Forgiving, Forgetting and Favre in Green Bay

Brett Favre did not leave things on the best of terms with Green Bay. But, for a variety of reasons, everyone is working on letting those bygones be bygone.
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There are only so many certainties in football. The Jaguars will be sad, Bill Belichick will look unhappy, that sort of thing. But it has been difficult to imagine circumstances, even including the unpleasant ones that surrounded his departure from Green Bay, that would lead to the Packers not ultimately retiring Brett Favre’s number. In early June, Favre took a major step in expediting that process when he said the four magic words: “I was at fault.”

That those four magic words were, immediately, followed by a classic sports-pology hedge -- “I feel that both sides had a part in it” -- is very much in keeping with the state of the art in athlete apologetics, and far less significant than the fact that this was the first time Favre has shown any genuine contrition, humility or basic self-awareness concerning his culpability in in his messy divorce with the Packers. In a transactional sense, this transition wasn’t that complicated -- the Packers moved from an end-stage Favre to an ascendant Aaron Rodgers. At the time, though, it was a good deal more complicated. It also ignited a trivial but jarringly intense civil war among the team’s fans, whose loyalties were bruised when Favre joined the Jets in 2008, then suffered a compound fracture when he joined the archenemy Minnesota Vikings in 2009.

But that was 2009. In the years since, all involved have gotten a little closer to reasonable, and Favre’s tacit admission of wrongdoing has done something to heal those wounds. I’d wager that Green Bay retires Favre’s number this upcoming season or next. I’m not an ambitious enough betting person to make odds, but 2014 seems more likely, although it’s not impossible to envision a scenario where it happens this year. (Packers president Mark Murphy recently said that he’d like it to happen before Favre enters the Hall of Fame in 2016, so it should happen during the 2015 season at the latest.)

Here is a not-at-all-bold prediction: when the Packers finally, inevitably do retire Favre’s number, Lambeau Field will erupt in sustained thunderous, cathartic applause. Viewers will simultaneously feel as if and wish they were there. Again: this moment is, barring any really severe off-field incidents -- pretty please no more of this awfulness -- no more than 30 months away.

***

Before he won a Super Bowl, earned the league’s MVP award, and set himself on a trajectory towards historical greatness, Aaron Rodgers got heckled by Packers fans in his first training camp as the team’s starting quarterback.

“I remember the Favre loyalists applauding when Rodgers threw a pass that was off,” says Phil Hanrahan, who wrote the book Life After Favre about the 2008 Packers season. “There were sarcastic cheers and clapping when he would throw an inaccurate pass.”

"I understand it to some point if I put myself into a Favre fanatic's shoes," Rodgers said at the time. "The things I can't understand, the things I really take personally, is when I'm driving up to the (parking lot) gate and punching in my punch code and somebody says, 'Hey Rodgers, Eff you!' to me. That kind of gets to me. That bothers me a little bit. Or when a little kid is yelling swear words at me. That kind of gets to me a little bit.”

Nevermind that Favre had previously retired and then changed his mind after Green Bay had drafted two quarterbacks (Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn) and started installing a system around Rodgers. A sizable percentage -- and perhaps a majority -- of Packers fans felt untold levels of vitriol for general manager Ted Thompson, coach Mike McCarthy, and president Mark Murphy in the wake of Favre’s departure. They were commonly referred to as “the three stooges” and, individually, in more specific and derogatory terms, recalls Hanrahan, after the team stuck behind Rodgers and dealt Favre to the New York Jets. Rodgers, who was already under enough pressure in his quest to replace a local and national legend, became collateral damage to that projected, refracted, and seriously serious anger. And over the course of the season, it only got worse.

***

That season, I went to Green Bay for a Week 13 game against the Panthers. The Packers entered the week at 5-6. The Jets, in their first and ultimately only season with Favre under center, had won five games in a row; the week before, they had blown out the previously-unbeaten Titans 34-13 and were riding high at 8-3. Although Rodgers had certainly shown glimpses of what he might become, Favre was a borderline MVP candidate at that point.

So it probably won’t surprise you to learn that, on this day, the mood inside and outside Lambeau was foul. It was deer hunting season -- the cultural significance in Wisconsin of this short window of the year, which lasts just over a week, simply cannot be overstated -- and people were profoundly not-psyched to be missing one of its few weekend days to watch a mediocre Packers team lose for the fourth time in five weeks. The crowd was comprised mainly of fans wearing blaze orange overalls and/or Brett Favre jerseys; I recall seeing more spectators in Favre Jets jerseys than those supporting any other current or former Packer.

This was understandable to a point, but impossible to justify beyond that point. By week 13 of a NFL season, that point was well in the rearview: if they were fans of the team, let them cheer for that team. Surely, the universe would not allow this outspoken, blindly loyal group of people who misspelled their inflammatory Journal-Sentinel comments and shouted down sports talk radio hosts to be on the right side of history. Um, right?

As it turned out, this was just about rock bottom, at least in terms of the Favre loyalists’ having any sort of outcome-based moral standing. Though the Packers season didn’t exactly get any better -- they would continue to find new and excruciating ways to lose close games, dropping three more in a row by a combined 10 points and finishing the year 6-10 -- the Jets season was torpedoed when, at some point in time, Favre suffered a torn bicep. Consecutive game streak and whatnot, he hubristically played through it; his decision to do so was essentially akin to taking a can full of gas and a handful of matches to New York’s season. After starting 8-3, the Jets finished out 9-7; in those final five games, Favre threw two touchdowns and nine interceptions.

