Packers vs. 49ers: Friends, foes, & full circle to Colin Kaepernick

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30 years ago, the Packers traveled to San Francisco and beat the defending Super Bowl champs, and Green Bay’s rivalry with the 49ers has had several significant chapters since.

GREEN BAY, Wis: (WFRV)– Tonight could be the first of two games against the leaders of the NFC west this season, and the two teams are once again intertwined in several ways.  Head coach Matt LaFleur’s brother Mike, is the 49ers’ offensive passing game coordinator, and head coach Kyle Shanahan is the co-worker who’s had the biggest influence on LaFleur over an 8 year stretch.  Current 49ers offensive running-game coordinator Mike McDaniel has worked with each of the LaFleur brothers in the league, and Kyle Shanahan was the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator under current Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.   Even LaFleur has tight ties with current with Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh. They were graduate assistants together and the best man in each others weddings.

The Packers have had some classic games with the 49ers over the years, and tonight’s Sunday night primetime showdown should be no different.  With the exception of their NFC North opponents, Green Bay has faced San Francisco more times than any other team in the NFL, besides the Cardinals and Rams.  And they have done so, with far more at stake over the past 25 years.  As a kid growing up in the 1980’s my first significant memory of the two franchises squaring off, was in 1989.  The Packers were having another average season and stood 5-5 when they headed to the city by the bay.  It was the Sunday on the opening weekend of the annual gun deer season here in Wisconsin and I was returning from the western part of the state with my dad.  I’ll never forget hearing how excited Jim Irwin and Max McGee were as Don Majkowski and his team went on the road and beat the defending Super Bowl champions from San Francisco.  That victory propelled the Packers to a record of 10-6, which was their best in 17 years and only 3rd winning season since 1972. 

Mike Holmgren’s arrival in Green Bay added a variety of different competitive facets to the budding rivalry.  The former 49ers coordinator brought both Ray Rhodes and Sherman Lewis along with fullback Harry Sydney, and during that time period, San Francisco was going through their own set of changes.  After a decade of domination, the 49ers were without a trio of their best players.  Joe Montana was hurt while Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig left for the Raiders, but they rebuilt quickly with Steve Young and Jerry Rice still in their prime.  The 49ers would go on to win another Super Bowl title following the 1994 season, while Brett Favre and the Packers were trending upward after three straight winning seasons.  Much like in 1989, the Packers next biggest victory was on the road in northern California, but with a far greater reward in front of them.  Green Bay had just won their first division title in 23 years, and following a home win over the Falcons, the defending Super Bowl champs stood in their way.  The Packers defense jumped all over San Francisco.  Wayne Simmons blasted Adam Walker forcing a fumble, and Craig Newsome scooped it up for a TD return. 

“Mike Holmgren told us, that if they play their best.  And we played our best, they are going to win.” Said former LB George Koonce.  “So you better find some thing extra today.”   

The Packers came out on fire from there and they never looked back jumping out to a 21-0 lead, eventually winning 27-17.  It was a galvanizing moment for that group, and eventually led to five more memorable contests over the next three years.  From beating the 49ers in a muddy Lambeau Field, to a rain soaked victory in the NFC Championship at Candlestick Park, to the fumble that never was and subsequent Terrell Owens game winning catch, the late 1990’s provided numerous thrills of victory to agonies of defeat. 

The rivalry was renewed a decade and a half later when Aaron Rodgers played his favorite childhood team over a two year stretch where the results weren’t as fortunate for the Packers.  Green Bay lost all four games, including a pair of playoff contests where a young quarterback born in Milwaukee and briefly raised in Fond du Lac was making a name for himself.  In the 2012 divisional playoff round, Colin Kaepernick made the most of his first career postseason start destroying the Packers defense.  The elusive and efficient QB ended up with 263 yards passing yards, 2 TD’s throwing and 181 rushing yards with a pair of scores on the ground.  At the time he set the NFL single-game record for most rushing yards by a quarterback with 181 yards en route to a 45-31 victory.  San Francisco went on to the Super Bowl, eventually losing to Baltimore, but at the time, Kaepernick was the precursor to what we are seeing with the Ravens Lamar Jackson.  A running QB who could throw.  This wasn’t exactly something new, with guys like Michael Vick, Steve Young, and Randall Cunningham preceding him. 

Prior to Kaepernick’s emergence as a dual threat, the option offense was relegated to mostly the college and high school ranks.  But having Jim Harbaugh as his coach, the game was starting to change from an offensive perspective with read-pass options becoming a larger part of their game plan.   The two had continued success with another playoff run the following year, where the 49ers beat the Packers at Lambeau Field with a walk-off winning field goal on a cold and nasty January day.   But the previous progress as a team would go in the opposite direction when Harbaugh left, and so did Kaepernick’s effectiveness as a QB.  Throw in the fact that opposing teams generally find a way to defend trends in the NFL, and he was eventually benched by Jim Tomsula in 2015 and was done for the season because of injured left shoulder that he needed surgery on.  It was a tumultuous time for the 49ers, and not only did they fire Tomsula, Chip Kelly lasted one year after he inherited a team that was 5-11 and in decline. 

Heading into the 2016 season, Kaepernick was coming off multiple surgeries and in the 3rd preseason game of the year the 49ers hosted the Packers.  At the time, it was as non-descript a contest as any other during training camp, especially since it was a late Friday night in August.  Kaepernick took his first “stand”, by way of the knee.  Or simply sitting on the bench.   His form of protest has been analyzed and over scrutinized for the past three years and last weekend it culminated with a workout.  The entire ordeal took on circus type atmosphere with a last minute location change, and a canned speech from Kaepernick that will likely be part of a commercial at some point.  The NFL wanted the workout session closed to the media but by switching the site, Kaepernick ended up throwing passes in front of representatives from 8 teams, instead of 25.   And when all  was said and done, it looks like it will end up being a failed PR stunt, at least when it comes to actual football on the field.  In fact, Kaepernick‘s freedom of expression that evening night didn’t really equate to much of a buzz until the next day when the firestorm began.  

The word transparency gets thrown around a lot these days, but it seems as if the only thing that is clear about Kaepernick’s situation is that it’s become more about him.  Not playing in the NFL.  Which brings it full circle to tonight’s game.  When San Francisco hired hired Kyle Shanahan from Atlanta to be their new head coach, he and his staff came to the conclusion that his offense didn’t fit Kaepernick’s skill set, and they planned to release him.  Kaepernick would opt out of his contract to become a free agent, and hasn’t played a down in the NFL since.  No one knows for sure which way the primetime showdown will end up tonight, but one thing is for certain.  Shanahan & LaFleur are a combined 17-3 this season, and a new era of head coach has begun in the NFL. And they both know what they want out of their quarterbacks.

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