Brett Favre in 6 signature plays
In Brett Favre's 16 years as Green Bay Packers quarterback, his most impressive display of arm strength was a throw that probably nobody remembers.
In the Packers' routine 24-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field on Dec. 3, 1995, Favre threw maybe the hardest pass that his quarterbacks coach at the time, Steve Mariucci, has ever seen.
The play is on YouTube, about 2 minutes, 55 seconds into a video tagged "Brett F@vre Touchdowns 1995 Part 2," and it's worth a look.
The Packers had the ball at Cincinnati's 12. Favre dropped back, then stepped into a laser throw to receiver Mark Ingram about 3 yards in the end zone. Ingram had three Bengals between him and the ball, yet the throw was so hard that none could react fast enough to even graze it.
"I think it went through three defenders, through their bodies, and it stuck on Mark's ribs in the end zone," said Mariucci, the current NFL Network analyst who was in his last season as the Packers' quarterbacks coach in '95.
"It was like, how did he ever get that in there? It was impossible. He threw it so hard. It was a regular touchdown pass in his career that nobody cared about. … Nobody else is going to remember that play except the guys on the field. No way he should have thrown it, no way. It should have been intercepted by all kinds of guys."
Favre brought several standout traits to the quarterback position, and arm strength was one of them. Mike Holmgren, his coach for his first seven years with the Packers, said Favre had the liveliest arm of any quarterback he ever coached or played with.
But Favre brought more: great body strength, unrivaled toughness, a hyper-competitive spirit, football instincts and a gunslinger mentality that meant taking the bad with the good.
That touchdown to Ingram was maybe the best illustration of pure arm strength, even if hardly anyone remembers it.
But Favre had other plays that can be better characterized not just as illustrations of a quality, but as signature plays. That is, plays that showed who he was and what he brought to the Packers as the key figure who revived the franchise in the 1990s after the 21/2 mostly dreadful decades that followed the Lombardi era.
Here's a look at what I consider five more signature moments for Favre:
The first is the play that started it all in Week 3 of the 1992 season: Favre's stunning, game-winning 35-yard touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor that beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the final seconds.
The play was emblematic of Favre's early years. It showed his raw passing talent and will to win, and came amidst the on-field chaos that often marked his first few seasons.
The throw itself was on a line, but what stood out was the subtle play Favre made with his eyes and pump fake on a day when he was thrown into the game as a clueless backup after Don Majkowski's ankle injury. Favre probably unwittingly set up the Bengals all game with mistake after mistake. Their safeties no doubt assumed he was incapable of looking or pump-faking them off a receiver, especially with the game on the line.
But there it was with 19 seconds to play and the Packers trailing 23-17: Holmgren called an all-go, where all four receivers run straight down the field. Favre looked down the middle, pump-faked, then turned to his right and threw a rope to Taylor for the touchdown that changed the Packers' franchise.
"During the game there were things that happened out there I'd never seen before, I'd never coached," Holmgren said in a recent interview. "He was flying out there by the seat of his pants. I think he'd admit to that. But when it came to that particular throw — actually the last couple throws of that game were remarkable for a young guy. And it won the game."
Mariucci described that game as a microcosm of Favre's career.
"I'm in the (coaches) box, Mike goes, 'All right, let's get Brett in. Is he ready?' " Mariucci said. "I mean, good God, I've got my fingers crossed. He was very underprepared for that. But in that game, he threw some nice balls, he did some crazy things, he threw interceptions, he audibled incorrectly. He did some great things, then awful things, then, 'What is he doing?' 'I don't know.' … Everything spectacular to awful to lucky presented itself on that day."
Said Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who was tight ends coach at the time and later Favre's quarterbacks coach: "That play kind of summed up what he was. He got thrown in, 'Go win the game.' 'OK, I know how to do that. Here we go.' Boom."
During the Packers' final timeout against Atlanta in the second-to-last game of the 1994 season, Holmgren's first words to Favre were that he could not run on the next play.
There were only 21 seconds left, the Packers had the ball at Atlanta's 9-yard line and trailed 17-14. If Favre ran and was tackled in bounds, the clock would run out before the Packers could get their field-goal unit on the field or even run a final play.
So what did Favre do after taking the snap, then breaking the pocket to his right?
"I'm going to get fired," Mariucci remembers thinking. "I was up in the box with (offensive coordinator) Sherm Lewis, 'No, no, throw it! He's running! … Oh my God!"
Favre barely beat Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith to the edge just inside the 10, turned upfield, then dived from the 3 and barely made it into the end zone as he was tackled. The Packers had clinched a playoff spot in their final game at Milwaukee County Stadium.
Amidst the euphoria on the Packers' sideline, Holmgren approached Favre.
"I go, 'Do you remember what I told you when you went out there?' " Holmgren said. "I was happy, we scored. But he goes, 'I knew I could make it.' I go, 'OK, yeah.'
"That was typical of how he played the game. There wasn't a lot of fear involved of bad things happening. If in his mind he thought he could do that, whether it be that or a particular throw, he'd unleash it."
The play call was 72 shallow X cross. Favre looked for tight end Mark Chmura running a quick post, but he wasn't open so Favre broke the pocket.
