GREEN BAY – Opening day occupies a separate chapter in the story of the NFL’s oldest rivalry, and it’s worth reading.
The historical footnotes produced when the Packers have begun their season against the Bears are equal parts significant, curious and quirky.
Sunday’s clash at Soldier Field will mark the 22nd Packers’ season-opener against the Bears, and it’ll break a 10-10-1 deadlock in those games.
For the purposes of historical accuracy, it should be pointed out the Bears have opened their season against the Packers more than 21 times, with several meetings in the 1930s and ’40s marking Green Bay’s second game of the season and Chicago’s first. The games discussed here are Green Bay openers only.
Fifteen of the previous Packers’ openers against the Bears took place in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and there’s history to note on both sides.
A tie in 1943 became the only game the Bears didn’t win that year until late November on their way to a league title. Wins over the Packers in ’46 and ’63 also began NFL championship seasons for Chicago.
Green Bay’s win in ’57 was the first game played at what is now Lambeau Field, with Miss America and Vice President Richard Nixon in attendance. The Packers’ victory in ’59, earned by scoring all nine points (a TD and safety) in the fourth quarter, launched the coaching career of Vince Lombardi.
Mike McCarthy wasn’t as fortunate 47 years later in his head-coaching debut, as the Packers were shut out for not just three, but all four quarters in a 26-0 loss to open 2006 against the Bears, who would go on to the Super Bowl that season.
Perhaps that’s why McCarthy always speaks of great reverence for the rivalry, as he did again this week. Maybe his genuine respect for history is tinged with the indelible memory of exiting Lambeau Field that day with that performance as the only one on his coaching ledger.
Anomalies abound on these opening days as well. In 1947, Green Bay’s two-way star Jack Jacobs threw two TD passes, rushed for a third score, and intercepted two passes in the Packers’ win. Two years later, the Packers caught none of their own 13 passes, and the Bears intercepted four of them, in a shutout loss.
In 1964, Paul Hornung – appearing in a game for the first time since the ’62 title game, following a yearlong suspension in ’63 – made a 52-yard free kick on the final play of the first half, the type and distance of the field goal both being rare feats.
No kick was stranger, of course, than Chester Marcol’s in overtime in 1980, as it was blocked by Alan Page and deflected back into his arms. The bespectacled kicker raced 25 yards for a game-winning TD in the most bizarre and chaotic of scenes (pictured above).
The next year, the Bears were equally crestfallen when Matt Suhey’s controversial fumble at the Green Bay 1-yard line in the final minute of the game led to a 16-9 decision. It’s a fumble that today might have been overturned by replay, as Suhey contended he was down, but perhaps it worked out better for the Bears this way.
The loss began a 6-10 season, their third sub-.500 mark in four years under Neill Armstrong, which ushered in the hiring of Mike Ditka as head coach in 1982.
Since then, the Packers and Bears have opened the season against one another only three times.
Green Bay began its defense of the Super Bowl XXXI title by beating Chicago in the ’97 opener, the start of a second straight NFC championship run for the Packers.
After McCarthy in ’06, another inauspicious debut in the rivalry occurred in 2009, as Jay Cutler began his tenure as Bears QB with four interceptions. The other storyline was Aaron Rodgers’ supposed inability to lead a late game-winning drive, coming off his first season as a starter in which the Packers were 0-7 in games decided by four points or less.
Rodgers promptly threw a 50-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings with 1:11 left to pull out the win.
All of which leaves Sunday in Chicago to see just what might transpire in coach John Fox’s Bears debut and the first regular-season game for Packers such as Ty Montgomery and Damarious Randall.
May the doors to significant, curious and quirky never close.
(Special attribution to “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers Rivalry,” co-written by Packers team historian Cliff Christl, for details provided for games through 1981).
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