HISTORY OF A RIVALRY: CHICAGO BEARS & GREEN BAY PACKERS
By Joshua Edwards
With the NFL turning 100 in 2019, the season opens up with a homage to one of the most historic rivalries in the sport. Josh Edwards delves into the records, dusts off the volumes, and provides a history of the most played contest in the league.
Two storied franchises. Between them 22 championships. In the modern era, 5 Super Bowls. Lambeau Field and Soldier Field. Ice, sweat, blood and tears. 62 combined Hall of Famers. The big city and the small town. George Halas and Vince Lombardi. The ’85 Bears and the Bart Starr Packers. Favre and Rodgers, Payton and Ditka. Respect, mostly, but retribution, sometimes. The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers have one of the most captivating rivalries in the National Football League. This is the history of that rivalry.
Depending on who you talk to, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers rivalry is the oldest, second oldest, or third oldest rivalry in the league. Pedants point to the fact that the Chicago Bears (at the time the Staleys) and Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) played each other a full season before the Bears/Staleys and Packers ever did in 1921. Hold your horses, some say – the Cardinals and Packers even played each other before the Bears and Packers did.
Let’s get real, though. With the formation of the AFL the Cardinals moved to St. Louis in 1959 and with it their rivalry with Chicago at best morphed into something very different, and at worst dwindled out of consciousness. Another move to Arizona in 1987 further distanced the two teams, and since that year they’ve played each other just 10 times.
The principal argument is this: the Packers and Bears have played each other the most of any other two teams in history, they have both been tremendously successful, and they really don’t like each other. If it weren’t for a strike shortened season in 1982, the contest would hold the record for most consecutive seasons played, instead held by Detroit and Green Bay who have played each other at least twice since 1932.
The Packers have won the most championships in football with 13. The Bears are second with 9. As well as the combined success of both teams being such a pertinent factor in their rivalry, the series between the two is ridiculously close. Of the 198 regular and post-season games, the Packers now lead the bears 97-95-6. For 85 years, Chicago were ahead of Green Bay in the series but in 2017 the Packers two victories finally put them ahead. Prior to 1992, the Bears had enjoyed a 24 games series lead, testament both to their domination over their rivals in the ‘80s and Brett Favre’s brilliance in the ‘90s to claw back so many wins for Green Bay.
Some rivalries are friendlier than others. Not many are as vicious as the Bears-Packers.
Exhibit A: the first time players were ejected from a game for fighting? Bears-Packers in 1921, at a time when it must have been really hard to get ejected from a game of football. One of the two players ejected, Chicago’s Frank Hanny, clearly held a grudge, as he was ejected again five years later in 1926.
Exhibit B: Charles Martin’s ‘Hit List’. In 1986 Packers defensive tackle Charles Martin wore a towel which listed the Bears players he was hoping to physically hurt during a game between the two teams. Top of his list was Bears QB Jim McMahon, whom Martin slammed down after a McMahon pick, separating his shoulder and ending his season. Martin received a two game ban, the longest ever at that time, and Bears fans spent years afterwards wondering what might have been, as the team lost an upset playoff game to the Redskins. Martin passed away in 2005 having never apologised.
Exhibit C: In hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea. The 1985 Bears were not a team to muck around with but Green Bay wanted a psychological edge. Before their home game against Chicago some bright spark thought it would be funny to leave horse manure in the Bears locker room. Chicago left Lambeau with a 16-10 win.
The defining contests
With nearly 200 games played between the two franchises, there were always bound to be some doozies. Here’s a selection of the most rivalry defining, memorable and downright crazy contests:
First Post-Season Tilt: Bears 33-14 Packers, December 14 1941
Taking place just 7 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the first post-season matchup between the two rivals is forever etched in history. Both teams finished the year 10-1 and played a one-off playoff game at Wrigley Field to decide who would face the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game. With the spectre of the country’s entrance into the theatre of WW2 hanging over the contest, the Bears dominated, scoring 30 points in the first half and winning 33-14. They went on to beat the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York and win their fourth Championship.
The Free Kick: Packers 23-12 Bears, September 13 1964
This game is best remembered for the genius of the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, Green Bay head coach Vince Lombardi. At the end of the first half, with the Packers leading 14-3, returner Elijah Pitts fair caught a punt. Utilising a rule which is still active and very rarely utilised (only 25 known attempts in the history of the league) Lombardi stepped in and told the refs that they would attempt a free kick. The rule allows a team that has just made a fair catch to attempt a free kick from the spot of the catch and gain three points should it be successful. In front of confused patrons and players alike, the Packers lined up, Paul Hornung stepped up and, somehow, made the 52 yard attempt to close out the half. The Packers went on to win 23-12.
