I hated seeing Donovan McNabb carted off the field with his third consecutive season-ending injury a few weeks back. Brilliant and high-character an athlete as he is, there comes a point where you start to think maybe a guy has seen his last full season of work. It is my natural disposition by upbringing and temperament to wish dread ill upon the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, Joe Frazier, Chuck Bednarik, Steve Carlton and basically everything sports-related on the New Jersey turnpike north of Washington, D.C. This protocol I pursue without guilt or discrimination, because I simply don't like Philadelphia and feel no further need to explain myself than that. Even despite this blinkered prejudice, I still admire McNabb for his courage, skill and charisma and the notion that at age 30 the physical toll of the game has likely rendered him a limping, scuttling shell of his former brilliance. But that is life in the NFL, and one gets accustomed to the implicit of transcendent but too short careers when watching this league.
And then there is Brett Favre — fifteen uninterrupted years of this high-wire, gunslinging nonsense, and maybe he'll play again next season. Of every player I have witnessed of legendary status, none rankles me as this man does. My distaste for his on-field comportment and persona is no doubt heightened by what I consider to be an unaccountably deferential attitude towards him in the sports media. Time and again the exact same analysts (ESPN's Sean Salisbury for instance) who wring their hands and work themselves into a fevered state of full scale indignation over undisciplined quarterback play seem suddenly amused and intoxicated by Favre's so called “sandlot” antics. When did Brett Favre receive special dispensation to run around like a disoriented acidhead and throw interceptions up for grabs with the casual assuredness of a man who can never lose his starting job for any reason?
Favre is a quintessential numbers hanger. To wit: last week in grinding out a 17-9 home win over atrocious Detroit Lions, Favre became the all time leader in NFL completions, passing Dan Marino. His stat line for the game, however, was 20-37 for 174 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions. Any other quarterback putting up numbers like these against one of the league's worst teams would be on the verge of being benched. For some reason Favre is lionized. The Packers are 6-8, out of the playoff hunt, and not as good as that record suggests. Should he elect to stick around another year, he will eventually pass Marino on the career touchdowns list, and probably come close to the passing yardage record as well. But the chances of the team being much improved seem remote. The competitive viability of the Packers is often cited as a matter of deep and abiding concern to Favre, mostly by the man himself, but there is little actual evidence to support this claim. Last year they went 4-12 last year as Favre threw a ludicrous twenty-nine interceptions. During the offseason he rung his hands Hamlet style about whether or not to retire for so absurdly long that the team was uncertain of whether or not they should build around him or acquire another quarterback. For a player coming off his worst season the protracted wait and see game felt comically self-indulgent. This wasn't Michael Jordan retiring for the first time after three straight championships, this was the supposed flagship of his franchise allowing his team to twist in the wind while he soaked in valedictory plaudits.
No NFL star in my recollections has ever had more excuses made for him than Brett Favre. It has become entirely commonplace to state that he has struggled and played poorly through no particular fault of his own, but instead owing to a particularly weak supporting cast around him. I see very little evidence to support this contention. Ahman Green has been a top-shelf NFL tailback for most of the past several years and has ably buttressed the Packers passing attack. Javon Walker, currently putting up enormous numbers for the Denver Broncos, was practically run out of town by Favre himself when the quarterback publicly intervened on the side of management during Walker's salary dispute with the Packers two years back. The undermining of Walker's position in the midst of his salary negotiation spoke to issues of both character and common sense where Favre is concerned. Given his status in Green Bay as a near deity, Favre almost certainly had to be aware that by terming Walker's holdout “selfish” in the media, he was essentially sealing the fate of this gifted young receiver with the team that drafted him. Provided an almost identical set of circumstances this past offseason in New England, Tom Brady publicly supported Deion Branch during his hold out, and in doing so redoubled his solidarity with teammates and potential free agent players around the league. Brady is not only a better quarterback, but a better, less centered individual to build a team around.
Favre has a reputation as a prolific winner, but has won just one championship and in the past several years has frequently performed astoundingly poorly in the playoffs. In a 2001 divisional playoff matchup with the St. Louis Rams, he managed to throw six interceptions in a single game- no small feat- as the Packers were blown out 45-17. I vividly recollect my astonishment at watching this performance- never had I seen so high profile a player so evidently unprepared for a big game. Rather than figure out what the Rams were doing on defense, he just kept throwing the ball to them and then shrugging off the field with an air of contented befuddlement. Thus commenced a pattern with which I have witnessed more and more throughout the years. Favre arrives for a game seemingly unprepared for and evidently unconcerned with the nature of the opposing defense he is facing. He runs around making poor decisions and turning the ball over, and as his team falls further and further behind, more and more praise is larded on the “gunslinger” by commentators for his senseless abandon. Absolutely everyone is given the blame for the team's failings besides Favre: teammates, coaches, referees, the Commissioner. Favre is photographed on the sidelines looking either galled and frustrated (which elicits praise for his grit and gamesmanship) or inexplicably delighted by his atrocious handiwork (evidence that he is still “a kid at heart” who “truly loves the game”). Witnessing this I often feel I have fallen through the looking glass, and that Favre is merely a character in some dream-world fantasia where nothing resembling normal reality applies. I wait and wait to stir from this bad dream, but always it's the same: Favre pretends to be sacked by Michael Strahan so that Strahan can break the single season record — a highly disturbing accommodation between two professional teams supposedly engaged in a pitched competitive battle — and the result is only back slapping and praise. Favre throws four picks in a home playoff loss against a mediocre Minnesota Vikings team in 2004, and the story becomes not this but a marginally scandalous celebration dance by Randy Moss.
The entire business is unaccountably bizarre and I don't know how much longer I can handle it. A 2005 poll of experts conducted by the Sporting News magazine chose Brett Favre as the fourth best quarterback of all time, behind only Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and John Elway. What?!! Fourth? Better than Troy Aikman, Dan Fouts, Steve Young, and Dan Marino? Better than Staubach and Bradshaw and Sonny Jurgenson? I wouldn't take Favre over Warren Moon or Jim Kelly. I wouldn't take him over Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Donovan McNabb. I mean, I don't want Favre on my team. I have felt this anxiety once before. In that case it was embodied in the figure I consider to be Favre's direct sports world antecedent: Nolan Ryan. Ryan was extraordinary physical talent who was capable on a given day of dominating a baseball game like no pitcher in history. His longevity, remarkable strike out total and seven no hitters provided the underpinnings of a mythic stature amongst many fans. However the fact is at the end of the day that Ryan was a very good, but not a great pitcher. For all of his physical attributes, he always walked too many batters and gave up too many big hits to anchor the pitching staff of a consistent winner. Over the course of a twenty seven year career, Ryan made it to the post season only five times, compiling a 1-2 record in seven starts. Just as no responsible baseball historian could possibly rank Ryan amongst the ten best pitchers of all time, I would contend that Favre belongs no where close this kind of consideration as an NFL quarterback. As with Ryan, it seems to me that a lot of this excessive praise has to do with a kind of good ole boy, “throwback” persona which is precisely the kind of thing which causes me to wake up in hives. Will some please tell me why Michael Vick's scrambling ability and capacity to improvise constitutes an undisciplined recklessness, while in Favre's case this is a delightful manifestation of his old fashioned “sandlot” style love of the game?! Better still, just wake me when it's over...