Brett Favre cashed out for the day after unloading 48 passes for nearly 400 yards against the Chicago Bears at the Metrodome Sunday. In the midst of his customized bearhugs on the sidelines, a witness who had officiated in the National Football League for 22 years reached a conclusion about Favre and his team.
“The Vikings,” he said, “look like Super Bowl to me. Favre hasn’t changed. I can’t believe it but he seems better than he ever was when they first made him an immortal. He was the toughest football player I ever saw and he’s still throwing darts. It’s amazing what’s happened with this guy. He was great in Green Bay when he free-lanced with the ball and he was a one-man offense. And now he plays with control, he’s 40 years old, and they can’t stop him. He has Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, the Williams gang, Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson, and the team plays together. They’re on the same page. They can score and defend. Their offensive line is one of the best. The special teams make plays and score. If they stay healthy, I don’t know who would beat them.”
Bernie Kukar retired from officiating a few years ago to the less chaotic arbors of life in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina and on the North Shore of Lake Superior. In his last two years as an NFL official he was the Super Bowl referee, meaning he was recognized by the NFL as the best in the business. While we watched the Vikings’ 36-10 destruction of the Chicago Bears Sunday. Kukar looked on with the repose of a man no longer threatened by a lynch mob of 60,000 as the price throwing a yellow flag on Sunday afternoons.
Somewhere in the second half when Peterson, battling for extra yards, lost control of the ball to the Bears’ Hunter Hillenmeyer, the still-athletic old football warden didn’t wait for the Vikings to demand a replay. “The Bear guy was obviously out of bounds when he covered the ball,” Kukar said. “The Vikings will challenge and win.”
Which they did. And while they were doing it, that odd quality of a game mirror-imaging the week before, and the week before that, revealed itself again in the Vikings romp through the Bears en route to their 10th win in 11 games. It was hardly confined to Favre and the touchdown producers. The rollicking wrangler, Jared Allen, delivered two more sacks, a pass interception and some new knots in his rodeo rope-tying celebration, which has now pretty well exhausted his repertoire.
Favre’s touchdown targets
But it came back to Favre, who is throwing touchdown passes at a rate that could put him close 35 or 40 by the Vikings final game. His touchdown targets Sunday were Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe and Chester Taylor, the No. 2 running back, but almost anybody could jump in. He threw one ball that threatened to leave the stadium, with a velocity and altitude that surprised Favre himself and prompted him to make a public apology to the flabbergasted Sidney Rice. His mark of only three interceptions in 11 games is so low it’s beginning to look like a mathematical error.
The Viking rivals insist that that they’re not going to lose to the whipsaw open field runs of Adrian Peterson. And they aren’t. Instead, as though driven by some kind of whacky masochism, they keep stacking the line of scrimmage to spare themselves that misery; and Favre happily throws 48 times and hits 32 for 392 yards as he did Sunday.
Why should that surprise anybody, least of all the Chicago Bears who know him so well?
There was speculation earlier in the season that Favre was brought to the Vikings for the primary purpose of handing the ball to Adrian Peterson and throwing it at discreet times. But Favre doesn’t do discretion very well or very often. If that was the assumption, nobody explained it with any seriousness to Brett Favre, for all of his admiration for Peterson’s force and manic dedication to being the best football player in the world.
“I didn’t come here to hand the ball off,” Favre said Sunday. “When I tell people I’m surprised that we’re 10 and 1, I’m really not. We have a good football team. I AM surprised by the way we’ve won some of our games [a long-ball passing game, the catch and runs by Percy Harvin and Peterson, and spectacular leaping catches of Rice, Bernard Berrian and others]. We know Adrian can make plays, our defense can make plays but sometimes we’ve had to shift gears…”
Which is not how you normally describe the simple strategy of giving the ball to Brett Favre and letting him do what comes naturally.
That was one reason why the match-up between Favre and the troubled, younger and probably oversold Jay Cutler seemed so appealing. Cutler played with nerve and reasonable accuracy in his short passing game but was out of his league paired against Favre Sunday. The final arithmetic was basically devastating. The Bears gained 167 yards, the Vikings 537. The Vikings made 31 first downs, the Bears eight.
With four victories and seven losses, the Bears are now finished as a playoff contender and the Vikings look next Sunday to Arizona, the Super Bowl runner-up now in serious danger of missing the playoffs itself.
But while it’s now impossible to dislodge the Vikings as a playoff heavyweight, all but assured of a first round bye, the game between the New England Patriots and undefeated New Orleans Saints in New Orleans tonight may decide the true favorite in the Vikings’ National Football Conference. If the Saints lose at home, the Vikings are the likely new pollers’ choice as the playoff favorite in the NFC — depending, of course, on the next five games.
Are there any warning flags ahead? Sure. Odd things happen in pro football when teams reach December. Camaraderie is beautiful but not guaranteed and doesn’t always survive a late season slump or an outbreak of late season injuries.
Around here (the Vikings played and lost four Super Bowls in the 1970s) older folks say Super Bowl and still roll their eyes. But the peaking saga of Brett Favre, his remarkable blending with the Viking cast and his performance in the 19th season of an unparalleled career, captivates not only the NFL crowds but his peers and the platoons of media analysts who played against him.
To these add the name of Bernie Kukar, who officiated Favre’s games for nearly two decades.
“I found that the greatest players, almost without exception,” he said, “were the ones who played the game with respect from start to finish. Brett Favre is one of them and I think he’s the toughest guy I ever saw in football. The blitzers would pound him and sometimes they came in high, but as the years went by you’d see some of the best of the rushers pull up after he released the ball, rather then follow through in a way that might have been legal but also might have hurt Favre. That’s the respect they gave him. He never bellyached about a hit that I can remember.”
Kukar remembers only one other player as fondly in his 22 years in pro football, the late Walter Payton, the Bears great running back. “Everybody who played with or against him loved him,” Kukar said. “He played every down to the hilt. But he also was mischievous. I was un-piling five or six guys after one play, and there at the bottom was Walter Payton, untying my shoelaces. ‘Walter,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to stop doing that.’ But Walter, bless him, never changed his habits.”
Neither, obviously, has Brett Favre.