Brett Favre: From 'can't play' to Canton
For many, the story of Brett Favre’s legendary career with the Green Bay Packers began Sept. 20, 1992.
That was the day Favre took over as quarterback for injured Don Majkowski and, with an astounding mix of spectacular playmaking and mind-boggling blunders, led the Packers to an improbable 24-23 comeback win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field.
The details of that day and Favre’s career thereafter are common knowledge among the Packers and their fans. Those stories will be told again and again in the lead-up to Saturday, when Favre will receive the game’s ultimate individual honor with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
But the ground is less familiar, at least among Packers’ followers, regarding the 17 months of Favre’s NFL career that led to him taking over for Majkowski that day.
The broad brushstrokes are known — a lost rookie season in Atlanta; Packers general manager Ron Wolf regarding him as the best player in the 1991 draft and ultimately giving up a first-round draft pick to obtain Favre.
But those 17 months are a story in themselves. This is an oral history of that time based on interviews with several principal characters from Favre’s rookie season in Atlanta and first several months with the Packers after Wolf acquired him on Feb. 11, 1992.
Mike Holmgren was the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 1991 and conducted Favre’s campus workout before the 1991 draft with scouts from 15 to 20 NFL teams in attendance.
Holmgren: "After the workout (Favre) and I went over and sat for a while on a bench, and we chatted. He denies he said this, but he said it. I just wanted to get a little feel for him, ‘Good workout, how you doin’?’ Right away you enjoy him. ‘OK now, this is a big day for you, you’re working out, it’s about your future, it’s going to be good. What do you have planned for the rest of the day?’ (Favre answers), ‘We’re going to go catfishing and drink some beer.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘That’s the last thing you’d tell me. Why would you? …’ but I kind of chuckled and I said, ‘OK, be careful and whatever, nice meeting you.’ … I thought to myself, ‘This guy’s a character. I think I really like him, but, whoa, boy, that’s a really strange thing to say in an interview. ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go out drinking with the guys tonight.’"
Chris Miller had been the Falcons’ quarterback for three years but had concussion issues heading into the 1991 draft. Ken Herock, the Falcons’ GM, selected Favre with the sixth pick of the second round (No. 33 overall). The Falcons also had two first-round picks that year and selected Nebraska defensive back Bruce Pickens at No. 3 overall and Colorado receiver Mike Pritchard at No. 13. Herock had Favre rated as the draft’s No. 1 quarterback, though Dan McGwire (No. 16 overall) and Todd Marinovich (No. 24) went ahead of him.
Herock: "All of a sudden when I’m going to pick (Favre), and I’m trying to trade up (to get him earlier), I could sense something was going on, (coach Jerry Glanville) wasn’t happy I was trying to trade up. … We never got the trade, but I got (Favre) in the second round. I was so glad he’d come to us I sat up and said, ‘Hey, here’s our guy, he came to us.’ … I said, ‘Jerry, we’ve got this guy.’ Out of his mouth, out of nowhere, comes, ‘Browning Nagle.’ He said, ‘Well, I think (Louisville quarterback) Browning Nagle is better.’ I’m thinking to myself, why in the (expletive) didn’t you tell me this three weeks ago? Now I don’t know what the hell to do. We have 15 minutes and I’m thinking, ‘Coach doesn’t even want him.’ Usually when you have that it doesn’t work out. … So I sat down for about four or five minutes, until the pick was ready to be made. I said, ‘I’ve got to go with this player, I think he’s a great player, and I’m not going to pass on him.’ The room’s silent. Everybody knows the coach didn’t want that pick."
Glanville, the Falcons’ coach from 1990-93: "If Kenny Herock’s lips are moving he’s lying. … We liked Favre as the No. 1 quarterback (in the draft). Didn’t want any other quarterback than him. But I had a good quarterback, and I didn’t want to have another quarterback and not have a slot wide receiver. So I told (Herock) I didn’t want to take Favre in the first round because I had to get Pritchard from Colorado."
June Jones, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator at the time: "(The coaching staff) graded Nagle higher just from an accuracy standpoint. … Browning had a big arm, a lot of accuracy, looked more like an NFL (quarterback), where Brett was kind of, play-action passes, things break down (you just) compete, make things happen, make big plays. Well, guess what? He did that in Green Bay, too."
Taylor Smith, the Falcons’ owner at the time: "Jerry (Glanville) has the way of saying some things after the fact, after you draft somebody. I don’t know if he was as much for drafting a quarterback as the organization, we were, at the time."