When Favre retired and un-retired -- again -- and signed with the (fucking) Vikings, it was, to put it delicately and maybe more delicately than it deserves, a curious situation. It was one thing for him to play in a different time zone, in the AFC, for the Jets -- especially when the Packers organization gave him no other choice. But, when he joined Green Bay’s hated rivals in the NFC North, would his devoted followers follow him there?

“I can absolutely believe Brett thought that their passion for him would transcend their passion for the Packers,” Hanrahan told me. “I didn’t think it would. Although I can believe that he believed that.”

For all but an infinitesimal portion of the Packers fan base, though, this meant war. He became Brent Favre, a traitor with an “n”, and when he returned to Lambeau as a member of the Vikings, he was booed like Vince McMahon in Canada after the Montreal screwjob. And when, at the culmination of an admittedly magnificent season in Minnesota in which he accumulated 33 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, he threw a dazzlingly hubristic, prototypically Favrian interception to the Saints’ Tracy Porter that cost his team a spot in the Super Bowl, Packers nation felt some schadenfreude-heavy relief.

In 2010, Favre would retire and unretire for a third time. This year, however, Favre and the Vikings would have a season that resembled the arsoned bar in Goodfellas. Also, and this seems worth mentioning, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers wound up winning the Super Bowl.

***

I was flipping through the channels at the gym not long ago when I happened upon a great find: NFL Network was running the Packers-Raiders game from December 22, 2003.

Favre’s father, Irving, had passed away just one day prior, and Favre and the Packers came out poised, potent and seemingly possessed. Green Bay won the game 41-7, and Favre had four touchdown passes and over 300 yards in the first half alone. A good percentage of those stats were attributable to his receivers going up and seemingly willing jump balls into their arms; their insatiable refusal to be denied the ball was testament to what Favre’s leadership meant to that team.

Re-watching the game, I was struck both by Favre’s furious, emotional brilliance and by how happy it all made me, even after the years of Favre-related wreckage. I had to think all the way back to 2007 to recall a time that Favre elicited such positive emotions. (Actually, that’s not entirely true -- I was, subversively and maybe a little shamefully, elated with the conclusion of that aforementioned Vikings-Saints NFC Championship game. But you know what I meant.)

It helps sweeten the memory that Favre’s great 2003 game sparked an unforgettable month of football:

December 22: Packers 41, @Raiders 7
December 28: @Packers 31, Broncos 3; Vikings 17, @Cardinals 18 -- Josh McCown throws a 28-yard touchdown pass to Nate Poole (come again?) to put the Packers into the playoffs at the expense of the Vikings. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
January 4: @Packers 33, Seahawks 27 -- “We want the ball and we’re gonna score.”
January 11: Packers 17, @Eagles 20 -- 4th and 26. (With an egregious subsequent Favre INT in OT for good measure.)

So, yeah: the full Favre-ian spectrum of experience. It had gotten to the point where it felt as though this was a holy thing: the Packers were on a mission from God. The idea that they might lose to the Eagles never really seemed possible. And then they did. It was not anything sacred at all, it turned out. It was just football, and Brett Favre was just Brett Favre: a great quarterback with some bad habits, a man who had good days and bad ones, and not always when it was most convenient.

***

Statistically speaking, your favorite team’s season will almost always end in heartbreak. Whether that occurs in a series of slack regular season defeats or in the cruelest, gutpunching manner in the playoffs, there’s a 96.88% chance that the team you care about won’t win the Super Bowl. (This metric is adjusted slightly higher or lower for given franchises, but that’s the base assuming everything’s equal.)

If you’re only concerned with outcome, it is, then, highly irrational even to watch football, or any sport for that matter, with a passionate rooting interest. There are any number of things you can set out to do if you where the likelihood of success is greater than 3.12%. Given that we nevertheless do watch sports the process has to be a significant contributor towards overall utility. Less technically: the best reason to care about a team is to feel something, and the worst is demanding to feel like a champion.

Optimism alone goes a long way in justifying the process -- in the NFL, there are only 16 games per year guaranteed, and a maximum of 20. The time we spend thinking and talking and blogging and commenting about upcoming games and seasons makes up a pretty substantial portion of our fanhood, a massive majority of the hours spent in active fan-ship. With Brett Favre, Packers fans could at least feel good about our chances -- not just to win, but to feel as if the choice to give ourselves to this team, for this week, was not a silly or futile or wrong one.

And, of course, there wins. One Super Bowl ring, another title game appearance, and 11 playoff berths in 15 full seasons as a starter are something that every fan would sign up for in a heartbeat at the beginning of a quarterback’s career. If the quarterback both is great and feels great, all the better. It’s not a bad deal for a decade-and-a-half of autumns and winters. Teams have retired numbers for less.

And so the high upside and disastrous downside of cheering for/against Favre undoubtedly add up to a substantial net positive. While watching him play for the Vikings was a horrible, torturous thing for fans to endure -- I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, which is to say that I know that it was probably pretty unpleasant for Vikings fans at points -- it was just an annoying thing that happened, because this is just a game, and matters only as much as we let it. The ignominy certainly doesn’t outweigh all the fun we had along the way, and shouldn’t. Favre undoubtedly gave more to Green Bay’s fans than he took at the end.

So it’s been nice to see the icy relationship between Favre and the Packers organization begin to thaw out a little bit. There is a good deal in life to be bitter about, but forgiving feels a good deal better. To let these bygones be the bygone things they are, and to let Favre’s number four be retired at Lambeau Field will be, in a sense, a gift to all involved: fans get our memories back in full and uncomplicated glory, and Favre gets what he earned, and everyone can go back to caring about this game and this team exactly as much as we want to, and exactly as much as we ever did -- which is almost certainly a little bit too much, but worth it nonetheless.


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