Live by the Favre, Die by the Favre

This season has been pretty positive so far for Packers fans. Coming off their bye week, the team is 6-3 and coming off their first truly stress-free victory of the year, a 45-7 stomping of the Dallas Cowboys. To get to where they are today, the Packers have had to withstand significant hardship, overcoming 11 season-ending injuries, including six for opening day starters. Other than the injury to Aaron Rodgers’s #1 offensive weapon, beastly tight end Jermichael Finley, the Packers have been able to plug all their holes and get equal-to-greater production out of their reserves.

At this point in the season, they are on the wide open board of NFC Super Bowl contenders with the Giants, Saints, Eagles, and Falcons. That the Packers are in this conversation with the injuries they have endured is a testament to their being an extraordinarily well-run organization. Consistently maligned by both fans and the media, general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have made unpopular, but long-sighted, decisions that have objectively resulted in a sustainable young talent base that should have the Packers in legitimate Super Bowl contention for at least the next three seasons.

The Vikings, meanwhile, are a mess. At 3-6 headed into their match-up versus the Packers, their team is in utter turmoil. Brett Favre has wrested control of the organization from Brad Childress, Randy Moss has come and gone, and Favre has played awfully. Headed into their Week 11 match-up in Minnesota, the Packers and Vikings are a fascinating study in contrasts.

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2006, the first season with Mike McCarthy as head coach and second with Ted Thompson as GM, was an interesting transition year for the Packers. Coming off a disastrous 4-12 season which culminated in the firing of head coach Mike Sherman, the Packers started the season 4-8 but rebounded to finish 8-8, barely missing the playoffs after losing a tiebreaker to the Giants in a weak NFC. After throwing 20 touchdowns and 29 interceptions in 2005, Brett Favre had a comparatively better season in 2006, throwing for 18 TDs and 18 INTs. Via the “eye test,” he appeared to still have a good season or two left in him and the Packers appeared to be trended upward, potentially a piece or two away from making one last run with the old gunslinger.

Magically, it seemed, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Randy Moss was available. This would have been just the weapon that Favre needed to push the Packers over the top and make one more run at a Super Bowl to cap his illustrious career. Thompson, however, was unwilling to part with a 4th-round draft pick to rent the mercurial Moss for one season. When the Patriots pulled the trigger on Moss and the Packers did not, Favre was irate (like, super-duper-mega-pissed) that the Packers organization would not sacrifice any of its long-term viability to make one last go at it with their aging franchise QB.

According to Andrew Brandt of National Football Post, who worked in the Packers front office at the time, Favre was livid: he “was forever wanting a more aggressive attitude by the front office toward player acquisition than the present regime.  My constant message that our method of drafting and developing talent rather than acquiring proven commodities only served to infuriate him and his resentment of a general manager that showed him none of the compassion and welcomed input of previous regimes.” In his haste and pride, Favre had apparently forgotten that the “compassion and welcomed input of previous regimes” granted to him led, directly or indirectly, to a 4-12 season, a .7 TD-INT ratio, and a new administration.

On the heels of this acrimony between star quarterback and front office, both sides’ arguments in the Moss dispute were bolstered by Green Bay’s season. The Packers went 12-4 as Favre completed 66.5% of his passes for 28 TDs and 15 INTs; Favre had a little more in the tank than Thompson probably thought before the season and Favre’s teammates were apparently better than he realized when he lobbied for Moss. The Packers found themselves at Lambeau in the NFC title game versus the Giants and came within a hubristic Favre interception in overtime of reaching the Super Bowl.

In Favre’s mind, though, having Moss would have to have been the piece that would have set the Packers head and shoulders above the rest of the league that season. Empowering Favre’s outlook, Moss had a historically brilliant season, catching 98 balls for 1,493 yards and 23 TDs. However, the transitive property does not work in the NFL, especially with Randy Moss. There is no tangible evidence to suggest that Moss would have given it his all for Mike McCarthy as he did that season for Bill Belichick. Moreover, the combination of Moss and Favre, and their patterns of entitled selfish behavior, could have been highly combustible for a youthful franchise that was attempting to build itself from the ground up. Randy Moss on the 2007 Packers is certainly one of the all-time what-if questions in NFL history but also one that we now almost certainly know part of the answer to: this duo probably would have toxic for the long-term growth and sustainability of the franchise.

The ensuing offseason was particularly tumultuous for the relationship between Favre and the Packers as the organization’s fans found themselves as children in the middle of a bitter divorce. The situation played out as a brutal public soap opera. As Andrew Brandt noted later in his aforementioned article, the Packers once again found themselves in the bidding for Randy Moss and once again bowed out late in the process. Brandt writes, “Moss re-signed with the Patriots on March 3rd. Favre retired from the Packers on March 4th. Coincidence?”

