McGinn: Favre embodied courage, competitiveness

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Every football fan has indelible memories of Brett Favre. As a football beat writer, I have mine.

He wore the black and red of the Atlanta Falcons, the dark green and gold of the Green Bay Packers, the hunter green and white of the New York Jets and the purple and white of the Minnesota Vikings.

When Favre is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, jersey color will matter not at all to me. As a football purist, I’ll just be remembering and celebrating the player and the man.

Having seen Favre play every down of his second season through his 17th season in a 20-year career, it’s safe to say he is the greatest player I ever covered. In February, retired general manager and football scholar Ron Wolf called Favre the greatest of the Packers’ 24 individuals in Canton (five others played briefly for the team).

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With many of the previous 13 first-ballot quarterbacks, their final seasons were ugly. Some lost it in their early-to-mid 30s. They stayed too long.

Favre’s swan song was unsightly, to say the least. He stood on the sidelines in sweat clothes at Ford Field in Detroit the afternoon of Jan. 2, 2011, unable even to wear the No. 4 jersey because of a concussion suffered two weeks before. The Vikings got old in a hurry, and so in the end did Favre.

However, Favre’s level of performance the year before, at 40, seems to me to be the most remarkable chapter of his career.

Final impressions forever linger. The last two times I saw Favre play well live were in January 2010: the NFC divisional playoff game at the Metrodome followed by the NFC championship game at the Superdome.

There was nothing memorable about the Vikings’ 34-3 victory over the Cowboys other than what Favre did to the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense coached by Wade Phillips. His four touchdown passes measured 47, 16, 45 and 11 yards, and he wasn’t intercepted.

Afterward, Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, a Packers assistant coach from 2000-'05, said there should never be a question that 2009 was the best season ever for Favre. Of Favre, Phillips said, “The guy is amazing.”

His performance came in the wake of a regular season in which his passer rating (107.2), completion percentage (68.4%), interception total (seven) and yards per attempt (7.9) all were the best of his career.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would play the way I did,” Favre said in August 2010. “Look at the 18 years previous; I never played that good. It was by far the best I’ve played in my career.”

Favre did this despite having biceps surgery in May and not joining the Vikings until Aug. 18, and playing for a coach (Brad Childress) who couldn’t begin to compare to Mike Holmgren or Mike McCarthy, and maybe not Mike Sherman.

Some in New York had written that Favre should do himself a favor and retire after 2008, when his successful first 11 games with the Jets (8-3, 94.1 passer rating) turned into a non-playoff skid (1-4, 55.2) due in part to his arm injury.

Look at the shell of a quarterback that Peyton Manning became last year at 39. No one could have foreseen Favre doing what he did at 40.

The following Sunday I walked around the French Quarter in New Orleans for a few hours before taking my second-row seat in the press box for the 5:45 p.m. kickoff. All things considered, it probably was the most fascinating game of my career.

It was the most passionate crowd I’ve ever witnessed, and I think it was the loudest, too. So many of those Packers-Vikings games at the Metrodome used to make my ears ring, but I distinctly remember saying to myself that night in New Orleans that it was a sporting event unlike any I had ever seen.

Saints fans are crazy, anyway. The beads and the “Who Dat” and the alcohol. This was just so over the top in every way imaginable.

The late start (and all-day partying) was one reason. So was the fact the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina had washed over 80% of the city four years earlier. More than that, this was for the Super Bowl, an event the Saints had hosted nine times but never played in.

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A record crowd of 71,276 made as much noise as any human assemblage probably could ever make. From the first play to the last, it was impossible to hear every time the Vikings huddled and snapped the ball.

By the next season, the press box would be moved almost to the very top of the stadium. From the old vantage point, I could look to my right directly into the adjacent upper deck.

I seldom observe the crowd, but in this case it was such a large part of the story. For these fans, just reaching the Super Bowl might have been more important than winning it. Anxiety was palpable. Many people never sat down.

The Fox telecast reveals a surreal din carrying over the voices of the broadcasters whenever it was Minnesota’s ball. Play after play, people stood and waved their arms and just plain screamed, as if in a frenzy.

It was madness, and into it stepped the marked man, Favre, who was trying to bring Minnesota its first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years.

For some reason, I filed away the play-by-play that I kept on yellow legal paper. When the Vikings won the toss and received, I wrote “Loud!” next to their first play. When Favre completed six of seven passes for 47 yards in an opening 80-yard touchdown drive, I scribbled in red ink, “What a statement.”

What we didn’t know then but know now is the culture of paying bounties that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was found to have instigated for several seasons. He was suspended indefinitely, and coach Sean Payton was banned for an entire season.

