicago the most points it has ever allowed in one half of football. We will never forget you, 42-0 halftime score. Because you do not forget true beauty when you see it, and you do not really appreciate how rare it is until it appears right in front of your eyes.
I think what that game reminds us is that as long as they’re both around, as long as there’s another set of meetings next year, this rivalry will find ways to make itself matter more than any other. Chicago and Green Bay seem destined to always find ways to make history with, in spite of, or because of, the other side. We may never know exactly what was said in Peppers’ pregame speech before 55-14 happened, but from the hints we’ve gotten from those who heard it, it seems apparent that he understands what we do. That without anything else, Packers-Bears will always have the history, fortified with each game, present, future, past.