Luckily for the Packers, Favre mimicked John Elways retirement, going out after a great season (albeit not consecutive Super Bowl titles), fighting off the “itch” to return, and gracefully accepting the Packers’ 10-year, $20 million offer to be an ambassador for the franchise. Wait, nevermind. The opposite, but worse, happened.

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Before I recount the real chain of events, it must be noted that if Favre had accepted this offer, he would have been forever remembered by Green Bay Packers fans as an immortal, larger-than-life figure and been revered by them as much–if not more than–any religious deity worldwide. His exploits would have been legendary lore in the Wisconsin Northwoods and all of his impulsive gambling losses of big games and a couple bad seasons would have been forgotten to the extent that no one would remember they had to have been forgiven. He would have stoked a bidding war to become a studio or game analyst with all the major networks who could have relished in the opportunity to take advantage of his brand imagery as that of a winner and fierce warrior. However, BECAUSE all this was the case, Favre bought into the 70%-truth-30%-myth hype and carried himself as someone who was indestructible and above the authority of Packers management.

Instead of staying retired, Favre got his patented “itch” to return to the field (while, of course, insisting that speculation on this front was “rumor”) and his behavior turned from passive aggressive to hostile. After a draft which saw the Packers draft quarterbacks Brian Brohm (2nd round, 56th overall–ouch!) and Matt Flynn (7th round, 209th overall–awesome I hope!) and spend a majority of the offseason grooming the system for Aaron Rodgers, Favre informed the Packers that he had changed his mind and wanted to play in the 2008 season.

The Packers, far from having forced Favre out initially, took him at his word in that he was retired and were committed to moving on as an organization. In a statement recounted by ESPN’s Chris Mortenson, the Packers said, “Brett earned and exercised the right to retire on his terms. We wanted him to return and welcomed him back on more than one occasion. Brett’s press conference and subsequent conversations in the following weeks illustrated his commitment to retirement. The finality of his decision to retire was accepted by the organization. At that point, the Green Bay Packers made the commitment to move forward with our football team.”

Favre, in what was likely a request motivated by a desire to “stick it” to Thompson and McCarthy for not also allowing him to un-retire on his own terms, requested that he be unconditionally released.  Instead, the Packers drew out the process for what felt like much longer than the 26 days it actually lasted (days move especially slowly during the indefatigably long NFL offseason) and waited for the right trade offer to come along, eventually trading Favre to the New York Jets for a conditional 4th-round draft pick.

As a whole, Packers fans were irate with team management throughout these developments. Brett Favre had been a constant throughout the past 16 years. While those years were a perpetual emotional roller coaster, there were more peaks than troughs and the Packers were generally in contention during Favre’s tenure. Favre brought an element of unsurpassable excitement to every snap of every game, embodying an unbreakable warrior and fearless leader who poured every ounce of his emotions and soul onto the football field. And now, Packers management had deprived its fanbase of this constant. A vast majority of these fans were apoplectic.

The anger on the part of the Green Bay fans became increasingly palpable as the Jets thrived and the Packers faltered in the 2008 season. Anecdotally, fan dissatisfaction reached an especially combustible level Week 13 at Lambeau Field when the 5-6 Packers hosted the 8-3 Carolina Panthers. Contextually, the Packers had lost five of their previous seven games after a promising 2-0 start, including a 19-16 Week 9 overtime loss on the road versus the 7-0 Tennessee Titans, a  debilitating 28-27 Week 10 loss at Minnesota, and, most recently, a 51-29 thrashing at the hands of the Saints in New Orleand Week 12.

That Aaron Rodgers had actually been playing moderately well and was significantly less responsible for this rash of losing than the Packers defense and special teams were not of particular consequence to the angry masses. Brett Favre was a superhero and his replacement was not going to be given the courtesty of patience as he adapted to being the starting quarterback.

Favre and the Jets meanwhile, were surging. At 8-3, the Jets had just resoundingly beaten the previously undefeated (10-0) Titans 34-13 in Tennessee. Favre had re-discovered the fountain of youth, throwing for 16 TDs and 12 INTs up to this point in the season as the Jets looked like they might be the best team in the NFL.

On this Sunday, November 30, I attended Lambeau with my brother, father, and family friend, sitting one row behind Phil Hanrahan, author of the brilliant book on the 2008 Packers season entitled Life After Favre.  On this day, I was extremely dismayed to witness the general aura in Green Bay. All my previous trips to Lambeau had a distinct sense of joviality and festivity in the air. There had always been an unspoken vibe between all Packers fans that we were extremely lucky to be where we were with who we were there with.

