Brett Favre came out of retirement to prove something. He got more than he bargained for.
NEW YORK JETS quarterback Brett Favre unretired to play a 17th NFL season — out of spite.
“Maybe initially, I came back for the wrong reasons,” Favre says. “It was like, ‘Okay, they [the Green Bay Packers] don’t want me to play; then I’ll play somewhere else and show them I can still play.’?”
In a candid interview just weeks before the Super Bowl, the NFL’s first three-time MVP also admits that family and friends regularly spurred him to outperform his successor in Green Bay and that the 2008 season was speckled with moments of doubt, when he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake.
Through it all, though, Favre maintained his legendary gritty attitude and tasted enough success that at one point in the season, he found himself expecting to be on the field in Tampa, Florida, for Super Bowl XLIII.
Instead, he’s back at home in a quiet Mississippi town, contemplating his future.
FAVRE’S ROLLER-COASTER season began nearly 10 months ago, long before his first appearance in a Jets jersey. Favre, who played for 16 glittering seasons with the Packers, announced in a tearful news conference on March 4, 2008, that he was finally leaving the NFL.
“I’ve given everything I possibly can give to this organization, to the game of football, and I don’t think I’ve got anything left to give, and that’s it,” he said in announcing his retirement.
In truth, it was a decision Favre says he felt compelled to make because he felt disenfranchised, that Green Bay no longer supported him. He left reluctantly and was unconvincing in saying so. In contrast to such Hall of Fame quarterbacks as John Elway and Troy Aikman, who were forced out of the game because of injuries, Favre was healthy and had just completed a wildly successful year that ended one victory short of the Super Bowl. It was revealing that as he supposedly retired, he said, “I know I can still play, but I don’t think I want to.
“I did that purposefully,” he explains now. “I just could not convince myself that I was completely done. I didn’t think I would play again, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.”
Less than four months after his retirement, Favre dropped another bombshell: He wanted to come back.
In early July, reports began to surface that Favre was in contact with the Packers regarding a possible return to the team. That put general manager Ted Thompson in an awkward position, since the Packers had publicly committed to Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback.
In the public and messy soap opera that followed, Favre insisted that he had been pressured by Packers management to retire. He flirted with the idea of sparking a QB controversy by showing up at Green Bay’s training camp to compete for his old job, and he sought his unconditional release from the team so he could play elsewhere.
Favre and Green Bay engaged in a PR war of words, and feelings on both sides hardened. In August, the Packers agreed to trade the NFL’s most prolific passer to the Jets — a team coming off a miserable four-win season.
Initially, it was spite that motivated the ultracompetitive Favre. Favre felt Thompson had taken his team from him, believed it had become personal. He felt that the Packers were dishonest and that he, the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history, had been exiled to the Jets precisely because it was something of a football purgatory, where no championships had been won in the four decades since Joe Namath was QB.
“They sent me to New York because they didn’t play the Jets, [the Jets] were 4–12, and they knew we [the Jets] had very little chance of making the playoffs. And they knew it was not likely that we’d have a better year than they did,” Favre says. “I was aware of all of that and was more than up to the challenge, because they felt they were shipping me off to Siberia and they’d never hear from me again. So was I coming back to play because I loved the game or to prove them wrong? Probably a little bit of both.”
AS FAVRE DESCRIBES IT, his arrival in New York was comparable to a college freshman’s being dropped off in front of a dormitory with plenty of belongings but no guarantees. He was a bona fide sports celebrity in America’s biggest city and nicknamed Broadway Brett, but the transition was difficult. Everything was unfamiliar and complicated — from locating the nearest gas station to his family’s rented home to memorizing the Jets’ playbook.
That is why he never wanted to be traded from Green Bay. He knew he’d have to learn a whole new offensive system and its complex terminology and to integrate himself into a locker room full of teammates unsure of his presence, some of whom were irritated that the previous season’s starting quarterback, Chad Pennington, had been quickly discarded by the Jets. On top of all that, the move would be a hardship for his wife, Deanna, and their daughters, and Favre would have to bear the burden and expectations of the voracious New York media, which viewed him as the final piece of the Jets’ Super Bowl puzzle.
Favre — who owns the NFL records for most career touchdown passes, yards, and completions — had to supplicate his ego and accept coaching from people he did not know, including head coach Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He had to embrace change because it was too much to ask the rest of the team to do so for the purpose of accommodating him.
