Rivalries help make sports entertaining. They provide story lines and drama; become a rallying cry for fans and players. Provide extra motivation, and at times become overwhelming.
During the 1990s, the rivalry between the Cowboys and the Packers was a lopsided affair. The Packers traveled to Dallas eight times and lost all eight contests. They were crushing defeats. Games that made Packer fans despise everything Cowboys, defeats that caused the Cowboys and their home stadium to take up residence as the annual monkey on the Packers’ back.
On a Monday night in 1996, the rivalry boiled over when the usually even keeled Reggie White led a group of players into a shoving match at Dallas.
Flashes of this frustration, this refusal to go down without swinging, and this bad blood between two teams was present last Sunday in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Forty-Niners crushed the Packers defense, Super Bowl hopes and nearly an entire fan base’s morale last January. It wasn’t the first time the Packers season was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of the Niners, and it might not be the last, but it ranks high among the most crushing.
The best rivalries exist when both parties are in their prime and playing in meaningful, important games.
Therefore leading into the rematch in San Francisco, the game already had all it needed – trash talking, a team looking for revenge, and an opening day match up – to exist as another piece in the San Francisco/Green Bay rivalry.
And then the game, and the shoving match on the Inners sideline, happened.
The basic rundown: Clay Matthews launched and hit Colin Kaepernick out of bounds. Upset over the hit/game/life in general, San Francisco offensive lineman, Joe Staley got in Matthews face and there was some shoving and punching and slapping. Both Staley and Matthews received penalties, for the melee and for the late hit respectively, and the game went on as it should with an extra down for the Niners.
Matthews was out of line, how far out of line depends on how you viewed the play, but he took his intensity too far. It was a response, in part, to the rivalry, the pregame talk. Not wanting to be run over again, Matthews spent the week leading up to the game talking about how he was going to hit Kaepernick. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh liking his quarterback and the sound of his own voice, spent the week talking about how Kaepernick should not be hit.
So when the shoving match and ensuing officiating controversy occurred it seemed only natural in a rivalry that the players would continue the story line after game clock hit zero.
Flash forward to Monday afternoon, and perhaps the strangest quote but also new best part of this rivalry.
Jim Harbaugh offered a critique of Matthews’s hit and melee participation. Outside of the usual ‘that was a dirty hit’ bit was an interesting and random piece of advice.
"If you're going to go to the face, come with some knuckles, not an open slap," Harbaugh said. "That young man works very hard on being a tough guy. He'll have some repairing to do to his image after the slap."
That’s right, in an odd combination of calling for punching in an NFL game and encouraging stronger hits to the head, in today’s era of player safety and concussion law suits, a current NFL coach called out a player on an opposing team, questioned his toughness and gave him punching advice.
In the same breath of calling Matthews a dirty player, Harbaugh – in effect – called him weak.
The story became even more entertaining when on Monday night Deadspin uncovered a 1997 LA Times story where after Jim Kelley questioned Harbaugh’s toughness, Harbaugh took the only logical step and punched Kelley in the head.
Yes. Jim Harbaugh punched Jim Kelley in the head.
At the time Harbaugh was “The Comeback Kid” quarterback in Indianapolis and with that punch, he broke a bone in his throwing hand and was subsequently sidelined without pay.
Jim Harbaugh is a fiery personality. Besides his affinity for punching people in the head and yelling on the sideline, Harbaugh is what every good rivalry needs, a villain.
The rivalry between San Francisco and Green Bay has entered a new chapter. Both teams look to be in annual hunt for Super Bowl berths. And with the emergence of a clear person to hate or dislike, this rivalry is far from dying. Hopefully, though, this one does not include eight straight losses like the one with the Cowboys in the 1990s.
There’s a very real chance that the teams will face each other again in the post season this year. Hopefully there will be no head punches, just football.
Jayme Snowden is a writer at CheeseheadTV and Today’s TMJ4. She also co-hosts CheeseheadRadio, part of the Packers Talk Radio Network at Packertalk.com. You can contact her via twitter at @jaymelee1 or email at Jaymelee1@gmail.com.