Herock: "From that day on it was done. (Favre) was Jerry’s buffoon. (Glanville) made a lot of (disparaging) remarks ... ‘Everybody would have to be hurt before I’d put you in a game,’ ridiculous statements about him. I can remember we were going to play L.A. at the old Anaheim stadium, I’m down there for the pregame on Saturday, and he’s making a mockery of (Favre) there. Jerry says, ‘OK, gunslinger, let’s see if you can hit that press box up there.’ It’s a really far throw. He throws the ball and hits the press box. (Glanville) said, ‘That’s about the only thing you’ll hit.’ Things like that."
Favre says Glanville called him “Mississippi.”
Favre: "He never called me by my name. Never. … June Jones was the quarterback coach and was awesome, he was incredible. The rest of the guys, not all, but most of the coaches kind of adopt the mentality of the head coach or the leader of the company. If he picks on guys, you kind of pick. You laugh at his jokes, all that stuff. A bulk of the players were that way. If (Glanville) would say something about me, they’d laugh. … They were big into — it was Jerry’s idea — into harassing or hazing or whatever, the rookies. They tried to shave my head, my equipment was thrown in the shower every day. When I got out of practice my street clothes were in the shower soaking wet. (Crap) like that every day. I couldn’t wait to get out of there."
Herock: "I have to say this: As the season went on, Favre didn’t help the cause. Favre was overweight, (the coaches) said he couldn’t run the scout team, he was sleeping in meetings, he was drinking (at night). I couldn’t defend him. I’d come in and hear all these stories and Favre would come up to my office and say, ‘I’m better than any of these damn quarterbacks you’ve got here, when in the hell are you going to play me?’ I’m thinking at that time, ‘To be saying this? You can’t run the damn scout team.’ But he was right, he was better than all these guys."
Glanville: "If (Favre) thought his position coach was mad at him, he’s right. He was the only guy sleeping in the meetings. His head coach got mad at him because he couldn’t make it to the team picture (after a night of partying). I coached since 1964, and he’s the only guy I ever coached that missed the team picture. So if he thought people got mad at him, they did. But nobody else I ever coached missed the team picture. Anybody else that falls asleep during a preparation meeting, we didn’t wake 'em up with a hug and a kiss. We actually had accountability for each person."
Favre: "I think my attitude — I had no intentions of missing the picture, but my diligence was not where it needed to be, and I was like, ‘If that’s the way they’re going to...' I wasn’t like, ‘I’ll just miss meetings, I’ll just miss the picture,’ I was kind of like, ‘If they don’t care, I don’t care.’ That’s a terrible way to look at it, but I kind of fell into that rut."
Herock: "The end of the season rolls around, you know how you have your evaluations? We go through the evaluations of the (coaching) staff, and I get a, ‘He can’t play’ on him. ‘He can’t play?’ ‘No, he’s not good enough, he can’t run this offense, he’s just not dedicated.’ And I can’t really defend him other than that I knew what a great player he was in college and what I expected him to be. … I’m thinking, ‘How the hell did I miss all this? I know when I researched him I didn’t have any of these issues with the coaches at Southern Miss."
Before the end of training camp, the coaches were so down on Favre that Herock traded for Billy Joe Tolliver to be the No. 2 quarterback, and Favre was demoted to No. 3 for the season. Miller, 26 at the time, went to the Pro Bowl. After the season Herock called a meeting with Glanville, Jones and Smith to discuss what to do about Favre.
Herock: "I said, ‘I want you (coaches) to tell the owner what you guys think of this player right now.’ And they told him, ‘He can’t play.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t, OK, agree with him, (but) for the better of the team, he can’t play, we’ll get rid of him.’ I said, ‘I think I can get a (first-round pick).’ And out of the mouth of Jerry Glanville comes, ‘You’ve got to be a genius if you can do that.’"
Glanville: "Whatever meeting (Herock) is talking about, I missed it. I was shocked when (Favre) was traded. Now, was I in love with him? No. But I did not know he was being traded."
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Smith: "Ken brought everybody in there. … I remember that meeting, I didn’t think we’d get a No. 1 pick for him. … (The coaches) didn’t see (Favre) at that point beating out Chris Miller. Chris had played well, and if we could get a first-round pick that would be a better way to go. I’ve heard this a few times — I think a few of these guys forget exactly what happened. Nobody said he couldn’t play. They just felt like it was a good opportunity if we could get a first-round pick for him."
