Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 19, 2010

Favre Sits, Three Seasons Too Late

The end was, as endings sometime are, rather anticlimactic. Brett Favre seemed to have spent almost this entire season nursing one serious injury or another. It started with a gimpy ankle, a product of the injury he suffered during last year’s NFC Championship game against New Orleans. In mid-October it was a flare-up of elbow tendinitis that nearly led him to sit out the game against the Cowboys. At the end of that month he was helped off the field after a nasty hit in the fourth quarter of a loss against the Patriots, and needed eight stitches in his chin. In between those two events he injured his ankle against Green Bay, and a subsequent examination revealed that he had two fractures in his foot. In short, it has seemed like week after week, the question has been, is this when the streak finally ends?

Last weekend, thanks to a severely sprained shoulder suffered the previous week against the Bills, the answer at last was yes. Favre was made inactive for last Monday night’s game against the Giants. After 297 consecutive regular season starts, Brett Favre did not lead his offense onto the field. He is again inactive for this Monday’s contest against the Bears, and as the Vikings’ lost season winds down, one can’t help but think that perhaps Favre has taken his last snap.

It is almost impossible to overstate how remarkable Favre’s consecutive starts record is. NFL football has become our homage to the ancient games of the Coliseum, and quarterbacks are subjected to much of the brutality dispensed by our modern gladiators. To have taken the field on September 27, 1992, and then to have done so every week until last Monday night required no small amount of luck. But it also required extraordinary resilience, dedication, determination, and a very, very high pain threshold. All the more so because throughout his career Favre has hardly been a patient, pocket-sitting quarterback. He’s always been inventive and daring and ready to scramble; putting himself in harm’s way all that more frequently.

Along the way Favre has set innumerable records that ensure his eventual place in the Hall of Fame. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 70,000 yards, the only one to throw more than 500 touchdowns, the only one to attempt more than 10,000 passes. He’s the only player to win the Most Valuable Player Award three consecutive times. He’s led his team to eight Division Championship games, five Conference Championship contests, and two Super Bowls.

But for all of his records and all of his greatness, can there be any doubt that Brett Favre’s legacy and reputation would be greater today if his consecutive starts streak had ended at 253? When he retired for the first time at a tearful press conference in March 2008, Favre was beloved in Green Bay and respected throughout the game.

But instead of going home to Mississippi and preparing a speech for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Favre became the Hamlet of the gridiron. Just four months after his tearful farewell he was publicly contemplating a return. So it has gone for three more years, with his annual retirement and subsequent change of heart becoming the stuff of parody.

He spent the 2008 season with the Jets. That started well enough but ended badly when New York lost four of their final five games to miss the playoffs. A hurt Favre threw just two touchdowns in those five games, against eight interceptions. For the 2008 season he had 22 of each, and a middling quarterback rating of 81.0.

One retirement pirouette later and Favre was wearing the purple and gold of the Minnesota Vikings. The move to a division rival of Green Bay enraged Packers’ fans who felt understandably spurned by their former idol.

This season, his second as a Viking, Favre’s performance was even worse than with the Jets. In twelve games he threw almost twice as many interceptions (18) as touchdowns (10), and his 69.6 quarterback rating was the lowest of his career.

Of course his fans will point to 2009, his first campaign as a Viking. At age 40 Favre did indeed enjoy a renaissance season, leading Minnesota all the way to the NFC title game. Favre was at his gunslinger best, throwing 33 TD’s and only 7 picks in the regular season; and posting both the highest completion percentage of 68.4 and the best passer rating at 107.2 of his career. But based on their opponents’ records the Vikings had the second easiest schedule in the entire NFL in 2009. Favre also had a healthy Adrian Peterson to lead Minnesota’s ground game. With opponents forced to respect Peterson’s running, Favre’s job as a passer became considerably easier.

Sandwiched between the mediocre performances of 2008 and 2010, Favre’s 2009 season seems to be the aberration. Even for Favre fans, the question has to be whether the joy of witnessing that season was worth the pain of watching an aging athlete in decline the year before and the year after. And of course, if Favre had stayed retired in the first place the NFL would not now be investigating allegations that he sent inappropriate text and voice mail messages to a woman reporter while he was with the Jets.

Brett Favre is certainly not the first great athlete to come back for one (or more) too many seasons. The history of sport is littered with such sad images; whether it’s Willie Mays stumbling around center field at Shea Stadium, or Michael Jordan throwing up clunkers for the Washington Wizards. Every great athlete possesses supreme self-confidence. All too often that ego leads the star to believe that he alone can defy the inevitable effects of the passage of time. Then too, there is the mighty roar of the fans, the adulation that accompanies greatness. Surely for many that must have an addictive power greater than any street narcotic. Rare is the star that can walk away from it all at the peak of his prowess. But that means that the end game is almost always painful to watch.

Favre likes to talk about his love of the game. The phrase is even on the masthead of his official website. Surely many other stars who also stayed too long convinced themselves that they too were playing not out of ego or for adulation but for the love of the game. In every case, both they and we would have been better off if they had minded that old cliché. The one about truly loving something, and letting go.

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