Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Renewal of a Passionate Rivalry

Tomorrow afternoon, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers will face each other in Chicago with the NFC championship on the line.

Now, there are many rivalries in the NFL. None are as old as the Bears and the Packers, who have been playing each other twice a year for the last 90 years. Given their history, you might think they had faced each other in the playoffs several times, but this will be only the second time they have met in the postseason.

To remember that other playoff game, you would have to be old enough to remember Pearl Harbor.

I was talking with my father on Thursday, and I observed that it was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, in which Kennedy uttered his famous line, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

We talked a little about famous presidential speeches, and Dad mentioned that he remembered listening to FDR's "day of infamy" speech the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. That speech was given the Monday before Green Bay and Chicago last met in the postseason.

In those days, as I wrote last month, NFL championships were played between the teams who won their respective divisions (or conferences, as they were called for a time).

Usually, there were no other playoffs — unless there was a tie atop one or both of the divisions. Then there would be a playoff game between the teams who tied for a division title (even if one of the teams had swept the regular–season series between the two), and the winner would advance to the championship game.

That was how Green Bay and Chicago, always members of the same conference/division, wound up playing each other following the conclusion of the 1941 season. Both teams went 10–1, splitting their regular–season series, so they met on Dec. 14, 1941 at Chicago's Wrigley Field to break the tie.

At the time, there was no such thing as a "wild card" in the playoffs. That was a concept that wasn't really introduced until nearly 30 years later.

Even so, wild cards have been a part of the postseason in pro football for the last 40 years — ever since the merger of the AFL and NFL. In some years, the playoff structure has allowed two wild card teams in each conference.

Both Green Bay and Chicago have been in the playoffs as divisional champions and wild cards. But in all those years, this is only the second time that both teams have qualified for the playoffs in the same season.

That other time was nine years ago, when the New England Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. Both the Packers and Bears lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. If both had won, they would have faced each other for the NFC title — 60 years after their last playoff meeting.

But that did not happen.

Even though the teams have not played each other for a championship before, the rivalry is as heated as any you'll find in the NFL. The mere mention of the Packers and the Bears to a true pro football fan ought to conjure up images of Vince Lombardi and George Halas prowling the sidelines, Dick Butkus sacking Bart Starr before the NFL was even keeping track of that particular statistic, Ray Nitschke tackling Gale Sayers, games played in the mud and the snow and the bitter cold.

This isn't your father's football. This is your grandfather's football, played the way it used to be played. Leather helmets, I heard someone say this week, will be optional.

I remember hearing a story from one day in the 1960s when the Bears and Packers faced each other. Halas came to the Packers' locker room door prior to kickoff and was stopped by security. He protested that he had to see Lombardi. It was urgent.

The message was relayed to Lombardi, who came to the door to see what Halas needed to talk to him about.

Halas said, "Vince, I just want to tell you that you'd better have your boys ready to play. Because we're going to kick your ass!"

And Halas turned around and walked back to his locker room.

I don't know what, if anything, was on the line that day — other than pride and bragging rights. In the Bears–Packers rivalry, that's usually enough.

When they started calling the division in which the Packers and Bears compete the "Black and Blue Division," they really knew what they were talking about. It's a rivalry that has always been capable of stirring fierce passions.

Oddly, though, the newspapers in the two cities seem to have been falling all over themselves to be respectful of each other. Even when they're teasing.

Frankly, I'm a little disappointed. I expected more, I guess.
  • Mark Konkol of the Chicago Sun–Times tells readers that the Bears' quarterback's father is a "cheesehead" — which is, of course, the nickname that is often used for Packer fans.

    "Don't worry," he tells his readers. "It's not what you think." And it isn't.

  • Cheryl Jackson reports in the Sun–Times that Chicago watering holes anticipate the kind of business they normally don't enjoy at this time of year.

    And it's hard to argue with that. With daytime highs expected to be in the teens and Chicago's legendary fickle, swirling winds on hand as always, you need something to get people to brave the elements — assuming they don't have tickets to the game.

  • Rex Huppke and Gerry Smith, using some clever wordplay in the Chicago Tribune, manage to capture some of the animosity — but none of what Hunter Thompson might have called the fear and loathing — that exists between Chicago and Green Bay.

    "Chicagoans stand united," write Huppke and Smith, "Packtose intolerant, loathers of cheese in all its forms, sneering as often as possible in the direction of those green and gold neighbors to the north."

    It is truly, as they observe, a rivalry like no other. Actually, it's a way of life.

  • Maybe the most critical thing I have seen from journalists in either town in the last week has come from Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press–Gazette, who asserts that the pressure to win now is on the Bears because of their age.

    But that's simply a statement of fact. "[L]ooking to the future," he writes, "Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo needs to draft unusually well starting this year to remain a title contender."

    The Packers, on the other hand, are locked and loaded for the next several years, Dougherty says, and I think he is right.
But ...

C'mon, guys! This is football! This is Green Bay–Chicago!

Where's the contempt?

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