GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Every offseason for three straight years in the 1990s, then-Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf gathered his staff of personnel advisers in a room and discussed the same topic.
Why couldn't they beat the Dallas Cowboys?
In some ways, it became an obsession in the Lambeau Field offices.
Twice, the Packers lost to the Cowboys in the divisional playoff round -- 27-17 following the 1993 regular season and 35-9 following the 1994 regular season. Then there was the 38-27 loss in the NFC Championship Game following the 1995 regular season.
Wolf and his staff thought they had to solve the Cowboys puzzle if they were ever going to get to a Super Bowl.
“And you know what?” the long-since retired Wolf said in a phone interview. “We never could beat them.”
Luckily for them, they didn't have to. Finally, in 1996, the Packers' road to the Super Bowl didn't run through Dallas. They went 13-3 to garner the NFC's top playoff seed and then had the Carolina Panthers to thank for taking out the Cowboys in the divisional round.
Nearly two decades later, replace the Cowboys with the San Francisco 49ers and the Packers find themselves in practically the same situation.
Except that, unlike the Packers of the 1990s, it doesn't sound like they're sitting around obsessing over how to beat the 49ers, who have knocked the Packers out of the playoffs two years in a row and have beaten them four times, including three with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, in the past two seasons.
“Colin has played very well against us; that's stating the obvious,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last month at the NFL scouting combine. “Really, the discussions we're having on defense isn't really about one player on an opponent's team.”
Perhaps they should be.
Otherwise, a repeat of the 1990s could be coming.
To be sure, the Packers have to take care of things in the NFC North first to even worry about the 49ers, who aren't on their schedule in 2014. And plenty of differences exist when comparing the Packers' problems with Dallas in the 1990s and the 49ers today. In Wolf's opinion, the biggest one back then was having to play at Texas Stadium.
“We felt that was an AstroTurf team,” Wolf said. “And they had [Emmitt] Smith and [Michael] Irvin and some very, very talented players. We always felt that if we ever got them on grass, we could play them.”
Wolf was right about that.
In a 1997 regular-season game, the Cowboys came to Lambeau and got blasted 45-17. But by then, Dallas' days as the NFC's dominant team were over.
The Packers haven't been able to beat the 49ers anywhere of late, whether it be in Green Bay (the 2012 opener and last season's playoff game) or San Francisco (the 2013 opener and the playoff game following the 2012 season).
McCarthy and his coaching staff did spend part of last offseason on an extensive study of the read-option offense that Kaepernick used to torch them in the 2012 playoff game, but last season Kaepernick proved he also could beat them with his arm.
“I've seen it done before where you set your philosophy or what you need to do because of one player,” McCarthy said. “I think you're losing sight of what really needs to be done.”
This offseason, they're taking a bigger-picture approach to their problems.
“The things we're going to do more on defense -- and we'll do this more in detail when the players get back in April -- we have to do a better job of utilizing our personnel,” McCarthy said. “We've had a situation with our defense where there's a lot of change, a lot of moving parts, and we have to do a better job of planning for that and training that way starting in April.”
Wolf, who still follows the league, stopped short of imploring that his old team learn from the mistakes of the 1990s Packers, but he did say that perhaps the best way to solve the 49ers might be to emulate them.
“They have a pretty good model,” Wolf said. “So if you're going to imitate another team, that'd be a pretty good one to do it with. They have receivers, they have offensive linemen, they have a good front group on defense, a really good linebacker group. If you're going to try to copy a team, I would think that'd be a team to copy.”