He was struggling unsteadily as the game neared its shocking crisis. He was the aging superstar who brokered himself into an alien Minnesota Viking uniform six weeks ago. The deal was that he would perform selected acts of magic drawn from nearly two decades of late-game theatrics that endeared him in Green Bay and everywhere else.
The Vikings game with the San Francisco 49ers at the Metrodome Sunday had deteriorated. Brett Favre had thrown all day, often well, sometimes late, sometimes badly. There were moments when Favre and the Vikings’ designated No. 1 receiver, Bernard Berrian, meshed as smoothly as the Sunnis and the Shiites.
And for the groaning Metrodome crowd, a game the Vikings seemed to have in hand had suddenly morphed into a horror show.
Favre outbattles time, rust, fatigue
But in the final two seconds, neither time, rust nor his mounting fatigue had diminished the one defining instinct he brought to professional football 17 years ago.
The old warhorse knows how to win.
The Vikings snapped the ball from the 49ers’ 32-yard line, trailing 24-20. The receivers and defenders flooded the end zone. How many times had this scene reeled out in the endless career of this unsinkable man? The uniforms and the names changed, but the one constant was Favre, staring into the end zone and throwing at the precise moment that told him it was now or never. In the end zone, Greg Lewis, a virtual stranger on the Viking roster, leaped and caught the ball. Upfield, Favre lay on the grass — watching the catch and closing his eyes in relief when it was made, unable to identify the player who caught the ball. And the Vikings won 27-24.
With one stroke Favre had delivered the perfect if bizarre prologue to the Oct. 5 Monday night meeting at the Metrodome on national television between the Vikings and Favre’s former employers and pals. The oncoming drama didn’t need supporting byplay Sunday, but in St. Louis, Favre’s successor in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers, starred in the Packers’ victory over the Rams.
Sunday at the Metrodome was a billboard for pro football’s tenacious round-the-clock hold on the American public. Here were the Minnesota Vikings winning their third straight game and, despite bland performances in Cleveland and Detroit, muscling into the thick of the Super Bowl speculation. But in the process, Favre and the Vikings wrecked a promising morality play on the other side of the field involving the 49er coach, Mike Singletary, and the tight end, Vernon Davis.
Davis was the lazy and self-indulgent young player Singletary had kicked out of a game and harshly denounced on television less than a year ago. Davis became a reclamation project this year, and is now admired by the fiercely driven coach. On Sunday the player rewarded his coach with a remarkable game and two touchdown catches. One of them late in the game should have given San Francisco the victory — without the service of their great running back, Frank Gore, who was injured in the opening minute, and with the seldom-acclaimed Shaun Hill matching Favre throw for throw.
For the Vikings, it came hard. They flopped in the late minutes in their attempt to engineer a comeback after falling behind. That failed attempt produced incidental hysterics. Favre threw a pass that connected. With the Vikings about the run the next play, Singletary’s coaching assistants surrounded and pursued him, pleading for the coach to throw the red flag for a replay. Favre clearly had run past the line of scrimmage before throwing. The defensive line coach tempted professional protocol by pulling the flag out of Singletary’s back pocket and handing it to him. The flag came down, the referee concurred under the hood and the Vikings were back in the soup.
What laws of time, physics, probability?
But Favre does not recognize the normal laws of time, physics and probability. Did he settle on the Metrodome’s artificial sod for a breather after throwing a pass to Berrian? Be serious. This is Favre. He ran 20 yards downfield to block a linebacker for Berrian.
With a minute and a half remaining, the Vikings regained the ball, Favre worked the clock with sideline passes and then, with two seconds left, found Greg Lewis racing through the end zone.
Coaches don’t usually get a game ball. But somebody on the fringes might have nominated the Vikings’ Brad Childress as an add-on recipient. Childress is the brainy and pragmatic head coach who in his four years in Minnesota has largely escaped any hot-breathed love from the Viking followers. But Childress makes a lot of right decisions. He was acquainted with Lewis from the player’s years in Philadelphia and brought him to the Vikings when the team released Bobby Wade. He was elevated from the practice squad last week because of the under-the-weather condition of Percy Harvin. “Don’t be afraid,” Childress told the Vikings’ receivers coach this week, “to put Lewis in the game.”
Lewis entered the game. Vikings win.
In the process, Adrian Peterson gained 85 yards, Harvin ran back a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown and Favre hit 24 of 45 passes for two touchdowns and 301 yards.
But you’re not likely to be swamped by the post-mortems because, starting today, the buildup for Vikings-Green Bay begins. This is going to be a war, friends, the equivalent of landmines and razor blades.
And in in Spooner, Wis., a bartender-waitress named Julie expects a crowd jammed to walls and rafters at Jersey’s Sports Bar. “The one thing that surprises me about all the Brett business,” she said Sunday night, “is that all of sudden we see a lot Viking fans [coming out of the closet], which we didn’t know about until now. I didn’t like to see Brett going in and out of retirement the way he did — a little silly, I thought, and a poor decision by him. But he’s been a great football player, and it will be different watching him play against the Packers. I hope it’s a great game.”
There is a voice of civility and good will, qualities that are sure to be in short supply at the Metrodome next Monday.