Momentum, misery spice Packers-Bears rivalry

Ryan Wood
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Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb celebrates after scoring on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers against Chicago on Dec. 29, 2013 at Soldier Field.

There were hundreds of fans and business leaders tucked inside the Lambeau Field Atrium last week. The Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, Mike McCarthy called them. When the Packers coach stepped to the podium, cameras were recording.

McCarthy didn’t expect his message — especially the “kick Chicago’s (butt)” battle cry — to travel from Lombardi Avenue to Halas Hall, but technology makes the world much smaller. A 20-second video emerged. In three words, McCarthy revealed the anatomy of the NFL’s longest rivalry.

Any bitterness inside the Packers and Bears locker rooms faded long ago. What’s left — bragging rights — stretches beyond the field. So it was fitting McCarthy never mentioned the Bears specifically in that video snippet.

No, McCarthy told the Green Bay community, his team was prepared for Chicago.

“Really, the city makes it a rivalry,” right guard T.J. Lang said this week. “Just in how they despise the team, and the other team’s fans. As players, you don’t feel that too much. It’s just such a classic series and a great tradition.”

It’s a series defined by sweeping momentum changes. Both teams know misery. Remember the 1980s. For years, it seemed, the Packers simply could not win.

That was a long time ago. Nobody under the age of 25 recalls what the world was like when the Bears never lost. Since 1992, the Packers are 34-13 against the Bears. For reference, they’re 36-12 against the hapless Detroit Lions.

In the past two decades, the Bears’ longest winning streak against the Packers is three games. They’ve accomplished it once, winning their third straight Sept. 10, 2006. Later that season, the Bears were in the Super Bowl.

That’s how it works with this rivalry. The Packers and Bears want what every NFL team wants: a division championship, playoff berth, Super Bowl title. To get there, they must beat each other.

“I know it’s a big challenge,” first-year Bears coach John Fox said.

Fox is the latest coach tasked with turning momentum back to Chicago’s side. If he fails, he won’t be the last. His first crack at the Packers comes at noon Sunday at Soldier Field. As McCarthy reminded him last week, there’s plenty of history to overcome.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Don Majkowski (7) celebrates the instant-replay call confirming his game-winning touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Nov. 5, 1989. The Packers won 14-13. Also celebrating are, from left, receiver Perry Kemp (81), running back Herman Fontenot (27) and linebacker Johnny Holland (50).

November 5, 1989

They still talk about old memories within the Packers’ coaching staff. James Campen, a former Packers center, cocked his while remembering his favorite moment playing in the rivalry. He saw a chance to rub more salt in the wound.

Jerry Fontenot was a Bears rookie offensive lineman when they traveled to Lambeau Field for their first meeting in 1989. Now, he’s the Packers’ tight ends coach. When the coaching staff spoke with the media this week, they stood 10 yards apart.

“Jerry,” Campen said, “they’re asking me about the 1989 Packers. Do we ever talk about that? Does it bother you?”

“The one where he crossed the line?” Fontenot asked without missing a beat.

It’s been 26 years since the famous — or infamous — Instant Replay Game. Don Majkowski, the Packers quarterback, threw a 14-yard, game-winning touchdown pass with less than a minute left at Lambeau Field. Whether the throw was legal remains open to perspective.

Initially, Majkowski was penalized for crossing the line of scrimmage before releasing the football. The call was overturned after replay review, with official Bill Parkinson controversially deciding Majkowski clearly was behind the line of scrimmage.

Fontenot clearly disagrees.

“No doubt,” Fontenot said. “Just look at the tape. It shows the truth.”

Even now, the tape appears inconclusive — one reason for arguing the call never should have been overturned. The game’s significance is not open to interpretation. Entering the 1989 season, the Bears had won eight straight, 10 of 11 dating back to 1983.

This was no miraculous turnaround. While the Packers won both games in 1989, the Bears went on to win five straight from 1990-92. Naturally, Campen would rather forget those games.

“I just remember the good one,” he said. “That was the good one there.”

If the “Instant Replay Game” — as it became known in the Bears’ media guide — didn’t immediately turn the series, it at least signaled hope. At a time when it looked like the Packers never would get over the hump, they caught a break.

Campen’s favorite memory from the rivalry isn’t Fontenot’s worst. The Packers tight ends coach knows what it’s like to compete against Brett Favre.

Halloween night, 1994

Fontenot remembers the biting cold. It was 49 degrees at kickoff of the Packers’ showdown with the Bears on Monday Night Football, but the wind chill inside Soldier Field presented frigid conditions. Fontenot said it was the most miserable night of his life.

“I remember it so well,” Fontenot said, “because it was the first time in my career that I actually had my T-shirt freeze to the hair on my chest, and I had to rip it off after the game. That’s not real fun.”

This wasn’t an ideal setting to play professional football, Fontenot remembers. Rain blew over the top of Soldier Field. It fell sideways, with wind gusting more than 30 mph. Fontenot expected a prime-time football game. He got a monsoon instead.

