GREEN BAY – It would be easy for the Green Bay Packers, the coaches and players who saw a Super Bowl in their future, to feel sorry for themselves.
Four weeks ago, they were 4-1 and cruising. They were the apparent class of their conference, among the NFL’s small group of title contenders. It wasn’t so much that they were winning.
Look at who they beat, and how.
The season opener at home against the Seattle Seahawks, their arch nemesis. A blowout against the Chicago Bears behind three backup offensive linemen, including their left guard starting at left tackle. On the road in the final seconds at Dallas, last season’s No. 1 seed.
The Packers left Dallas feeling invincible. When they would next lose was an open question, with no definitive answer in sight. So for the Packers to not win in the month since, to lose Aaron Rodgers and see their season slip to 4-4 with three straight losses, is stunning whiplash.
Yes, it’s human nature to feel pity.
“It’s been tough,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “It definitely went downhill quick. We’ve got to regroup and figure out some stuff that works for us, and just get rolling again. Yeah, it’s tough.”
Here’s the thing, though: The Packers have an ideal opportunity to get rolling again this week. They travel to the Bears on Sunday, playing a dormant franchise that serves as a reminder the Packers don’t know true NFL sorrow.
For 25 years, the Packers have had their way with the Bears primarily because they had the better quarterback. From Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s oldest rivalry has been one of the NFL’s most lopsided. The Packers, once more than 20 games behind the Bears in their series history, took a 95-94-6 lead with their three-touchdown win in September.
They hadn’t led the series since 1933.
For the first time in those 25 years, the Packers will enter a game against the Bears without a Grand Canyon-sized gap at quarterback. Bears rookie Mitch Trubisky was a top-five overall pick this spring. Brett Hundley was drafted in the fifth round in 2015. With both still new to full-time snaps, the theoretical tiebreaker goes to the blue-chip pick.
But Hundley, in his third season with the Packers offense, shouldn’t be miles behind Trubisky. At the start of this week, coach Mike McCarthy left no room to use the quarterback position as an excuse.
“There’s more than one way to win in this league,” McCarthy said, “and we’re fully capable of it. We totally are into the plan that we’ll present (this week) to the players, and we’re going to Chicago to win the game. And I have no doubt that we will.”
There shouldn’t be any doubt.
The Packers and Bears have long existed light years apart. The Packers have been to eight straight playoffs, one year shy of the NFL record. The Bears have played in five postseasons since Favre arrived in Green Bay.
Residing in the Beverly Hills section of the NFL, the Packers have had three head coaches and quarterbacks named Favre and Rodgers since 1992. The Bears have had three head coaches since 2012, and quarterbacks named Cutler and Barkley. Continuity in those two places – the head coach and quarterback – are paramount to winning in the NFL.
It’s no coincidence, then, the Bears have been bottom dwellers this decade.
Chicago’s last playoff appearance was 2010. Its last time finishing better than last in the NFC North was 2013. The Bears are 17-39 since then, including their 3-5 record and current last-place position in the division.
The Packers, meanwhile, carry themselves as NFL elites. They call their city Titletown. They rave about their history. Anything less than the Super Bowl is a bust.
No Aaron Rodgers? The Green Bay Packers are expected to keep winning, because that’s what the Green Bay Packers do.
“Pride aside,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “(fans and pundits) can say whatever they want, they can say it’s Aaron’s team, coach McCarthy’s team – it’s the Green Bay Packers. That’s what the team is, and the Green Bay Packers need to go out there, and we need to win. Regardless of who lines up, and who wears the jersey, we have a job to do.
“That job is to win games.”
No, winning isn’t easy without a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. Rodgers is both the Packers’ brain and their heartbeat. Quarterbacks separate the NFL’s haves and have-nots, and right now the Packers have not.
But the Packers fancy themselves a contender, and true contenders don’t crumble without one player, no matter who he is. True contenders don’t go from first to worst. Remove any block from the Jenga puzzle, and the tower doesn’t topple.
Receiver Randall Cobb understands the external narrative – that this franchise’s success is owed solely to Rodgers’ talent – no matter how much he loathes it.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league. It’s always going to be about the quarterback. We win or lose, it’s going to be about the quarterback,” Cobb said, mimicking the conversations happening outside Lambeau Field in an eye-roll tone of voice. “You all are putting it on Brett right now with the losses. It’s not him. It’s us as a team. That’s the way we always look at it.
“It is a quarterback-driven league. Obviously when you have one of the greatest, if not the greatest to ever play the game, it’s definitely going to be a lot of chatter about him not being out there.”
The Packers probably won’t end that chatter this week, no matter what happens. But they can insert a little bit of evidence to the contrary.
Clark said pride is on the line. Not just this week, he stressed, but until Rodgers returns. He hears that chatter outside Lambeau Field, that the Packers don’t have a prayer without their Hail Mary-slinging quarterback.
“Personally,” Clark said, “I don’t like it. I know people are going to say that. They’ve been saying that since I’ve been watching the Green Bay Packers. I mean, I take pride in it. Because I know my ability, and I know the type of player I am. I’m not no average guy, or no below-average guy.
“So I’m going to go out there and play my best game.”