We fans are a fickle and forgetful bunch. It was only a few years ago that many of us were pleading with Brett Favre to hang 'em up. We fervently hoped that after a pair of seasons in which he was foundering—he threw more interceptions (47) than touchdown passes (38), and his completion percentage in 2006 was the lowest of his career—he would spare us more embarrassing, over-the-hill performances that might further tarnish his illustrious career.
He didn't listen, and we are all grateful for that. Now, at 38 years old, it's time for Brett to go. Favre may not have gotten his fondest wish, the rare Elway exit in which a superstar goes out on top, but this past season he came close—closer than he or anyone else had reason to expect. Despite playing with a bunch of no-name receivers, Favre put up his best passing numbers in years, including the highest completion percentage (66.5) of his 16 years in Green Bay.
He not only added a handful of NFL career passing marks to his long Hall of Fame résumé, the only player to be named NFL Most Valuable Player three consecutive years took a young Packers team with modest expectations all the way to the NFC Championship Game. There is no reason to push his or our luck. Favre is savvy enough to know that the Packers, in keeping with the ever-shifting sands underfoot the NFC, are more likely to take a step back toward mediocrity next season than to continue the team's overachieving ways.
In the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks Favre, even with his mighty arm, probably wasn't the most talented quarterback to play the game, not when compared to some of the pure passers—John Elway, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning—with whom his 17-year NFL career overlapped. But when it came to the intangibles—grit, toughness (admittedly, a 253-game playing streak is pretty tangible), invention, a never-say-die attitude and a palpable exuberance—Favre was unsurpassed. Those qualities connected him to fans to an extent unrivaled by any other quarterback or indeed any player of the modern era. And he gets to walk off the field with his consecutive games streak, a record for quarterbacks, intact, rather than the possibility that he might finally limp off battered and beaten.
I have always been fascinated by some of the randomness attached to greatness in sports. Favre was drafted in the second round of the 1991 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons went to the playoffs his rookie season, and coach Jerry Glanville must have been quite happy with Chris Miller, coming off a Pro Bowl season, at quarterback. Within two seasons Miller had lost his starting job, and by the end of that second season both Glanville and Miller were gone from Atlanta.
And Favre was already making waves. Did Ron Wolf, back then the rookie general manager of the Packers, really know what he was getting? After all, Favre had thrown only five passes his entire rookie season and completed just two of them—both to the opposition. Still, Wolf had coveted the strong-armed kid from Southern Mississippi while still in the Jets' front office and had barely missed out on him in the draft. This time Wolf was taking no chances and, even though Favre hadn't completed a single pass in the NFL, he surrendered a first-round pick for the kid.
Wolf rescued Favre from a Falcons organization that churned through a lot of quarterbacks in the ensuing years. And just one month before he made the deal for Favre, he hired Mike Holmgren as the Packers' coach. It is that kind of kismet that sometimes determines whether careers are made or broken: the right quarterback with the right coach in the right system. Think what might have happened if Joe Montana, instead of landing with Bill Walsh in San Francisco, had strayed across the bay and wound up trapped in Al Davis's system.
Tom Brady was another quarterback who landed in the right place with the right coach at the right time. Perhaps the Patriots really saw the makings of a future star in the Michigan kid, who wasn't even a starter for most of his college career. More likely they saw competence. Had they truly envisioned Brady's greatness, the Patriots would never have risked waiting until the sixth round of the draft to secure him. And while all signs pointed toward Brady moving up the ladder with the Pats, would his chance have come soon enough for both him and his coach had the starter, Drew Bledsoe, not been knocked out of the lineup after the second game of Brady's sophomore season?
Favre's talent and drive probably would have enabled him to succeed and excel anywhere. But in Holmgren's skilled hands, he was an instant sensation. Like Brady he took over the starting job in the third game of his second NFL season, and he never missed a start through 16 seasons. Now we will be the ones doing the missing. Brett has finally had enough, but we could never get enough of him. More than any modern player he embodied exactly how fans believe players should feel about the privilege of being paid millions to play in the NFL. Some of his records, perhaps all of them, may someday be broken. But he will never relinquish that special hold on us.