Favre resurrected a franchise in turmoil
The history of the Green Bay Packers includes any number of players and front-office personnel who played key roles in ensuring survival in the NFL's smallest city.
But the list of indispensable figures is short.
There's Curly Lambeau, a team founder and the franchise's driving force its first 31 years; Andrew B. Turnbull, the former Press-Gazette owner who provided cash and business savvy that kept the team afloat in the 1920s; Vince Lombardi, the 1960s architect of the greatest championship run in NFL history, which provided a desperately needed oasis between two sustained droughts of losing football that endangered the franchise's viability; and Brett Favre.
Yes, there's a compelling argument that had former general manager Ron Wolf not traded in 1992 for the raw, young quarterback who turned out to be an all-time great, the Packers wouldn't have been one of the winningest teams in the 1990s and appeared in the Super Bowl in the 1996 and '97 seasons. The Packers announced Monday they're inducting Favre into the Packers Hall of Fame next July and retiring his number during the 2015 season.
"When (Favre) came in here, this was a franchise in turmoil," said Wolf in a telephone interview Monday. "He resurrected it."
Without that success in the mid-'90s, the Packers would have been challenged to raise anywhere near the $24 million they did in their 1998 stock sale. And there's a decent chance they wouldn't narrowly have won in 2000 the Brown County referendum (53 percent to 47 percent) that established a .5 percent sales tax to help fund $160 million in construction bonds to renovate Lambeau Field.
"As tight as that stadium referendum was, the fact that we were achieving success again on the field, I heard from people, it was a huge factor," said Bob Harlan, the Packers' chairman emeritus and president during the referendum. "If we were still playing the way we were in the '70s and '80s, I mean, it was a tough sell anyways, 53-47. I think it would have been an impossible sell."
The stadium renovation in the early 2000s kept the Packers financially viable in an era when stadium expansion has become a major revenue source for NFL teams. The Packers now are in the midst of a $310 million stadium expansion that they're financing without taxpayer help, netted $25 million last fiscal year and have $280 million in their reserve fund.
And it all goes back to the 2000 referendum. Green Bay's mayor at the time, Paul Jadin, told Harlan that had the referendum not passed, the Packers wouldn't last in Green Bay past 2015.
"I'm not sure how we could have competed in that old stadium," Harlan said Monday after the news conference announcing Favre's induction.
"You figure, we were making $2 (million) to $3 million a year in the old Lambeau. The first year in the new Lambeau, we made $25 million. We were actually talking in the late 1990s about having to borrow money in a few years to fund our operation."
There's no doubt that people other than Favre played critical roles in the Packers' resurgence of the '90s. From 1968-91 they'd put up only four winning seasons in nonstrike years and won one playoff game.
Along with Favre, the primary figures were Harlan, Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren and defensive end Reggie White. But while they collectively were the key to the franchise's resurgence, Favre was indispensable because he did it on the field at the game's most important position.
"It's fairly simple to me," Wolf said. "This was not a place everybody wanted to come and play. Then suddenly with the emergence of Brett Favre, it became a nice place to play.
"That's the biggest part of his legacy. He took this franchise and turned it completely around. There are those of us that would like to take credit for it, there are those of us in position to take credit for it if we so desire. But when you examine it, it's all Brett Favre."
When Wolf traded a first-round pick for Favre in '92, the Packers' coaching staff thought it was getting a talented player but had no idea he would be an all-time great. Steve Mariucci, who was Favre's first quarterbacks coach and attended Monday's news conference as an analyst for NFL Network, said Favre reported to the Packers grossly overweight at 250 pounds, almost 30 pounds above his playing weight.
"The first thing that showed was arm strength," Mariucci said. "You could sit there and watch him sling it through the wall, a lay person could see that. You knew he was a tough guy, you knew he was strong, you knew he was kind of a fun-loving kid. But we also felt that, 'Oh, boy, we're going to have to have some patience."
The coaching staff considered Don Majkowski a good fit for its West Coast offense because of his mobility and had no inclination to play Favre that first season. But when Majkowksi injured his ankle in Week 3 against Cincinnati, Favre's mad-cap performance ended with the spectacular 35-yard touchdown pass to Kittrick Taylor with 13 seconds left that gave the Packers the 24-23 win.
"That game was probably a microcosm of his career," Mariucci said. "He did some great things, he did some crazy things. He fumbled the ball, he threw the ball away. He forgot to go out there for the extra point when he was supposed to hold because Majkowski was the holder, and (Favre) didn't practice it much. It was the start of something special."