The scoreboard made him feel worse. The Packers won 33-6, with Favre throwing for one touchdown and running 36 yards for another. Edgar Bennett, the Packers’ first-year offensive coordinator, also played a starring role that night with three touchdowns, including a 13-yard catch from Favre.

Momentum shifted to the Packers’ sideline as soon as Favre arrived in 1992. While the Bears rummaged through Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer and many others, the Packers’ three-time MVP provided stability at the game’s most important position. In those days, the quarterback disparity between Green Bay and Chicago tilted the series. Each loss stung more and more.

“Whenever we played the Packers,” Fontenot said, “those were the biggest games of our season. It was well known throughout our organization, (Bears owners) McCaskeys wanted to win that game more than any other. When we didn’t, it was tough. Even if we had success outside our division, it was always tough to lose to the Packers.”

Not much has changed, of course.

Currently, the Packers have won nine of their past 10 games against the Bears. Their lone loss in that stretch came Nov. 4, 2013, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers exited in the first quarter with a broken collarbone.

Rodgers missed the next seven games. He returned against the Bears in the regular-season finale, and a new winning streak began.

The Bears haven't been searching for quarterbacks over the past seven seasons. Jay Cutler has provided some stability at the most important position, but the losing continues. As the Bears’ starting quarterback, Cutler has a 1-10 record against the Packers. He’s 43-29 against the NFL’s other 31 teams.

Cutler has thrown at least one interception in all 11 rivalry games.

“Not really getting into that,” Cutler said when asked this week how much his struggles against the Packers bother him. “All that stuff is in the past. … At this point now in my career, we can’t change anything that’s happened in the past six years.”

Packers receiver Donald Driver reacts after the Packers defeated the Chicago Bears 21-14 in the NFC championship game on Jan.23, 2011, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

January 23, 2011

Standing on the Soldier Field sideline before the 2010 NFC championship game, Bryan Bulaga had chills. It might have been the 7-degree wind-chill temperatures, he said, but his goosebumps weren’t going away.

Bulaga grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but he wasn’t a Bears fan. His father, Joe, gave up on the team when it fired coach Mike Ditka in 1993. Bulaga was 4 at the time. As a child, his fall Sundays were spent rooting for the San Francisco 49ers with his father, but Joe took his son to other Chicago sporting events.

Those memories were fresh as he stood field level before kickoff, listening to Jim Cornelison sing the same national anthem rendition he’d heard countless times at Chicago Blackhawks games.

“I had chills from it,” Bulaga said. “It was one of the coolest experiences. I’ve been to many Blackhawks games where he sang and the crowd goes nuts, but when you’re the one that’s ready to play — and obviously there’s more people that fit into Soldier Field than the United Center — and that crowd’s going nuts, that’s pretty cool.”

If there’s one game Cutler would want back, it’s this one. The Packers' 21-14 win over the Bears punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLV.

Not everyone on the Packers’ roster was around five years ago. A more recent Chicago conquest came Dec. 29, 2013, when Rodgers returned from that broken collarbone and completed a game-winning, 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth down.

Both plays are seared in Julius Peppers’ memory. Before arriving in Green Bay last year, he experienced the rivalry’s miserable side. The former Bears defensive end knows what it’s like to be in the losing locker room, wondering what went wrong.

“When I was there,” Peppers said, “we always were going to come out and play. It wasn’t like we were folding the tent or anything. We were always going to come out and play. We always felt like we had good game plans. It just never worked out in our favor.”

Sept. 13, 2015

LaDarius Gunter has dreamed about this day since he was a boy in Montgomery, Ala. That’s where the Packers rookie cornerback returned last weekend. After going undrafted in May, Gunter quickly impressed Packers coaches this offseason. Still, there was plenty of suspense.

Until he received a call from cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr., letting him know he made the team’s 53-man roster, Gunter said he was nervous.

Those nerves haven’t gone away. A rookie always remembers his debut. For Gunter, along with seven other Packers rookies, the first taste of NFL action comes in the league’s longest rivalry.

“It actually hasn’t hit me yet,” Gunter said, “but I’m sure I’ll be nervous just like any other game. The emotions will be everywhere. So I’m sure I’ll have to calm myself down and regroup.

“It’s very cool. Now, I get to see (the rivalry) in person, get to be a part of it so I can understand the intensity of this game and what it means.”

McCarthy often talks about educating young players on the rivalry’s significance. He wants them to know there’s history at stake. The message is stressed throughout the team, at every position.

Campen shares his memories with players. Those conversations in position meetings are personal, he said, but the message is always clear. There’s no feeling like kicking Chicago’s (butt).

“It’s a special thing,” Campen said. “It’s a hell of a lot of fun. What I have told them, it’s a dang honor to play in it — the oldest rivalry in football. No matter what happens, when you go through and you look back, one day I’ll be 80 years old and say, ‘I remember I played in those Bear games, too.’ And I’ll be watching a Bears-Packers game and say, ‘I got to play in that game.’ That’s special.”

— and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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