He knew there would be comparisons throughout the season of his statistics and those of the quarterback who had replaced him in Green Bay, Rodgers. Favre admits that his family and friends were consumed with keeping him informed about how his numbers measured against those of Rodgers and constantly urged him to throw more touchdown passes than his replacement. But, Favre insists, he had no interest in that kind of intramural competition. His goal was simply to do whatever he could to ensure that the Jets accomplished more than the Packers.
“The only thing I worried about was winning,” he says. “There was a time in my career when I paid more attention to individual stats, but in the last couple of years, the most important thing has been winning and losing. In the end, that’s what matters most. Was I [angry] at Green Bay? Sure. But I wasn’t [angry] at their players. I did keep up with the wins and losses — it was hard not to do that. I didn’t wish them bad, but I wished us better.”
That New York would have a better season than Green Bay seemed unlikely, though. Removed from a Packers team that finished 13–3, Favre inherited a 4–12 Jets team. When the Packers won their first two games, Favre was unimpressed, telling one reporter, “When they have 16 good ones, they can call me.”
The Jets, meanwhile, struggled early and managed only a 3–3 record after their first six games. There were moments of extreme doubt that threatened to become actual regret; Favre admits he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. “Numerous times,” he says. “Traveling was much more difficult. Nothing was easy in the whole transition, except for dealing with the guys on the team — that was the easy part, and I’d thought that would be the hard part. But let me tell you: When we rolled into the house the Tuesday morning after that San Diego game [a 48–29 loss in Week Three], I thought to myself, “What in the hell?”
But Favre persevered. He became more comfortable in the Jets’ system and played more confidently. He threw six touchdown passes in a single game against the Arizona Cardinals (a personal record), engineered a five-game winning streak, and led New York to sole possession of first place in the AFC East by beating the New England Patriots on the road for the first time in seven years. Favre orchestrated that unimaginable triumph by leading consecutive scoring drives, on the last possession of regulation and on the first of overtime.
The hunger for this kind of moment helped lure him out of retirement, he says. It showed, too, as he ran off the field and gave one of his trademark butt slaps to Mangini. Once again, he was the victor in a classic game, even though his 39-year-old body would pay the price. The next morning, he would send this text message to a reporter: “Very tired. Hard for the old man.”
TIRED OR NOT, Favre had enough energy the next week to toss a pair of touchdown passes in leading the Jets to a 34–13 victory over the previously undefeated Tennessee Titans.
When the Packers folded disastrously against the New Orleans Saints the following night, the Jets were 8–3 and the Packers 5–6. Or, viewed from a different perspective, the Jets had already won twice as many games as they had in the entire previous season. Without Favre, the Packers had already lost twice as many games as they had in the previous season.
“At that point it was, ‘Go get your Super Bowl tickets,’?” Favre says. “That’s what was so disappointing — how quickly we rose, and then fell. Had we played for the rest of the year like we played against those teams, we’d probably still be playing now.”
After the victories in New England and Tennessee, the Jets were considered potentially the best team in the AFC and a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But the Jets stumbled badly in December, and Favre’s performance was a primary reason.
There would be only one more victory. The magic in Favre’s arm was replaced by pain from a partially torn biceps tendon in his right arm. The long passes were not long enough. The interceptions kept coming. The Jets missed the playoffs. The coach got fired. The quarterback went home to Mississippi to decide if he was done with football — accompanied by criticism from teammate Thomas Jones, who argued that Favre should have been benched before he was allowed to throw three interceptions in the season-ending defeat that eliminated the Jets from playoff contention.
Favre does not believe Jones’s sentiment is representative of how most of his teammates feel about being his teammate. He wanted to play well and prove his natural leadership abilities, and he’d hoped that in the end, they would see that is the only way somebody lasts nearly two decades in the NFL.
“It sucks, getting old,” he says. “At 40 years old, your mind tells you that you can do all the things you could in your younger years, but the body doesn’t cooperate. As I look back on it, I had my moments when people said, ‘It was the same Brett Favre, just a different uniform.’?”
The Jets finished with a 9–7 record, the Packers at 6–10, and the man linked to both teams in a challenging season returned home to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he owns hundreds of acres and will spend the rest of the winter and spring driving his daughters to school every morning. He and Deanna have discussed the tumult of the past six months. Favre told her that he had tried his best, he feels it was worth the effort, and he thinks his presence made the Jets better, though not quite good enough.
Still, he insists he is at peace, even as he weighs a decision about returning for an 18th NFL season.
“I don’t feel I have to live up to something,” he says now. “I’m very comfortable with who I am, how I look. I don’t feel like I have to throw touchdown passes to be somebody. It’s real easy for me to come here and mow the grass without feeling like I’m wasting away.”