Now that Brett Favre finally ended this three-month, overwrought, back-and-forth saga with the Vikings, teasing the coaches and some key players into an embarrassing and ultimately unsuccessful courtship, how does the franchise wipe the banana cream pie off its face and move on?
Maybe it can’t.
Vikes Coach Brad Childress and owner Zygi Wilf took a huge risk here, gambling that Favre had just enough left in his 39-year-old, surgically repaired arm to carry the Vikes to at least the NFC Championship game, if not the Super Bowl. They gambled that Favre wanted to stick it to Packers General Manager Ted Thompson so badly, and make up for his awful finish with the Jets last year, that he would come to Minnesota stoked for one final glorious season.
Instead, the indecisive Favre proved smarter than we thought. He figured out he had much more to lose than gain by coming here, and made the decision he should have stuck to last summer — walking away before his aging legs, and everything else, buckled beneath him.
Old quarterbacks are not like old pitchers, who lose the zip off the fastball but still win because they substitute cunning, guile and trickery for velocity. Things happen too fast in football. With instantaneous decisions, muscle memory takes over. You react as you always react. But the ball, instead of drilling the receiver in the numbers, sails, arrives late or comes in on a hop.
It happened to Dan Marino. It happened to Johnny Unitas. It happened to Joe Namath. Hell, it happened to Favre last year. It happens to all the greats who stay a little too long, who think they can summon one more magical season and go out on top, only to find the body stubbornly uncooperative. It’s ugly, and uglier still if the fans turn on you.
Wilf, the lifelong Giants fan, can reference Y.A. Tittle on this one. Anyone who grew up on the Frank Gifford-era Giants remembers the famous photo of Tittle, on his knees, helmetless, bald, bloody, after a rough hit in 1964, looking as old and beaten as a heavy bag in a boxing gym. Tittle retired after the season.
Favre, his arm aching, was awful down the stretch last year for the Jets. The collateral damage cost Coach Eric Mangini — the boy wonder “Man-genius” who once earned a television shout-out from Tony Soprano — his job. The Jets traded Chad Pennington to Miami to bring in Favre, banked the whole season on Favre playing like the old Favre, and botched a playoff berth they seemingly had wrapped up. Jet fans can be vicious when things don’t go their way, which is pretty much all the time, and Favre would have to be a cold, heartless, selfish S.O.B. to not come away from that fiasco wracked with guilt.
In this dance between Favre and the Vikings, it was never just about him. If Favre came here and stunk, he was taking people down with him, starting with Childress, whom a growing number of purple-wearing buzzards want fired yesterday. I don’t know if Favre is a Bruce Springsteen guy — I doubt it — but this line from “Meeting Across the River” encapsulates the dread: “And if we blow this one/they ain’t gonna be looking for me this time.”
Now we know that Favre decided a week ago to turn down the Vikings, only to have Childress and players like Steve Hutchinson and Jared Allen lobby him to reconsider, according to ESPN. Imagine how that looks to Tarvaris Jackson, who has been shown, once again, that his coach, his owner and his teammates don’t trust him. The fan reaction will be underwhelming whether Jackson or Sage Rosenfels wins the job, and you can forget about the ticket sales bump that the Vikings’ front office banked on with Favre.
Instead, Childress finds himself stuck with a quarterback controversy between two guys who look more like stiffs than stars. Though the Vikes are still loaded on both sides of the ball, with Adrian Peterson and Allen the primary game-breakers, they must replace Pro Bowlers at two vital positions, center (Matt Birk) and free safety (Darren Sharper). That’s a lot of responsibility for untested starters.
Given their schedule and the talent at hand, the Vikings ought to be competitive barring a catastrophic injury to Peterson. Whether they’re good enough to win the NFC North and advance deep into January remains to be seen.
But Childress already looks like a sap for letting Favre play him, creating a rift in his locker room that may not easily heal. The Vikings’ slim chance of getting legislative help for a new stadium rides on a championship season, and a 6-10 finish with fans burning their tickets on Kirby Puckett Drive will not make it happen. If Wilf fires Childress to appease the fans, Childress can look back on Favre’s decision as the day the shifting winds turned against him.