There were two sure things about being Brett Favre’s backup quarterback with the Green Bay Packers.
One, you were never going to start a game, and two, there’d rarely be a dull moment on the job.
“It was really fun,” said Matt Hasselbeck, who was a Favre backup as a member of the practice squad and regular roster from 1998-2000. “They were paying me. I felt like I should have been paying them for what I was learning, No. 1, and No. 2, just from straight entertainment value.”
Favre, who barring some kind of natural disaster will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, came to the Packers as the rawest of young colts in 1992. He knew remarkably little about the details of playing professional football but produced early in his career through talent, instincts, toughness and competitiveness.
And especially in those early years, another of Favre’s traits showed through that — as unlikely as it might have seemed at the time — played a role in his success and longevity: His ability to stay loose and have fun in the NFL pressure cooker. Usually he did it intentionally, but not always.
Ty Detmer, a Favre backup from 1992-95, relays an oft-told story from a meeting early in the ’92 season, sometime after Favre had replaced Don Majkowski as the starter in Week 3. Tom Lovat, the Packers’ offensive line coach at the time, was going over an opponent’s blitz tendencies in its nickel defense. Favre leaned toward Detmer and asked what a nickel defense was.
Detmer assumed Favre was joking – it’s Football 101 – then realized he wasn’t. He told Favre it meant the defense replaced a linebacker with a defensive back and was called nickel because there are five defensive backs.
“Is that it?” Favre answered. “That ain’t no big deal.”
It seems impossible that even a rookie NFL quarterback (Favre was in his second season) wouldn’t know a nickel defense. Surely Favre had faced nickel defenses in college at Southern Mississippi.
“I’m sure they had. They also faced one-techniques and three-techniques,” said Detmer, using standard football idiom for defensive linemen based on where they line up. “He didn’t know what they were, either. That’s pretty good.”
Hasselbeck also knows the nickel story even though the Packers didn’t draft him until 1998, three years after Detmer’s departure. Along with seeing the humor, he sees a great lesson.
“Quarterbacks today and coaches especially want to get all technical and run down the percentages,” he said. “Like, 36.2 percent of the time they’re going to bring a pressure off the weak side. Brett was kind of like, 'Yeah, so?' … There’s some value in (thinking like) that. Sometimes you just have to go out and play ball.”
Said Detmer: “He was just a kid that called the play and ran it and made it work. Just one of those kind of guys.”
Hasselbeck characterized Favre as a natural leader who often took the opposite outlook of the coaching staff. When the coaches were stiff and tight, Favre was loose. When they were loose, Favre seemed to carry the world on his shoulders.
Mostly, though, he was loose, uncommonly so. In meetings, he entertained himself with pranks and all kinds of foolishness. For instance, he usually wore flip-flops and would use his incredible toe dexterity to pinch his backups when they weren’t looking.
“His toes are like fingers and his feet are like hands,” Hasselbeck said. “He’d pinch me in the back of my neck like I could pinch someone with my thumb and pointer finger. He could pinch with his big toe and his second toe. The guy is a freak of nature. That kind of stuff.”
Favre was also less wittingly entertaining. In film sessions early in Favre’s career, his first quarterbacks coach with the Packers, Steve Mariucci, continually was on Favre about throwing risky passes. Finally, in one meeting Detmer said, “You’re beating a dead horse.” In the meeting room the next day Mariucci had taped up a picture of a dead horse, and for the rest of the year, rather than tell Favre that a pass was too risky, he’d just point to the photo.
And in 1993, a season in which Favre led the league in interceptions, Mariucci read the quarterbacks a letter from a fan saying Favre’s unwillingness to throw away the ball was preventing the fan from getting into the “Holy Family Name Club.” They were never sure what he meant but assumed that the fan’s swearing at the TV after Favre interceptions was keeping him out of some club.
So Mariucci started regularly running a drill he renamed “The Holy Family Name Club,” where the quarterbacks practiced scrambling and then throwing the ball away.
“For the normal guy, a four- or five-year veteran would have been like, 'Really, I’ve got to throw the ball out of bounds here to no one, then run and go get it?’ Detmer said. “But Brett, you had to drill those to get through his head. ‘OK, I see now.’
“It was probably a drill Mooch had already done with (other) people, but we did it more than any other place I’d ever been until (Favre) started getting the idea: throw the ball away.”
In their short service with the Packers — usually anywhere from two to four years — Favre’s backups received a well-rounded education about quarterback play, both what to do and what not to do. Hasselbeck said that then-quarterbacks coach Andy Reid in their first meeting told him not to emulate Favre’s decision making or throwing mechanics, but his intangibles.
“What you want to study is how he is in the huddle,” Hasselbeck said. “How he treats people in the building, how he can intimidate the opponent without saying a word. He’s a leader. He probably never read a book on leadership. It just came to him naturally.”
Observing Favre was the main way his understudies were going to learn their craft, because they sure weren’t going to learn it playing on game day. Favre famously never missed a start after becoming the Packers’ No. 1 in Week 3 of the 1992 season, and thereafter his Packers backups averaged only 17 pass attempts a year, primarily in mop-up work.
Now Favre is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in NFL history and is on the brink of being voted into the Hall of Fame. On Saturday, the Hall of Fame’s 46 selectors will meet in San Francisco to choose this year’s class from among 15 modern-era finalists, plus two seniors committee nominees and one contributors committee nominee.
Favre is one of the 15 modern-era finalists and a shoo-in to become the 24th modern-era quarterback to be voted into the hall (Kurt Warner also is among the 15 finalists, so that number could end up being 25).
Remarkably, Favre outlasted almost all his Packers backups. He has been retired only five years, yet his only backups with the team who still are playing are Hasselbeck and Aaron Rodgers. Hasselbeck, 40, just finished his 17th NFL season: an unusually long career, yet still three short of Favre.
“Maybe the most impressive athlete I’ve ever been around,” Hasselbeck said of Favre. “Just in terms of physicality, throwing ability, playmaking ability, the ability to play through pain, the ability to play really well through injury. Just ridiculously talented and gifted. But, yeah, a jokester.”
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