Wolf and Herock were close friends dating to their years together as scouts and front-office executives with the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wolf’s first game as Packers GM in late ’91 was against Atlanta, and in the press box before that game Herock told him that if he wanted to watch Favre throw he’d have to do it during early warmups.
Wolf: "He didn’t say they were going to trade him, but if he’s telling me if I want to see him throw — he knew the regard I had for him."
Wolf approached Holmgren in early February about possibly trading for Favre. The Packers had the Nos. 5 and 17 picks in the first round in ’92 and ended up sending the second of those to the Falcons for Favre on Feb. 11, 1992.
Herock: "I always look back in history about players, what happened, ‘Why did they get rid of this guy?’ and I always thought of Johnny Unitas with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were losing, and they cut Johnny Unitas. I always thought to myself, ‘How could you cut Johnny Unitas? How could anybody be that dumb? What did they miss?’ I said, ‘I hope I never make a mistake like that.’ When I was doing this Favre thing I thought, ‘I hope I’m not making a Johnny Unitas mistake,’ which I did. It was as monumental."
Holmgren: "(Wolf) told me what his experience was, he thought (Favre) was the best player in the (’91) draft. Ron had no doubt that we should do this. The more we talked about it — we talked about it for about a week if I remember correctly, then Ron would go, ‘Come in here, let’s look at the (roster) board here. Look at the quarterbacks. We had a free agent, we had an eighth-round pick. He goes, ‘Nobody wins with — historically this is hard to do unless you get a (quarterback) up there high.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I could see he wanted to do this, I trusted him. I liked Brett enough. In my report I said, skill-wise he’s off the charts. I’m not sure if he’s disciplined enough to be super effective in our offense, because our offense is not too much freelancing. But I can help him do that."
Jon Gruden was the Packers’ 28-year-old offensive quality control coach when they acquired Favre: "I remember all of (the assistant coaches) looking around the (meeting) room at each other going, ‘We gave up a first-round pick for Brett Favre?’"
When Favre arrived in Green Bay the first time that offseason, Gruden picked him up at the airport.
Gruden: "He was a wild horse rider and a hell-raiser. He was a lot of fun. He was a big, talented, tough, athletic, rocket-armed guy that I had questions, could he really learn this intricate, Bill Walsh-Mike Holmgren West Coast system that I saw Joe Montana and Steve Young learn in San Francisco? Calling plays at that time was a hell of a lot more difficult than it is now. Some of these (quarterbacks) don’t even have to call plays anymore, don’t have to memorize formations. They have a walkie-talkie telling them what to do. I had reservations, can this guy really say ‘red-left-switch-D-right-sprint-right-DU-corner-halfback-flat,’ then run ‘brown-right-slot-A-right-215-Y-shallow-cross,' then audible to 324 thunder? I mean, it was tough. But he had Holmgren. Holmgren was arguably the best offensive guy in the world at that time. … It helped that Holmgren was about 6-foot-7 and wasn’t messin’ around. I think Brett would tell you Mike was the perfect guy for him at that point in his life."
One of the Packers’ doctors failed Favre on his physical because of a hip injury sustained in the East-West Shrine Game. Before the draft some teams downgraded him because they thought the hip might be degenerative.
Wolf: “There was a (team doctor) in Milwaukee whose name I don’t remember, and (Packers team doctor) Pat McKenzie. It just so happened that Pat McKenzie did not see Brett (for his physical), the physician in Milwaukee did. What happened was, (the doctor) misread the X-ray. McKenzie had the X-rays from the (NFL scouting) combine. I’m sitting there and here comes (the medical staff) telling me I have to ship him back, he failed the physical. I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes.’ … I called Dr. McKenzie, asked him how (Favre) failed the physical, and that’s when I found out (McKenzie) wasn’t involved. He explained to me (Favre) shouldn’t fail the physical because (McKenzie) had done the case study on him in Indianapolis. That’s all I needed to hear."
Favre, Mark Chmura and Frank Winters, later known as the Three Amigos, met for the first time at a dining table at the team’s post-draft minicamp. Winters had just been signed as a Plan B free agent, and Chmura was a sixth-round draft pick.
Chmura: "Frank asked Brett what position he played, because Brett was about 245 (pounds). Brett’s like, ‘Quarterback.’ Frank’s like, ‘Huh? Sure you’re not a linebacker?’ (Favre) was just a goof. Fun-loving guy, loved to make light of things and screw around during practice."
