Playing the Chicago Bears was always special for Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. Not just because the storied rivalry started way back in 1921, but because Lombardi was personally endorsed by George Halas for the head coaching job in Green Bay.
So it was very apropos that Lombardi’s first game as head coach was against the Bears at new City Stadium (now Lambeau Field) on September 27, 1959.
The Packers rallied from a 6-0 fourth-quarter deficit in that game and won the contest 9-6. Lombardi was carried off the field by his players after the victory. That was a habit which was duplicated at least four more times in Lombardi’s tenure.
The last time that occurred was after the 33-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, when Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer hoisted up Lombardi in his final game as head coach of the Pack.
I talked with Kramer on Wednesday and he related a couple of instances about how Lombardi was focused on Halas when a game against the Bears was approaching.
For example, Lombardi was always worried that Halas would use spies to check out the practices of the Packers.
“We would be practicing and Coach would see a lineman on a power pole a couple of blocks away doing electrical work,”Kramer said. “And Coach would go, ‘There’s one of Halas’ spies! Somebody go down there and check out that guy!’
Lombardi also had other tactics to help hinder any spy tactics of Halas.
“At practice, Bart would wear No. 75 at times,” Kramer said chuckling. “We would change our numbers and everyone would wear a different number to confuse the spies of the Bears. Like Halas was going to think an offensive tackle is playing quarterback for us.”
Lombardi was always primed to play the Bears and he let his team know about as well.
“We were practicing on day before playing the Bears and Coach Lombardi brought us together,” Kramer said. “Coach said, ‘You guys go out and kick the Bears’ ass. And I’ll go out and kick old man Halas’ ass too.’
Kramer also remembered a quote from Halas talking about when the Bears played the Packers.
“Coach Halas said, ‘We knew what they [the Packers] were going to do. We knew where they were going to do it and we knew when they were going to do it. We just couldn’t do anything about it.”
Even with all the various techniques Lombardi would use to stop the flow of information to Bears about the Packers, Halas still had a way to get vital data regarding his rival to the north.
“When I played in the Pro Bowl after the 1967 season, Coach Halas was coaching the team and we we late coming in from Florida after our Super Bowl win,” Kramer said. “There were nine of us and Coach Halas had a bus saved for us to go to practice.
“So I get on the bus and Coach Halas is sitting right behind the driver and he hands me a playbook. I go back about four seats on the opposite side of the bus near the aisle. So I start looking at the playbook and I see the first play is red right 49, which is our play, our code, our number system and our blocking.
“So I flip the page and I see red right 48, 46, 44, 42, 40 and so on. I look up at Coach Halas looking stunned with my mouth hanging open and he’s checking out at my reaction. “Halas said, ‘Jerry, we didn’t want you Green Bay boys to get behind so we just put in your offense.’
“The old fart had it exactly right. The numbers, the colors, the blocking assignments and the variations of the blocking assignments. He knew exactly what our playbook was.”
But even with all that, Lombardi and his Packers had a 13-5 record in the nine years he coached in Green Bay over Halas and his Bears.
The Packers also won five NFL titles in seven years in the 1960s, plus won the first two Super Bowls, while Halas and the Bears won the 1963 NFL title.
The quarterback of those five championship teams of the Packers and the MVP of both Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II, was Bart Starr.
In an earlier conversation that I had with Kramer, he talked about a game which let the team know that Starr was truly their leader.
“We were playing the Chicago Bears,” Kramer said. “Bill George was their middle linebacker at the time. On a deep pass attempt, George thought he would try to intimidate Bart.
“Bill took about a five-yard run and he gave Bart a forearm right in the mouth. George timed it perfectly and put Bart right on his behind. He also cut Bart badly, from his lip all the way to his nose. After that, George said, ‘That ought to take care of you Starr, you pu**y.’ Bart snapped right back at George and said, ‘F— you, Bill George, we’re coming after you.’
“My jaw dropped after that exchange, as I was shocked. Meanwhile Bart was bleeding profusely. I told Bart that he better go to the sideline and get sewn up. Bart replied, ‘Shut up and get in the huddle.’
“Bart took us down the field in seven or eight plays and we scored. That series of plays really solidified Bart as our leader and we never looked back.”
It’s that type toughness and resiliency that the current 3-2 Green Bay team needs to have as they get set to play the 1-5 Bears on Thursday night at Lambeau Field on national television.
The Packers did not play well at all this past Sunday, when they lost to the Dallas Cowboys 30-16 at Lambeau Field.