On this day, however, there was an uncharacteristic flow of negativity. Because it was deer hunting season (an extremely important cultural period in Wisconsin) and because fans were unhappy with the team, tickets were being liquidated by sellers at far below face value. By a large margin, there were more Favre JETS #4 jerseys in the crowd than those of any current Packer. As the snow fell and the temperature dropped, it was unfortunate that most in the crowd did not share the attitude of my group, Hanrahan, and the rotund, boisterous, and intoxicated fan sitting by us who was profiled in the introduction of Life After Favre as jubilantly exlaiming, “WE’RE AT THE GAME!!!!!!!!!”Green Bay lost another late heartbreaker to Carolina and the negativity inside Lambeau was powerful and sad.

Favre and the Jets, however, would not continue their early season dominance. After their 8-3 start, the Jets finished the season 9-7. In the Jets’ final five games, Favre threw two touchdowns and NINE interceptions. Eric Mangini learned what Mike Sherman had experienced three seasons earlier and what Mike McCarthy consciously averted: if you choose to live by the Favre you may die by the Favre.

Favre’s Jets teammates were publicly critical. Veteran running back Thomas Jones was upset that Favre was not benched: “If somebody is not playing well, they need to come out of the game,” Jones said in a radio interview with Hot 97 FM. “You’re jeopardizing the whole team because you’re having a bad day. To me, that’s not fair to everybody else. You’re not the only one on the team. So when you get to the wire and somebody is just giving the game up, I mean, it’s just not [fair].”

Safety Kerry Rhodes was also critical of Favre, implying that he did not believe Favre was fully bought into the Jets success that season in saying that Favre shouldn’t “come back if it’s going to be half-hearted or he doesn’t want to put the time in with us.” That veterans who were so well-respected in the Jets locker room were willing to speak on the record to the media in criticism of Favre speaks volumes of how unhappy his teammates were, not just with his overall performance, but also his effort and dedication. Unsurprisingly, Favre would inform the Jets, as he had done with the Packers the year before, that he was retiring from football.

In his defense, Favre had a shoulder injury that needed to be surgically repaired during his second consecutive retirement. This injury was a significant cause of his poor performance in the end of the 2008 season. However, if this injury directly caused Favre to submarine the Jets season, he should have sat out instead of playing extremely ineffectively through it. His selfishness in this regard and Eric Mangini’s unwillingness and/or inability to proactively bench Favre as the ship was sinking cost the Jets their season and Mangini his job.

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In the following offseason, the Packers continued to build through the draft, picking defensive tackle B.J. Raji 9th overall and trading up to get outside linebacker Clay Matthews III with the 26th overall pick. Favre, meanwhile, asked the Jets for his release as he had done with the Packers one year earlier. The Jets, however, granted Favre his release and the nation was treated to a third straight summer of perpetual speculation as to whether Favre would return, this time to the *gasp* Minnesota Vikings.

In 2008, the Vikings had gone 10-6, won the NFC North, and lost in the first round of the playoffs 26-14 to the Philadelphia Eagles. They were quarterbacked by noted game mismanager Tarvaris Jackson and the feeling among their fanbase was that even an above-average quarterback would make the team an elite Super Bowl contender. As the weeks and months in the offseason rolled by, training camp came and went, and Favre kept insisting that he was staying retired for good this time, it looked as if the Vikings would indeed proceed again with Jackson at the helm.

On August 18, however, Favre landed in St. Paul on a private jet with a Vikings logo on it and was picked up at the airport by Vikings head coach Brad Childress. In allowing Favre to miss training camp and welcoming him with such symbolic and literal open arms, Childress and the Vikings embarked on a high-risk, high-potential-reward venture. Like Eric Mangini and the Jets the season before but unlike Thompson and McCarthy’s Packers, the Vikings were volunteering to live by the Favre or die by the Favre.

Much like the outset of the previous season for the Jets, as the regular season progressed the riverboat gambling appeared to be paying off big for Favre, Childress, and the Vikings. The Vikings were rewarded with the immense benefits that gambling in Favre can bring in a Week 3 match-up versus the San Francisco 49ers. Trailing 24-20 with 1:29 left on the clock, Favre engineered an 80-yard drive that culminated with a miraculous 32-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis, who came out of nowhere to make a miracle grab with two seconds left in the game and give the Vikings a stunning come-from-behind victory.

As the Vikings continued winning games, Favre was also able to settle his personal score with Packers management. Favre performed brilliantly in both Vikings-Packers match-ups, throwing for 271 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs in a 30-23, Week 4 victory in Minnesota and 244 yards, 4 TDs, and 0 INTs in a 38-26, Week 8 win in Green Bay. The Vikings were 7-1 and atop the NFC headed into their bye week and the Packers dropped to 4-3.

Going into the Vikings-Packers match-up in Green Bay, I was ambivalent as to whether I should cheer or boo Favre and curious as to how Lambeau would react to him after what I had seen the previous season versus Carolina. I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that Lambeau’s love for the Packers greatly superseded its love for Favre; Favre was booed. Loudly and relentlessly.

