Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That Old Feeling

When you come to the last page, close the book.
-- Chinese proverb

As an unapologetic Packer fan having spent most of my life in the heart of Chicago Bear territory, I find myself very conflicted about how to feel right now. Obviously, Brett Favre has earned the right to decide whether or not he is retired. But is it fair to expect the Green Bay Packers to junk an entire offseason of planning and preparation because Favre is once again "getting the itch"?

Favre would do well to remember that sport is a funny, fickle, and ultimately cruel mistress. We tolerate its many whims, devastations, upheavals, and trials because we know, once every so often, all the cosmic tumblers click into place and convince us for one brief moment that we will routinely be able to do what we quite clearly cannot. That all those shanked drives, wounded ducks, hanging breaking balls, and blowout defeats are merely a down payment for the nirvana that comes when we just stick with it. If you watched the NBA Finals last month and Kevin Garnett's made-for-Adidas moment in the aftermath of Game 6 ("Anything's POSSSSSIIIIIIBBBBLLLLLEE!!!!!!") you know the feeling I'm getting at.

That's what Favre is feeling right now, with his body fully healed and a healthy amount of distance between him and that dismally cold January evening when he threw a back-breaking interception in overtime of the NFC Championship game. His decision to retire was formed in that moment and the searing pain it took on a 38-year old. In 1995, Brett played poorly in an NFC Championship loss to the Dallas Cowboys; still young and foolish enough not to know better, he'd forgotten about it the next day, reasoning that he'd get plenty more opportunities (he did, winning the NFC the following two seasons along with Super Bowl XXXI). But in 2008, at 38, the moment swallowed him whole. It was painfully clear to him that he'd just thrown away his last and best chance to return to the Super Bowl.

In the immediate aftermath, he clearly did not want to pour another 12 months into football with the possibility of either a) a season nowhere near as satisfying, or b), even worse, a season that produced an identical ending. He knew he was no longer the 25-year old, "million dollar arm, ten cent head version" of Brett Favre. He now had grey hair, a daughter in college, a locker room full of players half his age, and a decade and a half of reminders on how hard it is to stay on top in the NFL.

This Brett Favre was doing extra film study for the first time in his career, forsaking his days off, pulling together every ounce left to lead a team that had no business being as good as it was all the way to the brink - and then even when it seemed everything had aligned in his favor, "sport" pulled the rug out from under him the same way it has on countless others, be they legends or one-hit wonders. I suppose one day soon Favre may reveal the exact reason for why he committed the "crime" of retiring early, but in my view it was real simple - he was, for the first time, no longer blissfully ignorant of just how much work went into being Brett Favre, NFL Icon. He realized that no matter how much you love the game, the game doesn't always love you back. He was no longer young and dumb enough to shrug that off and think about how he'd always have another chance.

On those grounds, retirement was the right choice for Favre. Would I like to have found out what would've happened had things broke right and the Pack made it to Super Bowl XLII? Sure. But they didn't. And even with all the right supporting players around him young, injury-free, and under contract, Favre knew all too well the "no guarantees" world of sport. Keep in mind the Packers pulled off five wins by a touchdown or less last year, all of them featuring the kind of "Favre theatrics" which have built his legend over the years - the OT-win in Denver, the 4th-quarter drives against Kansas City & San Diego, the last-second field goal to beat Philadelphia. The margin for error was razor thin and so easily could've swung in the opposite direction - if you doubt that, journey back a whopping two seasons to when the Packers lost eight games by a touchdown or less, often with what would also be called "Favre theatrics" at the center of the reason for losing. If Favre was thinking, There wasn't much separating 2007 from 2005, so why take the risk?, he wasn't alone.

That's why Ted Thompson, Green Bay GM, tried to get Favre off the fence earlier this offseason. For several years the Packers had relentlessly been tweaked as an organization with no exit strategy for Life A.F. (After Favre), most notably when an indecisive Favre joked in April 2006, "What're they gonna do, cut me?" And now in the grandest of ironies, he's expecting the Packers to do just that. Forget about those tears in March, or that near-comeback he apparently was all set to make just a few weeks afterwards (he reneged at the last moment, with Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy literally about to get on a plane to Mississippi to make it official).

Now he's "sure" he wants to play. It makes sense. Now it's summertime; the arm feels refereshed, the body rested (no doubt aided a tad by having no offseason workouts or mini-camps to attend). Now Favre is going to a local Mississippi high school, breaking the fingers of prep wideouts with laser beams and getting back to the feeling of, "Yeah, I can still play." Of course he can still play. But he's the one who got on the podium and said it was over. For him to claim he felt pressure to make up his mind earlier strikes like him asking people to ignore his role in his own decision-making. Whether Thompson was itching to move on and hand the keys to Aaron Rodgers (which, clearly, he is) wasn't relevant. Favre had a choice and he made it, and now he finds that he's not prepared to live with it. This puts everybody, Brett included, into an incredibly awkward situation where there will be absoultely no winners. If the Packers relent (highly unlikely) and give Brett his starting job back, they're likely to alienate Rodgers, tell one of two well-regarded quarterbacks they took in the draft to take a hike, and bet that 39-year old Brett will be every bit as good as 38-year old Brett, even with the entire history of the NFL telling them that's a gamble of long odds. Favre, on the other hand, will bring a circus atmosphere to whatever new team he's on with Messiah-type expectations that'll be absolutely impossible to live up to.

It was a brilliant 17-year career for Favre. But back in March he seemed acutely aware of the fact that it had to end, at some point. We need that Brett Favre to do the thinking right now, not the one who's forever convinced he can continue flipping back a chapter as the last page approaches.

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