It was as bizarre as watching Leonardo da Vinci working his canvas with boxing gloves instead of a paint brush.
Here was Brett Favre muddling through an ugly afternoon Sunday, one year after throwing an eye-of-the-needle touchdown pass in the final two seconds that brought a sudden bonding to the team and launched the Minnesota Vikings to the brink of the Super Bowl. It also set off an end-to-end Favre euphoria that didn’t come down to earth until, well, Sunday when the Vikings failed twice near the goal late in the fourth quarter and lost 14-10 to the Miami Dolphins, their second straight defeat to open the season.
Fairy tales have a perilous shelf life in the National Football League. Favre knows this. You can’t play 20 years in professional football without being a realist. But maybe it was the unreality of the whole Viking-Favre story, nurtured by their comic mating dance, that left the Viking legions totally unprepared for Sunday at the Metrodome. Yet they were almost spared by the maniacal running of Adrian Peterson, who seemed to make every carry an obsession, driving for extra yards, hurling himself at linebackers and tearing out of sure tackles.
But the game’s final irony for Peterson and the Vikings came down to the big play of the day, near the goal line, on fourth down and with the Vikings ready to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. He was going to carry, and everybody in the stadium knew it, and the Dolphins knew it. Yet it was still the play to call — and Peterson was stopped short of the goal line. Before then he had gained 145 yards and caught five passes as well, but that may have been the revealing. A year ago the Vikings substituted Chester Taylor on third-down passing situations. He was a better blocker than Peterson and a more experienced receiver. On Sunday Taylor was helping the Chicago Bears defeat the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas.
Yet while Favre’s final frustration was failing to connect with Visanthe Shiancoe on fourth down from the Miami 27 in the final moments, his off-key performance was hardly self-inflicted. Miami was a tenacious football team with an aggressive defense and an adequate running game.
But for Brett Favre the significant numbers read: three interceptions; one lost fumble for a Miami touchdown and a quarterback rating of 44.3, a number which for the game’s best quarterbacks is somewhere near the resting place of the Titanic.
The loss put them two games behind the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in the National Football Conference North after just two weeks. With their deep receiving corps in disarray, it was immediately followed by a clamor from the blogging armies for a serious pursuit of first aid in the form of a large, swift and militant pass receiver popularly identified as Vincent Jackson, who can’t get along with the San Diego Chargers. He was said to be willing to settle for a contract close to $10 million a year with a guarantee close to triple that.
Providentially for the Vikings the door is open for a reprieve. They next play Detroit at the Metrodome, a team reportedly improving, although this is the same description that has been applied to the Lions for the last 10 years.
Despite the seriousness of the bad start, and particularly his role in it, you are not going to get any handwringing from Brett Favre. In the aftermath Sunday he took responsibility for his failures, but he has been doing this too many years to be making apologies. He declined to second-guess after the game. He said he’d heard the speculation about the Vikings shopping for another receiver “but we have to go to bat with what we’ve got. I’m not going to look out to my left, look out to my right and say I’m not throwing it there. I’m not going to play that way.”
But with Sidney Rice gone for at least another month, he needs more and better deep receivers. Bernard Berrian. Greg Lewis and Greg Camarillo are not the final answer. Percy Harvin gives the Vikings and Favre a receiver who is quick, instinctive and fearless, but also susceptible to injury and unpredictable attacks of migraine. He was hurt again Sunday. All of which left Favre with only one dependable receiver, the tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who has the speed to go deep and the size to out-jump smaller defensive backs but is not a game-breaking player.
And yet as the game played out Sunday there was an odd atmospheric about it that seemed to leave the Dolphin defensive line in a state near demoralization from fatigue because the Vikings kept control of the football ultimately with an 11 minute advantage in possession.
The Dolphin quarterback, Chad Henne, was less than terrifying but, struck early with a 46-yard throw to Brandon Marshall, the one Miami weapon the Vikings’ didn’t have, a big and resourceful wide receiver capable of going the distance. Near the goal line the Dolphins switched to their wildcat offense, without a quarterback but two running backs, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, as the offensive threats. But Henne returned to throw a touchdown pass to Brian Hartline and a 7-0 halftime lead. It went to 14-0 in the second half when Miami’s Cameron Wake beat both Phil Loadholt and Schiancoe on the rush and dislodged the ball from Favre in the end zone. Miami’s Koa Misi recovered for the touchdown.
That about finished the Miami offense for the day. But it was a team with spunk and enough quality on defense to avoid breaking in spite of the constant threat of a Peterson breakaway and the always-present threat of Favre hitting the big one. With the Vikings trailing 14-0 and driving, Favre again went to Berrian near the goal line, and the boos finally came when the Dolphins intercepted.
But the Vikings got on the board when Ricky Williams fumbled near the goal line and Peterson went in for the touchdown. Later, with the Vikings running a big but largely futile advantage in possession time, Ryan Longwell kicked a field goal, and the Vikings devoted the rest of the game to coming close, on Favre’s s throws and Peterson’s near-breakaways. But one yard from the goal line on fourth down, Peterson hurled himself at the end zone, fell short by a half yard.
Miami, unspectacularly, is that kind of team. It has powerful and energetic defenders and has enough strength on its offensive line, notable Jake Long, the big tackle who held off the Vikings strongest pass rusher, Jared Allen, virtually from start to finish.
So it was no special shocker. Favre’s rare poor performance, coming after an ordinary one in New Orleans, might sound an alarm for the edgier Viking fans. Approaching 40, has he experienced his last great hurrahs in the National Football League? Or does Sidney Rice mean all that much to the Viking offense and to Favre’s comfort zone? Has Favre lost mobility because of the ankle trouble?
Detroit is probably not the team to provide the answer. On the other hand, there are people ahead — Green Bay, the New York Jets, New England and Chicago — who might.
But right now, it may be a little early to be tolling bells for Brett Favre.