By Joe Posnanski
Kansas City Star
Posted on Thu, Mar. 06, 2008 10:15 PM
There’s a great Brett Favre story, one that came to mind often on Thursday as Favre held his retirement news conference. It was his second year in the NFL, maybe his third, and he was sitting in the meeting room, bored silly as usual.
Then he heard a word, one he had heard quite a few times since he had been drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, traded to the Green Bay Packers and tormented by his new coach Mike Holmgren. He heard that word again, and perhaps for the first time in his pro career, Favre was curious.
“Hey,” Favre whispered to the player sitting next to him. “What is that?”
“What do they mean when they talk about the nickel defense? I keep hearing everybody talk about nickels, what are they talking about?”
Favre tells this story on himself often. He says the look on his teammate’s face was absolutely priceless. The guy was absolutely certain that Favre was putting him on. But Favre insists he was not. He was a starting quarterback in the NFL, and he did not know what any 8-year-old who plays Madden NFL video games knows.
And when the teammate explained that nickel meant that the defense had five defensive backs, Favre had a look of relief on his face.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, OK, I know how to deal with that.”
He was a by-gosh quarterback, and that was the difference. He didn’t study football. He played it. He didn’t go through progressions. He threw to the open guy. And to Brett Favre, they were always open.
There was a time in pro football when pretty much every quarterback played like that, when they called their own plays, threw the ball downfield, tossed as many interceptions as touchdowns, controlled the game. In those days, as Roman Gabriel once said, there was no such thing as a “quarterback rating.” You won or lost the game. That was your rating. Style points were for divers.
Times changed for any number of reasons — more sophisticated defenses, constant substitutions, the success of Bill Walsh’s short passing game and lots of other stuff. This whole new term came into vogue — “the system quarterback.” In a way, every quarterback in the NFL is a system quarterback. There’s no telling for sure how Tom Brady would do playing for Arizona or how Peyton Manning would be in Philadelphia. Could Dan Marino have played for a pound-the-ball coach like his CBS studio partner Bill Cowher? How would a talented bust like Tim Couch or David Carr have played for a better team? We can guess. We don’t know. Quarterbacks, like politicians, are hazy.
Not Brett Favre. Coaches tried to tame him. Defenses tried to intimidate him. But the guy never stopped being the most brilliant, aggravating, competitive son of a gun in the game. He never once led the league in passer rating — not once. But he threw more touchdown passes than anyone, ever, and he threw more interceptions, too. He got sacked more than 400 times, and he did not miss a start for 15 years.
There was a system. Brett Favre just played most of the time as if he didn’t understand it — as if he didn’t want to understand it. Drop back, stand up to the intense pressure, throw the ball to somebody who can make a big play. If quarterbacks were forced to draw up plays in the dirt, you get the sense the Packers would have won every Super Bowl in the 1990s.
The Favre game everyone will remember was the Monday night game against the Raiders in 2003. It was one day after his father died. Irvin Favre had been his son’s high school coach, and he famously had his team run the conservative wishbone offense because, by gosh, he was a Favre and what mattered was winning ballgames.
“We had some good running backs,” Irvin Favre said unapologetically one day in 1997, in Kiln, Miss., when surrounded by Suepr Bowl reporters who had bused up from New Orleans. “Brett had a good arm. But we had some real good running backs.”
Brett felt, in his gut, that his father would want him to play that Monday night. He played. He threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns, one of the most emotional viewing experiences in sports television history. When the game ended, Brett said through tears: “I love him so much. And I love this game.”
The game I remember most right now, though, is the last one, and especially Favre’s last play, the interception he threw on that impossibly cold day on at Lambeau Field. He threw it across the field, a mistake from the second it left his frozen hand. The interception set up the Giants for the field goal that sent them the Super Bowl.
Afterward, Favre felt pain but no regret. That’s how he played. He did amazing things for 15 years. He completed more passes into double and triple coverage than anyone ever. Interceptions were part of the deal.
“I hope that every penny they’ve spent on me, they know it was money well-spent,” Favre said Thursday as he said goodbye. By “they” he meant the Green Bay Packers. But he could have meant any of us.
Favre eventually learned what a nickel defense meant. They even say that in his later years he could break down film as well as coaches. But he never stopped playing the game to his own tune. Just about every year, when the season began, you would hear rumors about a “smarter” Brett Favre — meaning he was trying to be a quarterback who wouldn’t take as many chances, who wouldn’t defiantly whip the ball into the teeth of the defense. The change never lasted very long.
“I never claimed to be smart,” Favre said once. “I’m just a quarterback.”
To reach Joe Posnanski, call 816-234-4361 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.