Kramer was at the game, as he sat in a box with Brett Favre, Frank Winters, Antonio Freeman and LeRoy Butler.
“The Packers were chaotic and inconsistent,” Kramer said. “It was not a good showing at all.”
Going into the game against the Bears, the Packers have a number of issues. For one, the the team is dealing with a number of injuries. Which includes their top two running backs, as Eddie Lacy (ankle) and James Starks (knee) won’t be available to play and will be out for several weeks.
In fact, Lacy will be out until at least Week 15, after he was placed on injured reserve after it was determined he needs surgery on his ankle.
The Packers traded a 2018 conditional seventh-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for running back Knile Davis on Tuesday. Also, rookie running back Don Jackson was promoted from the practice squad to replace the roster spot of Lacy.
Kramer knows all about not being able to play with your best running backs. In 1967, the Packers went into the season for the first time in a decade without Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the backfield, as Hornung retired and Taylor moved on as a free agent.
In addition to that, both starting running backs, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, suffered season-ending injuries in Week 8 versus the Baltimore Colts.
The Packers didn’t flinch, as backs like Donny Anderson, Travis Williams, Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein filled in and helped the Packers finish second in the NFL in rushing that season.
Another problem that the current Packers are having is that the passing offense of the team is not in sync. Aaron Rodgers has been in a year-long slump, at least based on the superlative passing numbers he put up from 2009 through 2014.
The receivers are having trouble getting open, even with the return of Jordy Nelson, and when they are open, Rodgers is missing them at times.
Again, Kramer has dealt with this before, as the offense of the Lombardi Packers had to transform itself over the years.
From 1960 through 1964, the Packers relied on the running game to be the focal point of their offense. In those five years, the Packers were either first or second in the league in rushing.
But in 1965, the running game started having some issues. The Packers were just 10th in the NFL in rushing that season. Ironically, the running game came alive when the team needed it the most that season.
The Packers would be playing for the 1965 NFL title versus the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field.
And although the running game of the Packers had struggled almost the entire year, the Packers could not be stopped on this snowy and muddy day on the frozen tundra.
Green Bay rushed for 204 yards behind Taylor and Hornung, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Kramer and left guard Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs, mowing down defenders so the Packers gained big chunks of yardage on the ground.
The Packers won three straight NFL titles starting that season. In 1965 and 1966, the Packers became more of a passing offense. Starr was magnificent, as he threw 30 touchdown passes versus 12 interceptions in those two years.
Starr was also named the NFL MVP in 1966.
In 1967, Starr had a number of injuries which affected his play. Because of that, Lombardi leaned more on the running game again and another NFL title was the result.
The current Packers need to change their offensive tendencies like Lombardi did back in the day. Instead of running simply isolation pass patterns, perhaps they can try a few bunch-formation pass patterns, which usually allows receivers to get open a bit more easily.
Plus, go back to the basics of the west coast offense. Use quick-hitting pass patterns like slants and short curls.
The bottom line, the Packers have to find a way to get through all their issues and injuries and beat their most hated rival. With a win, the Packers be within a game of tying the all-time series between the two teams.
Right now the Packers are 91-93-6 in the regular season and 1-1 in the postseason versus the Bears. By winning on Thursday night and again in Week 15 in Chicago at Soldier Field, the Packers will even up the series for the first time since 1933, when the two teams were knotted at 11-11-4.
The Packers have been the dominant team in the past quarter century when the two teams played. A lot of that has been due to great quarterback play. In the 24 years that Favre and Rodgers have been under center for the team, the Packers have a 34-14 record versus da Bears.
Rodgers has been phenomenal for the most part in his career against Chicago. Not only did he beat them in the 2010 NFC title game at Soldier Field, but he’s 12-4 in the regular season as well.
In those 16 games, Rodgers has thrown 35 touchdown passes versus just nine picks for 3,839 yards. That adds up to a very robust passer rating of 107.3.
The Packers need more of the same from Rodgers on Thursday night. Head coach Mike McCarthy can help by changing his offensive scheme a bit, as his offensive inclinations are being diagnosed by the opponents.
The struggles of Rodgers and the offense over the past year or so validate that point.
Kramer knows what the Packers need to do versus da Bears.
“Just do what Coach Lombardi always instructed us to do to meet our challenges,” Kramer said. “Coach told us that we had to be tenacious, we had to be committed and that we had to be disciplined.
“We listened and followed his directions and we focused on the job at hand. That led us to all those championships, including the three straight NFL titles.”
The job at hand for the current Packers is beating the Bears on Thursday night. Not just winning, but also improving all facets of the football team with their play.