Renewed Hope for Favre and Green Bay
Where others see question marks, Brett Favre sees potential exclamation points for the Green Bay Packers this year.
Of course, Favre also thought he saw plenty of big plays developing on the field last year -- and 29 of them fizzled into interceptions.
Favre opened his 16th training camp by proclaiming this year’s Packers “the most talented team that I’ve been a part of,” a pronouncement as bold, improbable and perhaps ill-advised as many of his trademark off-balance touchdown passes.
The 36-year-old three-time MVP insists last year’s dismal season can be blamed mainly on injuries. This year, he says a mix of returning veterans, new free agents and young players can produce a quick turnaround.
“I really believe that we’re going to be better than people think we will,” Favre said.
But it wasn’t so long ago that Favre himself was one of the skeptics.
Favre had Cheesehead Nation on high alert for months in the off-season as he openly wondered whether the Packers had done enough improving to make another year of football worth his while.
After finally ending his retirement saga in April, Favre says he has put aside concerns about the Packers’ commitment to winning right away rather than rebuilding.
“All that is in the past now,” Favre said. “I’m here to play. I’m very satisfied with the decision I made.”
Favre, perhaps the most recognizable and popular player in the league over the last dozen years, has always represented hope for Packers fans. And if he’s optimistic about the team’s talent, maybe they should be, too -- even if Favre adds the important caveat that this is also the most inexperienced team he has ever played on.
Or maybe Favre just had to talk himself into believing the Packers got significantly better.
Green Bay finished 4-12 last year, its first losing season with Favre under center.
“I had spoiled myself because I thought that as long as I was the starting quarterback, we would always have a chance,” Favre said.
Favre explains he tried too hard to make up for the absences of injured teammates last year, throwing up his hands as he threw interception after interception.
What else was he supposed to do?
“We talked about it,” said veteran fullback William Henderson, one of the few remaining links to the team’s Super Bowl years. “It was tough to handle. He and I both had a lot of sleepless nights, coming in early, staying up late, simply because we weren’t used to that. Losing has never been a part of either of our histories.”
Favre insists if running backs Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport, wide receiver Javon Walker, tight end Bubba Franks and center Mike Flanagan had not missed significant time last season, it would have been a different story.
Still, the Packers fired coach Mike Sherman after the season.
Favre went into the off-season unsure about retirement and spent the next four months waffling about his football future. He made occasional public pronouncements that offered clues, but no firm answer, about his retirement plans.
The “Favre watch” grated on Packers fans -- even famous ones.
“I don’t think I was really getting that frustrated,” said NASCAR champion and Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth, who visited the team’s training camp on Wednesday. “But you know, you watch it, and you’re like, ‘What’s going to go on? What are they going to do? Man, I’ve got to know before the draft!’ You know how it is: The bigger fan you are, the more you watch all that stuff.”
Packers chairman Bob Harlan was flooded with calls and letters from fans expressing concern that General Manager Ted Thompson and new Coach Mike McCarthy were trying to chase off Favre and begin rebuilding. Harlan called many fans personally, assuring them that McCarthy and Thompson were in constant contact with Favre, but didn’t want to pressure him.
Harlan says he always figured Favre was coming back, because a “great competitor” wouldn’t retire if he thought he could still play.
Once Favre announced his return and the team signed free agent cornerback Charles Woodson, Harlan said, “It was like the phone company and the postal service went out of business at the same time. The calls stopped and the mail stopped.”
Despite poor play last season and the extended retirement decision, Harlan says he never sensed that fans were turning on Favre. Harlan attributes Favre’s popularity to a combination of performance and longevity.
“He’s spent the majority of his career with the Packers,” Harlan said. “That doesn’t happen to many players anymore. Those days are kind of gone.”
As a result, Harlan says, “Brett will be able to come back years and years from now and still be hailed as a national hero. He’ll get the same reception Bart Starr gets.”
Despite their small-market roots, the Packers have become one of the NFL’s most profitable franchises in recent years. Harlan says Favre’s popularity plays a significant role in the Packers’ financial success.
“Every place we go on the road, you see people in Packers jerseys,” Harlan said. “And nine of 10 of them are wearing No. 4.”
But for No. 4 to have on-field success in what could be his final season, he will be counting largely on a first-time head coach, two rookie guards and three running backs coming off season-ending injuries: Green, Davenport and Samkon Gado.
Walker was traded to Denver during the draft and no clear-cut No. 2 receiver has emerged, though Favre has praised rookie Greg Jennings.
Favre’s young line struggled in Saturday’s preseason game at San Diego, allowing sacks on back-to-back plays.
“I’m sure a lot of people watching that game the other night were saying, ‘Whew! I bet he’s thinking he’s better off at home,’ ” Favre said. “And that’s not true. I’m committed to this decision.”
But will he commit to playing within his new coach’s system?
McCarthy was Favre’s quarterbacks coach in Green Bay in 1999 before moving on to offensive coordinator stints in New Orleans and San Francisco.
Favre said this week that he and McCarthy are “on the same page.” But Favre also has said he didn’t plan to tone down his aggressive play, perhaps setting the stage for tension.
McCarthy bristled when Favre threw five interceptions in a practice session earlier this month. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said Favre will not be immune from criticism.
“If he makes [mistakes], he gets corrected, just like everybody else,” Jagodzinski said. “I mean, why wouldn’t you?”
Henderson said coaches are trying to take pressure off Favre.
“They came in saying, ‘Look, this is our show. Let us run it, and let us handle it our way,’ ” Henderson said. “And he’s accepted that. He’s just going out saying, ‘Look, I’m a quarterback and they’re running the show and we’re going to have some fun.’ ”
McCarthy has kept Favre on a “pitch count,” resting him regularly during off-season workouts and training camp. Favre says his arm feels “great,” but has described persistent soreness in his ankles, feet and hips that he says makes him feel “like I’ve got glass in my shoes.”
But the pain doesn’t show on the field.
“The pressure’s off him,” Henderson said. “He’s walking around like he can truly have fun again, and I’m loving it.”