As the season progressed, the Packers rebounded from their two Vikings losses, going 7-2 in their final nine games to finish the season 11-5. Aaron Rodgers continued to progress in his quest to become an elite NFL quarterback and the Packers seemed to be improving each week. The Packers would eventually lose 51-45 to the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. This was a devastating loss, as all playoff losses are, but the Packers looked to have an extremely solid foundation set up for the future with a disciplined franchise quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, a solid young nucleus with Clay Matthews, Jermichael Finley, and B.J. Raji, and veteran leadership in the form of Charles Woodson, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and Ryan Pickett.

The Vikings, despite finishing the regular season 12-4 and earning a first round bye, started to show some trouble in paradise. In Week 15, the Vikings got trounced 26-7 by the Carolina Panthers. After the game, Favre leaked to the media that Childress had tried to pull him in this game and that Favre had refused. Apparently, Childress had called a run, Favre had thrown a pass, and Childress was incensed by the insubordination. If there were any question over who was truly in charge when Childress picked Favre up at the airport before the season started, Favre answered it with this quote: “Brad wanted to go in a different direction. And I wanted to stay in the game…It’s not 70-6, but we were up 7-6. I said I’m staying in the game. I’m playing.”

Despite the apparent power struggle, the Vikings would win their first playoff game, demolishing the Cowboys 34-3 as Favre threw for 234 yards, 4 TDs, and 0 INTs. The next week, though, the Vikings would lose an overtime thriller in New Orleans, falling 31-28 as Favre stayed in the game after a vicious ankle injury and threw a horrific interception at the end of regulation to kill any chance of a Vikings field goal for the win. Similarly to his interception in the 2008 NFC title game versus the Giants, Favre had built up the Vikings fans to the highest of expectations and taken them away with one ill-advised throw.

As the Packers had their second straight drama-free offseason, the Vikings were once again inundated with will-he-or-won’t-he Favre speculation. After Favre sent text messages to teammates saying he would not be returning, the Vikings offered Favre a raise to induce him to return. As Favre continued to deliberate and the season swiftly approached, Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson, and Ryan Longwell were excused from practice to fly down to Mississippi and bring Favre out of retirement. He said yes.

Where Favre had come out of the gate strongly the previous two years, his poor play has the Vikings season on the ropes this season. Missing #1 target Sydney Rice, Favre and the Vikings struggled on offense. The Vikings entered their Week 4 bye at 1-2 as Favre threw 2 TDs and 6 INTs in the first three games. As the Vikings were all in to win this year and it now seemed like far from a forgone conclusion that that would be happening, the Vikings sent a third-round pick to New England for Randy Moss.

As detailed earlier in this column, Favre had wanted to play with Randy Moss for years. The Vikings surged ahead with this trade, placating their anxious fans and quarterback while ignoring Moss’s poor attitude and declining skills. Four games, 13 catches, and two touchdowns, one win, three losses, and one mistreated caterer later, Childress waived Moss. It was abundantly clear that Moss did not respect Childress, and Childress operated autonomously (and, ironically, insubordinately) in releasing him. The only instance in recent NFL history that a franchise had a worse ROI (return on investment) on a third-round pick was when the Broncos drafted Maurice Clarett.

Now standing at 3-6, the Vikings find themselves in full-fledged dysfunction. Favre has thrown for 10 TDs and 16 INTs, Childress has openly questioned Favre’s decision-making, and Percy Harvin was involved in a confrontation with Childress that was “as close to physical as you can get.” If the Vikings had paid closer attention to the 2005 Packers and 2008 Jets, they would realize that they have no one to blame for their position but themselves.

The Vikings’ predicament is even more glaring when contrasted with this year’s Packers team. Tied (although right now they would lose the tiebreaker) with the Bears for first in the NFC North at 6-3, the Packers have overcome 11 season ending injuries, including six to opening day starters, to get to where they are today. While the Vikings have made shortsighted decisions that have been largely supported by their fans over the last two seasons, the Packers have methodically built a drama-free, deep, and effective roster. While the Vikings have gone all in to win this year and are against the ropes, the Packers have a roster that appears to be able to compete at a high level for several more years.

Oddly, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy’s management style are still routinely skewered by Packers fans on comments boards and sports talk radio. Would the Packers have been better off with Favre the past three seasons? Maybe, but probably not. On an NPV (net present value) basis that takes into account the previous three seasons and the unknown future? Almost assuredly not. Thompson and McCarthy deserve an immense amount of credit for making the impossibly difficult and unpopular decision to move forward with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback for the 2008 season. Whether the Packers beat the Vikings this week or not, the Vikings look primed to die by the Favre and the Packers are living just fine without him.

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