The Past: The last meeting in this storied rivalry did not go so well for the Packers; losing the game was actually the smaller matter as the Packers season essentially spiraled out of control with Aaron Rodgers breaking his collarbone, which would eventually take 7 weeks to heal. The Packers did do a couple things well, notably Eddie Lacy rushing for 150 yards and James Starks chipping in for another 40 but without Jay Cutler being, well Jay Cutler, the Bears played an efficient and mistake free game with Josh McCown under center and ultimately won 27-20.
For the Packers, this started a team collapse, starting first with the uncertainty at quarterback; Seneca Wallace was injured and placed on IR the next week, Scott Tolzien played with glimpses of potential, but costly mistakes ultimately caused the Packers to call on their old friend Matt Flynn, who had been released by Seattle, Oakland and the Bills in this season alone. While Flynn was completely overmatched against the Lions in the Thanksgiving game and has been a below average quarterback, he also has shown the moxie that got him drafted by the Packers in the first place, managing to win two comeback games by 1 point, something that many critics have argued Aaron Rodgers has failed to do.
Ironically, while the Packers have done about as well as can be expected without Rodgers, they shouldn’t even been in the playoff race right now as the rest of the NFC north has had an even more inexplicable collapse. Naturally the Vikings and notably Adrian Peterson weren’t going to be able to repeat their magical season from last year one more time, and more importantly seem just as confused about their quarterbacks as they were last year. The Bears have been an enigma this year as well; sometimes it looks like they are finally becoming a dominant offensive team, other times it looks like they really wish they had their stalwart defense, at times crushing the Dallas Cowboys 45-28 but then getting destroyed by the Philadelphia Eagles 11-54. Most startling is the fall of the Detroit Lions, who should have clinched the NFC North months ago. The Lions have clearly one of the most talented teams in the NFL and unlike the Bears, Packers and Vikings have had a stable quarterback position the entire season, which should have won them the division right there. Add to that a ferocious defense, and a powerful passing game spearheaded by Calvin Johnson and the Lions should have been the cream of the black and blue. However, in the last 6 games, the Lions have only beat the Packers and basically killed their playoff hopes by letting a kicker beat them and then sealed their fate with a loss against the Giants.
The Present: Of course the big news is that Aaron Rodgers is slated to start against the Bears, but perhaps the bigger question is how effective can Eddie Lacy be with a hobbled ankle. The prudent strategy for the Packers is going to be conservative and careful with Rodgers, likely limiting him to a “pitch count” and swapping receivers for more blocking tight ends and offensive linemen to contain the pass rush. However, if the running game can’t keep the Packers on schedule, Aaron Rodgers is likely going to have to buy time and throw more, leading to more impact on that collarbone. Luckily, the Bears have one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 26th overall, 18th in the pass and perhaps most excitedly for the Packers, dead last against the run. Just to give a comparison, the Packers, who are 30th against the run are more than twice as effective at stopping the run as the Bears, so they are on a historical pace of run defense futility.
The bears also have issues with their quarterback, mostly what they should do with starting/not really starting/maybe staying/maybe leaving quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler has been pretty much himself, with flashes of brilliance where it really looks like head coach Marc Trestman’s philosophy has really seeped in and other times where he looks like the mess that Lovie Smith had to save with the defense. Historically Jay Cutler has been more stray cannon than precision weapon against the Packers but with some more viable receiving threats in Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett against an already weak Packers weak pass defense, who will be without Clay Matthews (who injured his thumb again) might be just enough to cover for Cutler’s mistakes.
The Future: The Bears have always been relatively financially responsible, who sometimes getting themselves into messes due to their inability to draft well during the Jerry Angelo era, most notably trading for Jay Cutler and signing Julius Peppers to a mega contract. However, the Bears have always been willing to make the difficult cut when they needed to, such as not resigning iconic middle linebacker Brian Urlacher this offseason. The Bears will also have to figure out what they want to do with Julius Peppers, whose last two years contain salaries too outrageous for a old, declining player; most likely Pepper will be forced to take a pay cut or be released outright as it’s unlikely that any team would be willing to take on that contract for a player who clearly isn’t who he used to be.
However the biggest topic for the Bears front office is what they are going to do with Jay Cutler, who is a front office’s nightmare. Cutler likely hasn’t convinced anyone that he’s a true franchise quarterback and one that a team could build around, however he just good enough that he could possibly win a Super Bowl with a little luck and he’s a proven (decent) commodity, while drafting a quarterback is still a hit or miss proposition. Furthermore franchising Cutler likely cripples any leverage the Bears have in negotiations but letting him test free agency is likely going to end poorly for the Bears as well as some other quarterback needy team (the Vikings have a long history of signing NFC North players to name just one potential landing spot) will likely raising Cutler’s asking price. Based on performance alone, Cutler probably deserves around $15 million (he’s not in the Brady/Manning/Rodgers range but he probably fits well around Matt Stafford or where Joe Flacco should be) but likely will earn much more regardless of where he ultimately ends up next season.
The other concern for the Bears is their history of drafting, which has been largely average to below average. Chris Williams and Gabe Crimini are the two glaring busts, who both went from potential franchise left tackles to starting guards to playing reserve roles on other teams. Second round picks, Alshon Jeffery, Stephen Paea and Cory Wotton have all been good players but not earth shattering. Perhaps the Bears best find was a running back converted to defensive tackle Henry Melton, who is currently on IR as well as dealing with some legal issues as well.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.