Once upon a time, the Packers felt the Bears’ pain.
“From 1968 to 1991 — 24 years — we had only five winning seasons and two playoff appearances,” said Bob Harlan, the president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers from 1989-2006. “We hired five head coaches during that time and each had a lower winning percentage than his predecessor. We were like a stairway going down.
“And we had a fan base that obviously was very restless and thought the league was getting too big for little Green Bay —that we were never going to compete again.
“I just felt we didn’t have a football structure that was going to make us successful. We had non-football people on our executive committee making football decisions. And it wasn’t working.”
Acknowledging the organization’s dysfunction and hiring Ron Wolf to do something about it proved to be a masterstroke that is paying off for the Packers to this day. In the last 23 seasons, the Packers have had 18 winning seasons. They’re closing in on their 17th playoff berth. They won the Super Bowl after the 1996 and 2010 seasons.
“I’ve always had one very simple thought,” Harlan said, “You hire good people, tell them what you expect, treat them with respect, and then get the heck out of their way and leave them alone and let them do their job.”
In Wolf, a longtime scout who worked under Al Davis during the glory days of the Oakland Raiders, Harlan hired a guy with a knack for hiring guys and finding leaders and winners who changed the culture in Green Bay. Wolf traded for Brett Favre, hired Mike Holmgren and signed All-Pro defensive end Reggie White. He hired Ted Thompson, who as general manager since 2005 hired Mike McCarthy and drafted Aaron Rodgers. Nearly every facet of the lineage of Packers success goes back to Wolf.
What’s the secret? “I don’t have an answer for that — other than I think you have to be fortunate,” said Wolf, who retired in 2001. “The first two things I wanted to do up there worked out — Favre and Holmgren. And after that we started to get going and rolling.”
Even so, there was one obstacle in his way at the time.
“The one thing we had to overcome — and I can’t understate this — is we had to overcome the Chicago Bears,” Wolf said. “When I got to Green Bay, the Bears were the model. Our first order of business was to unseat the Chicago Bears from running the [NFC] Central Division. The Bears were a pain in the neck.
“And I never really appreciated that rivalry like I should have until the second year  when we lost in Chicago. We had  yards and they had  and we still lost the game. Suddenly it became very obvious how important that game was to the fans. Then that became a real game.
“Then suddenly we just took off. [The Packers] won 11 straight in Chicago or something. That’s something I was really proud of — we did it eight straight [at Soldier Field]. The guys in the Hall of Fame — Ditka, Halas, Lombardi and Lambeau, they never were able to accomplish that. But we were. It’s a wonderful feeling to beat the Bears.”
Except for the early years of the Lovie Smith era when the Bears won six of eight games between 2004-07, the Packers have dominated the rivalry. They’ve won nine of the last 10 games, including two blowouts this season that have made a shambles of general manager Phil Emery’s mission to close the gap between the longtime rival franchises — a 38-17 victory at Soldier Field and an embarrassing 55-14 annihilation at Lambeau Field in which the Packers led 42-0 at halftime.
Now it’s the Packers who are the model of consistency and success. And under Thompson, the Packers have set the standard for enviable home-grown-based success: 42 players on their 53-man roster (79.2 percent) began their NFL career with the Packers; 32 of them (60 percent) were drafted by the Packers.
The Bears lag behind them — 29 players on their 53-man roster (54.7 percent) began their career with the Bears; 20 (including injured starters Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman) were drafted by the Bears. And despite Emery’s emphasis on home-grown talent, the Bears actually are getting further away from the Packers. When Emery took over in 2011, the Bears had 34 players who began their NFL career with the team; and 24 who were drafted by the Bears.
The Packers have their own demons to exorcise — despite all their regular-season success they’ve played in only one Super Bowl since 1997; and they’ve lost three of their last four home playoff games. But to the Bears and most of the rest of the NFL, they have an enviable ability to overcome obstacles. Whether it’s Donald Driver’s retirement, Greg Jenning’s departure through free agency or Jermichael Finley’s injury, they always seem to find an answer. Nearly half their roster — 26 of 53 players — were drafted in the sixth or seventh round or were undrafted free agents.
“It’s ‘players play and coaches coach,’ said Rodgers, who leads the NFL with a 119.0 passer rating and is the favorite to win his second league MVP award. “The personnel department brings in good players. The guys are coached incredibly well. And there’s the expectation that when they get on the field they’re going to play well.”
That’s part of the “winning culture” that keeps the Packers going. When Rodgers missed seven games with a broken collarbone last season, the Packers seemed lost with Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien at quarterback. But they re-acquired Matt Flynn, who won two games late in the season to give the Packers a chance when Rodgers returned in Week 17 against the Bears. The Packers won 33-28 and made the playoffs at 8-7-1.
“When I got drafted here, coming into the locker room, the feeling was just very different,” said offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, the Marian Central Catholic product who was the Packers’ first-round draft pick in 2010. “A few lockers down from me was Charles Woodson [and] Donald Driver. And Chad Clifton was next to me.