"If he was a foot shorter we lose, and that was to go to the playoffs," Mariucci said. "That was Brett Favre doing something he probably shouldn't have done, and he got away with it again. He made a great play out of nothing."
The play that best illustrates Favre's combination of gunslinger mentality, exceptional arm strength and knack for the spectacular was his 40-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe that won the Packers' first playoff game of the Favre era, in the 1993 season.
It came a week after he'd thrown four interceptions in a loss at the same venue (Pontiac Silverdome) to the same Detroit Lions. This time, the Packers were down 24-21 with barely more than a minute left and looking for the field goal that would send the game into overtime.
On second-and-5 from Detroit's 40, Holmgren called a safe double square out trying to pick up the first down and get out of bounds. But after dropping back, Favre bolted the pocket to his left despite not facing any pressure. When he got outside the hash mark, he turned, wheeled and threw a bomb against his body and across the field to Sharpe, who caught the ball in the back right corner of the end zone for the game-winning score.
"He had (the out pattern) open," Holmgren said, "but then he started scrambling around and I thought, 'Oh boy,' a little bit like the (Atlanta) thing. Then he just stops and throws this pass, and Sharpe got behind the defense and we scored. It happened a few times, and I shake my head, 'one, why did he do it? and two, how did he do it?' He had a gift for that."
The ball traveled probably 70 yards in the air.
"His feet could be completely wrong," Reid said, "his arm could be at the most bizarre angles, and he could still throw it far and he could still throw it accurately. That was the epitome of that. Not many people can chuck that ball that far going the opposite direction."
The next day just before the quarterbacks met to watch the game video, Mariucci congratulated Favre on the winning play, then asked why he broke the pocket when he wasn't pressured.
"He goes, 'I like it out there,' " Mariucci said. "I like it out there? He took off to buy some time so he could see a little better and just sail one, and it all worked out. That's what happened with him sometimes. He did some unorthodox things that worked out. He did some unorthodox things that didn't work out, too."
This isn't a list of only best plays but of signature or exemplative plays, and you can't do Favre's without including an interception.
Favre might have made more spectacular plays than any great quarterback in NFL history, but he probably had more incomprehensible ones than any of them as well. One with the Packers that stands out, even more than his interception in overtime against the New York Giants in the NFC championship game in the 2007 season, was the deep shot he took against the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs four years earlier.
On the Packers' first offensive play of overtime, the Eagles ran a cornerback blitz. When Favre saw the extra rusher coming from his front side, he heaved a jump ball-type throw off his back foot to the receiver on that side, Javon Walker. But Walker was double-covered by two defensive backs who were deeper downfield than he was. Safety Brian Dawkins caught the overthrow and set up the Eagles for the game-winning field goal.
"That was a gift he gave us," Reid said. "Sometimes that happens."
Said Holmgren: "Every once in awhile — this is one of the reasons he was great, he believed he could make that throw. He believed he could make throws that other guys wouldn't even try. … You never wanted to take all of that away from him, because he made a lot of them. But once in awhile it got him, it bit him."
Mariucci said that when he thinks of that interception, he also thinks of Favre's shot plays that worked, such as his 82-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings on the first play in overtime of the Packers' win at Denver in 2007.
"He was a gunslinger, and he was a risk taker," Mariucci said. "He wasn't going to check it down as often as he should. So you live by the sword, you die the sword sometimes."
Finally, the play that maybe best defined Favre was an incompletion in a Week 2 game in 1998 at Lambeau Field against Tampa Bay.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Packers leading 16-0, Favre rolled to his right but was cut off by defensive lineman Chidi Ahanotu. Favre stopped and stepped inside Ahanotu, and as he planted to throw, defensive end Regan Upshaw flew in from behind and blasted him in the side and back. The hellacious shot caused Favre's head to snap back before Upshaw drove him into the ground. It was perhaps the hardest hit Favre took in his career.
The crowd at Lambeau audibly gasped, but as soon as Favre hit the ground he popped back up like an inflatable punching bag, swatted Upshaw on the side of the helmet and started jawing.
"Maybe the hardest hit I've ever seen a quarterback take," Reid said. "He's literally looking out his ear hole. He bounces up, straightens out his helmet, slaps (Upshaw) upside the head and said, ''Is that all you got?' and kind of laughs. I'm going, 'OK, you are a sick human being.' "
It was the quintessential display of Favre's toughness and competitiveness. Also, two plays later he threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman to put away the game.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, somebody killed him!' " Ahanotu said in a recent interview. "It looked like he got chopped in half. Then he just popped back up. I swear to you my mouth was to the ground. At that point I knew he was Superman.
"I knew he was a super hero, and I loved playing against Brett — I tell everybody to this day, 'That's my favorite quarterback ever.' I always knew he was a super hero, but that day he was Superman."
Ahanotu calls it the biggest hit he witnessed in his 12-year career. When the Buccaneers' defensive players watched the videotape of the game the next week, they did something normally reserved for their good plays: they rewound and watched it again and again.
"Just, wow, that's a football player," Ahanotu said. "… And he just bounced up. You've got to be kidding me. It was so amazing."
— firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.