By Robert Zeglinski
There’s no need to mince words: Aaron Rodgers has had the Bears’ number over the course of his illustrious career.
Every time the Bears could have believed they mercifully turned the corner against their perennial tormentor in the Packers, Rodgers’ intimidating presence loomed in the background before firing off a signature deep bomb. The script, albeit one that shifted with every season’s new adaptation, was down to a specific formula – the lowly Bears would either hang in against Rodgers all game before he inevitably broke their spirit with a well-placed dagger, or Green Bay would decimate Chicago outright behind a sparkling wire-to-wire Rodgers’ performance. If it felt as if the Bears were stuck in a vicious time loop where they kept dying and subsequently re-spawning in the same place with the traumatic memories of their irreparable failures still intact, that’s because they probably were. The rigid rules of the space time continuum do not apply in those select cases where oblong inflated pieces of leather are involved. Even when the Bears made the addition of their best individual talent since Brian Urlacher with a bold trade for the brilliant Khalil Mack last season, there Rodgers was, on one healthy leg, orchestrating a devastating 20-point comeback. One could have found it easy to give up hope in such dire, exhaustive circumstances. It was the Bears’ personal Groundhog Day from which there was no escape.
So when the future Hall of Fame passer exuded a trademark confidence in the lead-up to a Soldier Field visit this Thursday, who could have blamed him? One recent fall to the mat at the Bears’ hands last December is not enough to dissuade a player of Rodgers’s caliber.
“Obviously last year they stuffed us pretty good,” said Rodgers in deference in a press conference call on Sunday. ” … But we’ve also won in that place before and you take that confidence with you.”
While Rodgers’s confidence is admirable at a glance – he’s 7-3 as a starter in Soldier Field since 2008 – his faith might be misplaced. As great as the Packers’ talisman has regularly proven to be, it does not mean he’s immune to the regressive human tendency of living in the past. It would be understandable if he forgot that healthy patience and time to learn from an abundance of mistakes heals deep wounds related to déjà vu.
Under starkly different circumstances than what many are accustomed to, the Bears and Packers kick off the NFL’s 100th season this Thursday night. The Bears begin their 2019 campaign as a championship contender brimming with gifted superstars and depth at most every relevant position. That’s on top of already exuding an uncommon team-wide charisma speaking of self-assurance, not haughty arrogance. The Packers, fresh off their second consecutive missed postseason – a blemish they haven’t attempted to sheepishly look past in over a decade – have the aim of picking up the scattered debris of their humiliation under the stead of the green Matt LaFleur. In a dramatic role reversal of a star-crossed Midwestern football battle for the ages, it’s the Bears who for once have every answer to every question on the exam, plus points for extra credit, while the formerly prestigious Packers fight tooth and nail for even a slight hint of validation.
Gone are the days of a Hall of Fame Green Bay quarterback acting as a walking deus ex machina against the Bears, where they flipped the endings of entire seasons on short individual displays of genius. In arrives a strange euphoric period where the Bears have no legitimate reason to fear anyone who opposes them. Where the Bears have the pleasure of not only initiating aggression but getting in every last word as if they were a stubborn, rebellious child. After all, they have Khalil Mack and the Packers do not. This 28-year-old locomotive train pays no mind to the past. A new bright future, led by his channeled and explosive example, is now.
“Oh man, I’m so ready to hit somebody,” said Mack on Monday as the Bears began their formal preparations for the Packers. When asked what part of Bears-Packers he relishes most, Mack took his sentiments in an expected but simple step further.
“Sacking Aaron Rodgers,” the larger than life persona quipped.
Aside from his singular tendency to manually paper shred the game plans of respective offensive coordinators, Mack has solid cause in propping up the rest of his teammates. The incandescent star is backed by fellow First-Team All-Pros Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller, as well as Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks. Nine of 11 starters from a No. 1 unit that rarely broke a sweat over the course of 2018 also return. On offense, the addition of the versatile David Montgomery, the evolution of Six (14) Million Dollar Man, Allen Robinson – the Bears rebuilt him, they used their technology, they made him better, stronger, faster – and the ascendance of Mitchell Trubisky has the Bears poised for stratospheric production. The days of inept pop gun offense’s gracing Soldier Field are in the rear view mirror. They are not closer than they appear and they are not in the blind spot.
All of this seems like an elaborate plot twist in the rich novella of Bears-Packers. It’s as if the Bears themselves have been building towards this unfamiliar peak for the duration of almost three decades of suffering at the hands of their green and yellow nightmare. (There’s more than one way to rationalize consistent incompetence.) They bade their time to build up an impressive skeleton of football magic and power, and are seeing the early dividends shown off against their neighbors to the north. If the traditional climax of this story has yet to arrive, their tremendous payoff of character growth and wonder should be a sight to behold.
The Bears and Packers could have been the only reasonable choices to celebrate 100 years of professional football. Having them take the field together at the same time is normally cause for a small, raucous gathering in its own right. Prop it up against the weight of a league’s expectations and an eagle eye vision, and suddenly this rivalry has a new, far more profound meaning. It’s only fitting that the torch Green Bay has unofficially held in a tight stranglehold since the last century could be passed back to the Bears on such a momentous night.
Sometimes the best stories are told through the bluntest of on-the-nose messaging. Subtlety is only necessary when the ending is better left to interpretation. One team, the Bears, remains on the ascent and has the key to every door in this story. Any instance of foreshadowing to this stage hasn’t alluded to anything else happening. The other, the Packers, is now the respective schedule door stop of which can be moved in and out of the hinge without much fervor. Whether anyone has to pass them as a stepping stone remains to be seen. They’re now a plot device, rather than the crux of the plot, nothing more.
The Packers, Rodgers in particular, can only hope this chapter soon follows the refrain of older versions of the text, or they end up being at risk of falling into their own sadistic time loop the Bears were once intimately familiar with.
Robert is an editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.