Change Of Scenery
With the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears fighting for first place in the NFC North on ABC's Monday Night Football, the stage has been set for yet another memorable edition -- the 163rd -- of one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Only problem is, they set the wrong stage.
While 31-year-old Soldier Field undergoes a makeover that will leave it looking little like its former self, the Bears have been displaced 135 miles south to Champaign, where they will play all of their home games this season from Memorial Stadium, on the campus of the University of Illinois.
Built in 1923 to honor the Illinois men and women who lost their lives during World War I, Memorial Stadium is not without history. But it couldn't be any more foreign to the 81-year-old relationship between the Packers and Bears.
Packers GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman this week said that he'd miss playing at Solider Field, not because the Packers have won the last eight games there, but because playing in Champaign just wouldn't be the same.
"I like going into those old (NFL) stadiums," Sherman said. "I look forward to that game, and it's not because we've been successful. There are a lot of memories of old teams and player and coaches who were out on that field."
If you think the teams' historic venues -- Lambeau and Soldier -- haven't played a role in the majesty of this rivalry, think again. In fact, just wait until Monday night when you tune into ABC and see the Packers and Bears doing battle on an artificial surface adorned with the insignia of the Fighting Illini.
"Soldier Field is just one of those places that as a kid you've heard about, you've watched teams play there," quarterback Brett Favre said. "Nowadays there's so many new stadiums and they're named so many different things, it's hard to get homefield advantage or feel like there's any tradition there."
If nothing else, this weekend should remind the Packers just how fortunate they are to be playing in their own historic stadium this year. Still in the midst of a $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field that will not be completed until just before the start of the 2003 season, the Packers could have gone on a one-year hiatus and played their home games in Madison at the University of Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium.
In so many ways, it would have been the easy thing to do. Easy, at least, until the season began and every weekend was one spent on the road.
"I'm a big Badgers fan, but I want the Badgers to play in Madison and the Packers to play in Green Bay," Sherman said. "I don't want to have to travel (for home games). I credit (Packers President/CEO) Bob Harlan for having the foresight to realize how important it was for us to be at home and what an advantage it is to play at Lambeau through this reconstruction."
To their credit, the Bears are trying to remain positive about their nomadic season. But you don't even have to read between the lines to realize that they'd rather stay in Chicago.
"The situation in Champaign is as good as it can be," Bears head coach Dick Jauron said. "They've treated us well, the facility is nice, the fans are outstanding. Everything in that regard is really good.
"The fact is we have to travel every Saturday of the year. There's nothing we can do about it. There's no options."
How the stadium situation will affect the Bears over the course of a long NFL season remains to be seen, but linebacker Brian Urlacher downplayed the idea that they'll be any worse off because of the regular field trips.
"Going down there every weekend sucks," he admitted. "I'm sure our bodies are going to be tired no matter what. It's a long season. Whether you travel every game or not, you're going to be tired."
If ever there were a game this season that the Bears wouldn't notice the inconveniences of their alternate surroundings, it would likely be this one. In rivalry games, fatigue seems a mere formality, the setting superfluous.
"It will be weird," Favre said of playing in Memorial Stadium, "but after the first kickoff you still have to play. I know that they're not concerned whether they play in Soldier Field or Champaign. They're concerned about beating us, and that's what we have to be concerned about."
Robert Ferguson was the talk of Packers mini-camp, first in April, then in June. Come training camp in July, he had control of the team's No. 2 receiver position and the buzz that went a long with it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the regular season. Ferguson was nibbled by the injury bug, while fourth-year receiver Donald Driver started coming into his own and rookie Javon Walker began demonstrating that he could be an NFL playmaker right out of college.
The next thing Ferguson knew, he was becoming the forgotten fourth man.
In the first two games of the regular season he made but a single catch, significant only because it was his first official NFL reception. And through the first half of the Packers' third game of the season at Detroit, Ferguson was a virtual no-show.
But then it happened. Ferguson capped off the Packers' opening drive of the second half with an 8-yard touchdown reception. Two drives later, he made a 37-yard tackle-breaking catch-and-run that brought them to the 3-yard-line to set up another touchdown.
Last week against the Carolina Panthers, with Glenn and Walker sidelined with injuries, he had his most productive game yet, finishing with five catches for 58 yards.
It was a breakthrough performance that marked "an amazing turnaround," Ferguson admitted, but not because of the catches he made against Carolina, but because of one he didn't.
"I dropped the ball in this last game and, in a way, it felt good because I got to see how I was going to adjust to adversity," Ferguson said. "Brett came back to me and I made some plays after that. I haven't had that feeling in a while of making a bad play and then having a chance to go out and prove myself.
"It's been foreign to me for a long time now, and that just felt good, once that happened, to go back out there and have that opportunity to redeem myself."
While Terry Glenn and Javon Walker could both be back in the lineup Monday night against the Bears, Ferguson may see his opportunities decrease, but they won't disappear.
"Even if we get people back (healthy), Robert still has to be in the mix," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "He's proved himself to me in the last two weeks . . . In the National Football League you have to prove yourself every week, but the last two weeks he's assumed a new role or status on this team in my mind."
After battling migraines for the last month and seeing only limited action against the Carolina Panthers last weekend, wide receiver Terry Glenn would like nothing more than to be causing headaches for the Chicago Bears Monday.
It looks like he might get that chance. Friday, Glenn was upgraded from 'questionable' to 'probable' on the team's official injury report, meaning that there is a 75-percent chance that he will play (up from 50 percent).
Glenn was in New York on the team's regular day off Tuesday to see a neurologist regarding his reoccurring headaches. He has since been prescribed with medication and has participated in the team's practices this week.