The Fridge Becomes An Icon: Bears 23-7 Packers, October 21st 1985
The 1985 Bears are roundly considered one of the very best teams in the history of the sport, and the defense is the stuff of legend. The Buddy Ryan led unit ran a 4-6 scheme and the starting defensive line, anchored by 350lb tackle William ‘The Fridge’ Perry, accounted for a ridiculous 26.5 sacks. The linebacker unit, led by Mike Singletary (defensive player of the year), Wilbur Marshall and Otis Wilson accounted for a further 19.5, the secondary picked off opposing quarterbacks 20 times, and the Bears sent 5 defenders to the pro-bowl.
The defense allowed fewer than 10 points in 14 of 19 games in ’85, including in their 23-7 win against Green Bay. The game is remembered best for head coach Mike Ditka’s creative use of Perry, whom he lined up at fullback on multiple occasions. The fridge was lead blocker for two Walter Peyton touchdowns and, in the second quarter, scored himself on a goal line carry, cementing his place as a national icon.
Instant Replay: Packers 14-13 Bears, November 5th 1989
The debate over the use of instant replay in the NFL rumbles on in 2019, over 30 years after its introduction. In 1989 it use in a game between the Packers and Bears was result defining and highly contentious, and still angers Bears fans all this time later. The Packers came into this one having lost 8 straight to Chicago and, whilst trailing 13-6 in the fourth quarter, it seemed like a ninth defeat in a row was on the cards.
On a fourth and goal from the 14 yard line (having been sacked on third down) Quarterback Don Majowski scrambled and threw a touchdown pass to WR Sterling Sharpe, only for an official to throw a penalty marker – Majowski was adjudged to have thrown the ball from in front of the line of scrimmage. Packers’ head coach Lindy Infante challenged the call and after four minutes of replay deliberation the call was controversially overturned, resulting in a 14-13 win for Green Bay. Don’t bring it up in a Chi-town bar…
Fantastic Favre: Packers 35-28 Bears, November 12th 1995
Emotional Upset at Lambeau: Bears 14-13 Packers, November 7th 1999
Former Bears running back and hall of famer Walter Payton passed away just 6 days prior to this matchup at Lambeau field. The Bears, mourning one of their favourite sons, were a bad team at this point, not having beaten the Favre led packers for 6 seasons dating back to 1993. In a tightly fought, emotional contest the Bears played well enough to be leading 14-13 at the tail end of the game. The Packers drove into Chicago territory but were forced to try for a 28 yard, game winning field goal. Ryan Longwell stepped up, but Bryan Robinson got a hand to the attempt, blocking the kick and polishing off a famous victory on the road. In a fitting tribute, Robinson dedicated the win to Payton after the game.
All On The Line: Packers 21-14 Bears, January 23rd 2010
For the two most successful championship winning teams in the history of the league, it is a strange hiccup of history that the Packers and Bears have only faced each other twice in the post-season, the second occurrence coming in the NFC title game in 2010. At Soldier Field the Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers, shutout the Bears in the first half, going into half time with a 14-0 lead. They added another 7 points in the fourth quarter to cap off a 21-14 victory on route to their second Super Bowl victory, beating the Steelers 31-25 at Cowboys Stadium.
Here and now
The Packers Super Bowl win in 2011 was the most recent championship for either team and the first since 1997, also won by Green Bay. The relative lack of success, at least compared to their combined domination of pre-merger football, is symptomatic of two franchises struggling to find a consistent identity in the modern era.
Since 2005 the Packers have had a transcendent talent at quarterback in Aaron Rodgers but failed to adequately build a balanced enough roster to take advantage. Rodgers, the ultimate Brett Favre re-boot and fan favourite across the league, has played in 3 NFC title games but lost twice. Given his talent but lack of rings, Rodgers has more recently been the subject of critical revisionist history. Most notably in a Tyler Dunne article for Bleacher Report, in which multiple players point to a toxic relationship with former head coach Mike McCarthy. Rodgers legacy is yet to be fully defined and the Packers will hope that Matt LeFleur, disciple of the Shanahan/McVay school, can get the most out of him during the twilight of his career.
The Bears have played just 3 playoff games since 2006 but there is some optimism heading into 2019 after a strong 12-4 showing last season. Though they have lost DC Vic Fangio to Denver, their defense is again the talk of the NFC. The Bears were the only team ranked in the top five for both sacks and interceptions last season, and led the NFL in rushing defense.
Third year quarterback Mitch Trubisky divides opinion but even modest development would probably give the Bears a chance to ride their defense to a post-season berth. The Bears don’t have an easy schedule, especially after the bye week, where they face the Saints, Chargers and Eagles in a particularly tough stretch. It’ll be important to get off to a good start and there would be no better, more satisfying way to do so than coming out of Lambeau with a win over Green Bay in the season’s opening fixture.
Whatever the outcome on Thursday night, props to the league for opening the season with a rivalry game befitting of its 100th birthday. In what looks to be a wide open NFC North the outcome of the two Bears-Packers battles will have a considerable impact on the final standings. The rivalry in the Midwest rolls on.
Image credit: Edward Wagner/Chicago Tribune/TNS