The Saints’ primary target, according to the NFL investigation, was Favre, of course. The league found evidence that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma had put a $10,000 bounty on Favre’s head.

Eight months later, Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune interviewed players and staffers who were in the room when Payton addressed the team on the night before the NFC title game.

“When you get older … you start thinking about your own mortality,” Payton said based on Duncan’s sources. “If it rains outside you might not go to the store, especially at night. You figure you’ll just wait it out.

“If we keep putting pressure on him (Sunday night) he’ll start being careful, he’ll start doing anything he can to avoid getting hit and he’ll make a mistake, I promise you. If we hit him for four quarters, he’ll turn into that old man who’s scared of the rain.”

For most of the game Favre was magnificent. Having witnessed all of his impatience and interceptions for so long, it was stunning to see him run the offense so efficiently despite the cauldron of venom and noise.

Williams ended up blitzing five or more on 59.2% of the Vikings’ pass plays, and 28.6% with six or more. Both of those numbers are unheard-of in the NFL. In a tape review this week, Favre was knocked down 11 times but wasn’t sacked.

Half a dozen of the hits were crushing. The NFL fined defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove a total of $25,000 for three separate illegal hits.

McCray delivered a smashing whack to Favre in the first quarter two steps after he handed off on a reverse. Twice in the first half, safety Darren Sharper charged from deep on seven-man pressures and buried Favre. Each time, Favre stepped into throws on third-and-long for completions worth 33 yards.

In the third quarter, Hargrove came free inside, enveloped Favre and body-slammed him. Referee Peter Morelli called a penalty.

Three plays later, McCray grabbed and twisted Favre by the ankles as nose tackle Remi Ayodele hit him high. Favre’s pass was intercepted by Vilma, who dropped his coverage on another receiver and ended up being in front of the right man.

Favre needed help getting up and then off the field. His left ankle, which was retaped, would require surgery in spring.

“The raw physical brutality was unprecedented in anything I had seen in my nine-year career,” Vikings backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels told MMQB a few days after the game. “By the fourth quarter (Favre) had a badly swollen left wrist, a deep scratch on his forehead, ribs that were in pain whenever he took a breath and a badly sprained ankle which easily could have been broken.”

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About 11 minutes remained when Favre threw late and incomplete for Sidney Rice. Fox’s Troy Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback, called it Favre’s first bad throw of the game.

His mobility severely impaired, Favre led a 62-yard drive to the Saints 10 where Bernard Berrian fumbled the ball away (one of Minnesota’s five turnovers). He came right back with a 57-yard touchdown drive to tie the score, 28-28.

Two passes by Favre for 30 yards followed by a 14-yard run put the Vikings at the 33 with 1 minute, 6 seconds left. Two rushes failed to gain, and Childress called his second timeout.

After Childress stood by listening on the headset and Bevell selected the play, running backs coach Eric Bieniemy sent out running back Chester Taylor and fullback Naufahu Tahi. Favre said the play in the huddle, then realized there were 12 men on the field and tried to get a timeout.

It was too late. The Vikings were penalized, meaning the 51-yard field goal attempt for Ryan Longwell was now beyond his range at 56.

Two members of the Vikings’ football staff have told me they would forgive Favre for what happened next but would never forgive Childress for the penalty, especially coming as it did after a timeout.

Anticipating an all-out blitz and man coverage from Williams, Bevell called a rollout with a flat receiver (Berrian) and a curl receiver (Visanthe Shiancoe). Vilma audibled to Cover 2 zone.

As Favre moved right, he removed his vision from Berrian, who was open in front of him for what probably would have been an eight-to-10-yard gain. Bad ankle or not, he probably could have kept it for about five.

Instead, Favre made one of his bone-headed passes, a toss back inside toward Rice that was intercepted by Tracy Porter.

The Saints won the toss, and then won in overtime on a field goal.

When Rosenfels walked over and sat next to him, Favre said, “I choked.”

It’s hardly revealing to say the night represented everything that was Favre’s career.

There are those who will never let Favre live down that pick. It was awful.

I’ll choose to remember the courageous Favre, on a bad wheel, looking to block on a running play and hurling his body to the ground trying to recover Percy Harvin’s fumble.

His slightly pigeon-toed, mincing steps that made the most dominant player on the field seem so harmless.

His sincerity and abiding sportsmanship when embracing Payton at midfield.

The Vikings always will revere Brett Favre, just as the Packers should and apparently now do. Celebrate his enshrinement. There never will be another player like him.

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