Holmgren, on Favre that offseason: "He was big and strong and threw the ball well and threw it hard, could run. … Plus, he’s really likable. I told him when he went into the (Packers) Hall of Fame and any time I see him, he was as enjoyable a guy to coach as any guy I’ve been around. Personality-wise, I loved him. Now, I worried about him, because he was kind of a wild child. But as far as just the football stuff, you couldn’t ask for a better setup. I enjoyed him immensely. Now, I felt he had to really get serious about his craft, about his profession, before he could really, really reach his potential."
Chmura: "Since Day 1, (Favre) always had a smile on his face, always loved to practice, always loved to compete, and was great around the guys. It was kind of funny, Majik was kind of the guy at the time, but Majik was more of a pretty boy, and Brett would rather hang out with the offensive linemen, the big guys, than he would the skill position. Him and Majik got (along) together, but they were two different personalities. Majik liked to dress up, and Brett wore the same clothes for a week."
Gruden on seeing Favre on the practice field that offseason: "You should see this guy throw the ball. He was like Nolan Ryan or Goose Gossage falling off the mound. Every pass he threw he was trying to throw it right through the receiver’s body, and he had success with a couple guys. It was amazing. He wasn’t playing quarterback, he was throwin’ javelins. His fundamentals were a little different than (Joe) Montana’s, let’s put it that way."
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Safety LeRoy Butler, who was entering his third NFL season at the time: "When he came into the locker room — it was Don Majkowski’s team — you could see (Favre) was just champing at the bit to get a chance. It seemed like, ‘I can’t wait to unleash this power.'"
In late June, between the end of the offseason minicamps and start of training camp, Favre and teammate Esera Tuaolo made big news when they were arrested for getting in a bar fight in Mississippi.
Holmgren: "I talked immediately to both his dad and Brett on the phone, saying, ‘I will not tolerate this stuff. You’re going to have a very, very short lifespan with me.’ Then he swore it was not a — he kind of explained what happened. But other than that, I really didn’t know what a wild stallion he really was until I got a hold of him."
Chmura: "Big, huge news. I think everyone had the same feeling, ‘I really like this guy.’ The coaches didn’t like it, but the players are like, especially the O-line, the bigger guys and the tight ends, ‘We really like this guy. He’s willing to mix it up. He’s our type of guy.'"
In training camp, Majkowski held the starting job
Butler: "The first thing I thought (about Favre) was, ‘This guy’s got guts enough to make every throw and has the guts to live with the results.' West Coast offense, remember, that’s all dink and dunk, take your time, be precise. Brett wanted to throw it between the linebacker, over a safety and inside of a corner, ‘I can make that throw.’ He’d try to make these throws in practice, and I’d think, ‘He’s OK with the result. He’s either going to be a great quarterback or he’s gonna be out of the league. There’s no in between.’"
Chmura: "(Favre) loved competition. He loved seven-on-seven, he loved team (drills). He didn’t so much like the individual work, which he needed a lot of early on in his career. But when it got into a team situation or seven-on-seven, any time there was competition he stepped up and he loved it, and he treated it like a game. He hated to lose."
Holmgren: "Brett, wasn’t quite ready to hand him the football yet (at the end of camp). But eventually it was going to happen. I didn’t think it was going to happen as soon as it happened. But Don got hurt (against the Bengals), and Brett had to play, and when he played you could see he made plays a lot of guys can’t make, and he’d do something crazy, silly. Then you have to say, ‘OK, this is really good; this you can’t do.’ We’d have those conversations."
The Packers lost their first two regular-season games, 23-20 against Minnesota and 31-3 at Tampa Bay. Favre made his Packers debut in mop-up duty against the Buccaneers. The Bengals game was the next week.
Holmgren: "All the quarterbacks I ever coached, you have to approach it a certain way, you have to study more than anybody on the team. So I assumed (Favre) did that. Then when he had to play in those early games it became pretty apparent he didn’t study enough. But he was also new to the system. I could see he needed to kinda change how he studied and how he prepared."
Chmura: "I could tell there was something special about him, (but) I didn’t think he’d have the success as fast as he did. It really started with the Cincinnati game with the (game-winning) long pass to Kitrick Taylor. I think we all thought, you know what? This guy’s a little bit different. We’re just going to have to learn to take the bad with the good."
Smith: "It will be on our tombstone here in Atlanta. The ones who traded Brett Favre."
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