Never a better time to 'Beat the Packers'
Players no longer feel hate, but Lovie Smith knows for Bears fans, rivalry is everything
They were among the first words out of Lovie Smith's mouth seven years and two days ago.
He didn't believe in rebuilding, he told Chicago as he accepted the job and became the 13th head coach in Chicago Bears history. His new team was going for the division title and the Super Bowl trophy.
But his first goal: "Beat the Packers."
It sounded a little contrived at the time. More than a little rah-rah. What NFL coach lists beating his team's rival before anything else unless he is pandering to the fans?
You figured someone whispered in Smith's ear that this was not a bad way to go. After all, his predecessor, Dick Jauron, went with the old standard "It's like any other game" when referring to the Packers and his teams played that way, losing eight of 10 games against Green Bay during his tenure.
Dave Wannstedt was beat up even worse by Brett Favre and the gang, to the tune of 1-11, including one particularly embarrassing Halloween in 1994, when the Bears tried to inspire the troops by retiring the numbers of Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus at halftime of a "Monday Night Football" game. The Packers ended up winning, 33-6.
Bears fans were hungry for a lot of things when Smith took over in January of 2004 and his initial 5-11 record was not what they had in mind. But his team did beat the Packers, 21-10, in Green Bay in the second game of that season. And though the Bears were drubbed in the finale at home, 31-15, they would sweep the Packers the following season. To date, Smith is above .500 against the division rivals at 8-6 (including three well-documented season finales in which the outcome did not matter to the Bears).
If this has not exactly kept fan discontent at bay these seven years, much less led to parades organized in Smith's honor, it did make some cold winters perhaps a teeny bit less bitter. And to hear his players tell it, their coach's stated priority made sense.
"It's not so much 'Hey, these two [Green Bay] wins are our Super Bowl. We don't care about the rest,'" Greg Olsen explained. "But it's just, 'Let's set this attitude. Let's get the season off to a good start. First things first. Let's beat our rival, then kind of carry that momentum into these other games.'
"I think it's a good way to get everyone focused in on a game plan, a course of action throughout the season. That's Step 1."
Smith described beating the Packers as a short-term goal, "something you can do immediately." And obviously defeating the division rival is a good idea if you want to win your division and go on to win the Super Bowl.
"Guys have bought into it," Smith said, "and we still have a chance to achieve our ultimate goal."
Smith said he was not so much advised in '04 to obsess about the Packers as he simply got the picture from his very first meeting with the team owner.
"One of the first things Michael McCaskey went over with me when I came here to interview for the job [was] to make sure that I knew about the rivalry," Smith said. "Believe me, we know exactly how we're supposed to feel about that rivalry."
It helped, Smith said, that growing up a Cowboys fan and in his coaching stops, he never had cause to root for Green Bay. But where the story takes another turn toward the contrived is with the assumption that today's Bears hate the Packers.
Players rarely "hate" their opponents anymore. More likely is a solidarity gesture before games or a prayer circle after.
"I don't think there's personal animosity at all," Olsen admitted. "I think it's a heated rivalry. I think the two teams want to beat each other. I think they take a lot of pride because the cities are such rivals
"It's nothing personal against those players. It's more personal against the name of the team. We want to beat the Packers. It's not that we want to beat Aaron Rodgers or we want to beat Charles Woodson. It's the Bears versus the Packers. It's not players versus players. It's the team versus the team."
Mike Ditka might cringe at this, considering that he really did hate Forrest Gregg. And some of his players certainly had intense feelings of dislike toward Packers such as Mark Lee (who rolled over the sideline bench with Walter Payton in '85), Ken Stills (who leveled Matt Suhey after the whistle in the same game) and Charles Martin (who slammed Jim McMahon to the turf on his bad shoulder the following season).
But hate? Even then, Bears and Packers would laugh together at offseason golf outings. Stills talked of Payton posing for pictures with him. And 25 years later, when asked about the Stills hit, Suhey responded, "I hold no ill feelings toward any of those Packers. It was just the way the game was played back then. It was a great rivalry and it made for great TV. I'm sure if any of those guys were on our team, they would be a great teammate as well."
The soft-spoken Smith said the rivalry has a "respectful tone but it can be nasty also. We don't like each other."
If it sounded forced, it hardly matters.
Seven years ago, he made it his priority to beat the Packers.
This week, it works out pretty nicely.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.