I was at work when a friend told me that Brett Favre was retiring. My first instinct when someone drops a sports-related bombshell on me is to dart over to ESPN. Not this time.
“Great,” I responded. “Now I have to stay away from ESPN for a day or so.”
But a day was hardly long enough. ESPN, which went from being a cable backwater that was enjoyable for its subversive take on sports to a cable behemoth with a thoroughly obnoxious and establishmentarian take on sports, seemed to be in perpetual competition with Sports Illustrated to see which outlet could out-congratulate Brett Favre. Now that he was retiring, it was even more impossible to stomach.
Please don’t get it twisted: for a pretty good stretch in his career, Brett Favre was a monster. I still distinctly remember him backpedaling and stiff-arming Greg Lloyd — Greg Lloyd — who promptly fell into the ground, before throwing a laser — off his back foot — into the endzone.
And now he’s gone — finally, after the ritual vacillation, the press conferences about him weighing his options (seriously) — he’s finally gone.
But the in-career hagiography? The way sportswriters seemed to always let him off the hook for stuff for the kind of improvising on the fly that other quarterbacks (read: black quarterbacks) would get killed for? (Slate‘s Robert Weintraub makes the implict racial connection in the Favre adulation, too.)
But how good was Favre, really? Well, let’s look at the stats.
Most passing yards (61,655). Most wins by a QB (160). Most touchdowns (442). Most completed passes (5,377). First ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt.
But we need to talk about The Streak and the INTs. Brett Favre, is the NFL’s Iron Man — he started 275 consecutive games, going back to 1992. In a sport like professional football, where the average career is 3.2 years long, Favre’s run, through all kinds of injury is almost an eternity. But that run became almost an end to itself.
The Boston Globe‘s Bob Ryan:
But are you seriously trying to tell me he didn’t play on many occasions when he should not have? Are you seriously trying to tell me that it was always better for the Packers to have him in the lineup, rather than a healthy quarterback who might actually have thrown a better pass, or, more to the point, might not have thrown an ill-advised pass? Brett Favre came to feel that he was indispensable, and he wound up holding Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman, and Mike McCarthy hostage to The Streak. In these matters, great players are never saved from themselves, and it inevitably winds up hurting the team.
It is difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than this: Were not some of those 67 interceptions he threw between 2003 and 2005 the result of a physically impaired QB trying to make plays he just wasn’t physically capable of making? In evaluating a quarterback, don’t foolish picks matter?
Sixty-seven picks in three seasons? Gotdamn. In 2005 alone, he threw 29 picks. He was without question the worst quarterback in the league that year, and were he, say, Rex Grossman, he would have been benched. But he was Favre, and there was his streak to consider.
And so on.
“He’s just out there having fun!” I can hear John Madden saying after particularly ill-timed interception — which was always the way the Favre story was spun. “His infectious exuberance for the game is….infectiously exuberant!” (The comedians over on the OKP Sports board started calling Favre’s INTs ‘Having Funs’ as in, “Brett Favre was 12-25 passing for 210 yards and Had Fun three times yesterday.”)
During his reign as MVP for three years, he could make impossible plays just on the strength of his cartoonishly strong arm. But as he got older and battered, he couldn’t make those same ridiculous plays, but the Packers couldn’t adjust their game plan because of adoration for Favre and Favre’s own considerable self-regard. He’s the only quarterback to throw overtime picks in two different playoff games. Favre had become a huge liability.
But the public — especially the people of Green Bay — saw him differently. Favre unquestionably leveraged his living legend status to twist the Packers to his will. And he also used it to do Javon Walker extremely dirty. Walker, Favre’s number one receiver, was just off a career year in 2004, and asked the Packers to renegotiate his contract. As was mentioned before, football players have preciously short careers, and often end them with injuries from which they never recover. They need to max out their earnings in the brief window presented to them — after career years.* N.F.L. contracts are not guaranteed like basketball or baseball deals; a career-ending injury in the brutal sport of football could literally cost a player tens of millions of dollars in earnings.
Favre criticized Walker for holding out for a new deal, throwing out some clichéd nonsense about it being about the team. Players and teammates never come out on the side of management in cases like this, because they know what’s on the line. But Favre did here, and Favre’s opinion mattered a lot in how the contract talks were covered. Walker was promptly pilloried in the media.
So, of course, Walker comes in for camp. And in his very first game back, he proceeds to blow out his knee.
And let’s not forget the yearly circus that surrounded Favre’s decision to retire. If he hung it up and called it a career, the Packers could start building for the future. But if he stuck around, they had to put winning now ahead of starting over and developing young talent. Every year. He would call press conferences to let the public know that he hadn’t made up his mind. Seriously.
Where does he rank all-time? Is he better than Brady? No. Peyton Manning? No. Montana? No. Namath? No. Unitas? No. Marino? Hmmm. Elway? No. Hell, compare his best year (either 1995 or 1996) with Daunte Culpepper’s best year (2004). Pep finished with 800 more yards and a higher passer rating. But did Pep get that kind of love after his monster season (which was overshadowed by Peyton Manning’s insane year)? Does race not matter at all here?
Brett Favre may not even be in the top 10, and yet, with the possible exception of Brady, none of those cats got the constant love from sportswriters that Favre got — and arguably didn’t deserve.
*This is what people missed about the Eagles’ handling of the T.O. situation a few year ago. He’d put together one of the great receiving seasons of all time, broke his leg late in the regular season, and still made it back for the Super Bowl — in which he played his ass off. He was asking them to take his contract, which was backloaded, and move the bigger payday from the end of the contract up front. And given his numbers, it seemed like a reasonable request. The Eagles said no. The rest, if you’re an Eagles fan like myself, is history that hurts like a mug.