“I was around guys that had won a lot of football games and expected to win. It was just kind of expected here — winning football. That’s the culture around here. It just raises the expectation level of what you’re expected to do here.”
“We do have a good group of guys in the locker room … there has always been a good group of core leaders,” said Flynn, who also has played with the Bills, Raiders and Seahawks. “What I think is a little bit unique about this place is the coaches and all the people upstairs [in management], they let us be us. They don’t have a complete dictatorship control over us.
“They let us enjoy ourselves at work, knowing that we know how to do things the right way. They listen. And they understand that the guys in this locker room have high football IQs and understand the game and have good input on how to play the game. That’s something I haven’t really seen at other places.”
McCarthy values the winning culture, but seems to know how fleeting it can be.
“You’ve got to build it. You’ve got to maintain it. You’ve got to find continual ways to grow it,” McCarthy said. “It’s about people. This game will always ben about people. We’re fortunate that right now we do have a good culture.
“It’s really a product of our players and the way they’ve invested into the program. This particular group is very consistent. They answer the bell on everything as far as what they’re asked to do. With that, you definitely have a chance to win every week.”
The Packers’ success in scouting stems from Wolf’s emphasis on building through the draft. “We had a little system that we devised to evaluate [scouts] and every one of those guys we hired went through that system,” Wolf said. “It’s a day exercise [that tested] their ability to put on paper what they see on tape. It would be like, ‘I’m going to give you six players to evaluate for the Green Bay Packers. I wanted to see what they put down. And once I ready what they saw, I would hire them. If they couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t hire them.”
But the Packers also have a knack for acquiring players with an intangible that goes beyond measurements. “There’s an ‘it’ factor,” Thompson said at last year’s scouting combine. “Does he have this inside thing that allows him to go beyond what he normally would do? It’s hard to quantify. It’s hard to do just from going to the school, watching tape, talking to coaches, seeing a player practice [and] writing a report that night. It’s hard to find that ‘it’ thing. But you know it when you see it.”
That ability to identify that intangible was a Wolf quality.
“Ron was very good at that,” Thompson said. “He’s the best scout I’ve ever been around and he taught us well. But there’s an instinctive quality to finding that, that I’ve seen from time to time, but I don’t see it as much as I wished I could.”
Thompson’s intuition led him to hire the low-profile McCarthy as head coach in 2006. McCarthy, a former Packers assistant who was fired along with the rest of Ray Rhodes’ staff after one season in 1999, was almost the antithesis of the “hot coordinator.” Unlike Holmgren, he had never worked for a Super Bowl-winning coach. He was the offensive coordinator with the 49ers the previous season — when the 49ers finished last in total yards, 30th in points and set franchise records for fewest offensive touchdowns, fewest passing touchdowns and most punts.
But Thompson liked what he saw and chose him over Wade Phillips, Sean Payton and Ron Rivera among others.
“I remember Jim Bates [the Packers’ defensive coordinator] was the last interview,” said Harlan, now retired and chairman emeritus of the Packers, “and Ted came into my office and said, ‘Jim had a great interview. But you have a tendency to go with the last person you talked to, so I want to sleep tonight and walk the hallways a little bit and think about it.’
“He walked in the next morning and said, ‘I’m going to go with Mike McCarthy.’ And I told him I was surprised. I said, ‘The way you talked about Jim Bates, I thought that was it.’ And he said, ‘There’s a toughness about Mike that I really like. I’m just convinced he’s our guy.’”
It was Thompson’s insistence on sticking to a draft-day policy of taking the top player on his board no matter what that led him to draft Aaron Rodgers in 2005, even though Brett Favre was coming off a season in which he threw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. “Ted said to me, ‘The fans aren’t going to like this but I’m going to take Aaron Rodgers. What do you think?’” Harlan said. “I said ‘Well, he’s the top guy on your board. You’ve always gone that way. I understand it’s going to cause some anger, but you do what you need to do. We’ll approve everything you do.’”
Those two moves — drafting Rodgers in 2005 and hiring McCarthy in 2006 — could not have worked out better. McCarthy had a reputation for working with quarterbacks. Rodgers was a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick but kept falling and falling. It’s a combination that is most responsible for the Packers’ success today.
The Bears, meanwhile, are struggling to find that kind of connection with Marc Trestman and Jay Cutler and falling further behind the Packers. While the Packers have missed the playoffs just five times since 1992, the Bears have made the playoffs just five times in that span —a record of failure exceeded by only three other NFL teams (the Cardinals, Redskins and Raiders).
And as was the case with the Packers in the early ‘90s, the frustration of the fan base is growing. And their ire is aimed closer to the top of the organization, where chairman George McCaskey —a former director of ticket operations — and team president Ted Phillips —a former director of finance — are under pressure to find somebody who can find their Ron Wolf.