Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Packers Should Not Retire Favre’s Jersey
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made some small headlines last week by urging the team to retire Brett Favre's jersey, and to do so before Favre is elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rodgers' suggestion was a kind one, but he's wrong.
"It's been too long. I think our country and the state of Wisconsin, these people are people of second, third and fourth chances, and I think it's time to let the healing process begin for those who are still upset about what went down. I was totally okay with being out front of that, and I'm very secure of the things I've been able to accomplish with the team and individually here, and excited about the chance to see him again and get his number retired here before he goes into Canton."
Aaron Rodgers seems like a nice guy. He's also a Pro Bowler, All-Pro, Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, and NFL MVP. He can afford to be gracious, because he's probably the best quarterback in the world, and he doesn't need to share the spotlight with Brett Favre, or anyone else. There's no reason to think Rodgers' comment was insincere, but it was a great PR move. He comes off as magnanimous and forgiving, and even fans who disagree him with will direct their displeasure at Favre rather than Rodgers. It's a no-lose direction for Rodgers to go.
But the Packers should not retire Favre's No. 4 jersey, at least not yet.
Brett Favre was a great quarterback. In a 20-year career, he made the playoffs 11 times as a starter, including on the team that won Super Bowl XXXI. He set all-time records for pass attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns, and for consecutive games played. He won 3 NFL MVP Awards, from 1995-97, the last one a co-MVP shared with Barry Sanders. He deserves to make the Hall of Fame, and he will probably go in on the first ballot.
Favre played for four teams, but most of those accomplishments came with the Packers, from 1992-2007. The team will probably choose to retire Favre's jersey at some point, and that's probably appropriate. But "some point" hasn't come yet.
For years, Brett Favre was the most popular player in the NFL, maybe the most popular athlete in the United States. He was a great quarterback, of course — the greatest quarterback, for a few years. But he also made himself accessible to the media and sympathetic to fans. His insistence on playing through injuries caused him to become dependent on painkillers, and he was open about his struggle with addiction. He played on Monday Night Football shortly after the death of his father, and for many fans it became the most memorable game of his career. Favre even grew friendly with many rivals, most famously Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan.
Even more than players and fans, though, the media worshipped Brett Favre. Besides being a great player, he loved the media. He loved cameras, loved microphones, loved to talk to the press. And he had a story sportswriters loved equally. Joe Posnanski wrote a charming piece called I Really Didn't Need That Stew, about the embarrassment of riches in the Rulon Gardner story. That was Favre. He encouraged the media to visit him on his Mississippi farm, and they couldn't get enough: the best QB in the world, and shucks, all he really wanted was to be a farmer.
The most notorious Favre fan was Sports Illustrated's Peter King, but other outlets were no better. Former ESPN ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber, in her final column, wrote at length about the network's over-coverage: "Favre was one of my favorite players in the NFL," wrote a fan from Kansas City. "Now I'm just sick of hearing about him."
Across every major sports media organization, Favre was relentlessly hyped, and it was understood that he was not to be criticized. There are two particular moments that have always stuck with me; they're representative of a sample that seems like hundreds. During a game in the mid-'00s, Favre threw an illegal forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage. Cris Collinsworth, announcing the game, spent the better part of two minutes praising Favre for the penalty. "The best part is, the official could barely call the penalty he was laughing so hard!" The quote is paraphrased, but I didn't see the ref laughing at all. Collinsworth was the only one who viewed the play as anything other than an error.
My favorite, though, was when John Madden missed the memo that you couldn't say anything bad about Favre. It was a Monday Night Football game, and Favre threw an interception nowhere near his receiver, obviously a disconnect on which route the receiver should run in that situation. Al Michaels said something to the effect of, "Well, I think we know whose fault that was." He was taken aback when Madden replied, "I think it was Brett Favre's fault," and then showed viewers why the receiver ran the correct route and Favre made the wrong throw.
The sad thing is, Favre-worship reached its height a decade after his prime. So you've got this guy who can still play, but he's nowhere near the best QB in the league any more, and you've got writers who deify him and announcers who refuse to admit when he makes mistakes. Combine that with hours of coverage, far more than that given to say, Drew Brees during the same years, and fans who had always liked Favre turned against him.
From talking to sports fans over the last decade, I can say this with confidence: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, almost everyone liked Brett Favre. Today, most fans dislike him. There are exceptions, of course, but I feel little doubt that during the '00s, a majority of sports fans in the U.S. shifted from strongly liking Favre to strongly disliking him.
Some of this is just the way our sports media operates right now, but Favre isn't blameless, either. In the last few seasons of his career, fans saw an ugly side to the athlete they'd admired so long: a manipulative, selfish quality. He went publicly back and forth on retirement countless times, so that fans who initially hoped he'd keep playing eventually wanted him to stop just so they wouldn't have to hear about it every week. He became obsessed with his own stats and his legacy within the game. But most disappointing, Favre engineered his exit from the team with whom we associated him: the Green Bay Packers.
I'm not a Packers fan. My editor is; he used to be a huge Favre fan, and I'm not sure how much of this article he'll agree with. Maybe I'll find out when it's published (gulp). But I'm not a particular fan of the Packers, or any of their rivals. I'm just a guy who really likes football. I've always respected players like Cal Ripken and Chipper Jones, Darrell Green and Tom Brady, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan, who spend their whole careers with one team. I don't hold a grudge against players who get traded, or leave in free agency, or get released and keep playing elsewhere. But I don't like it — and I know I'm not alone — when a superstar deliberately leaves behind the city, team, and fans that have grown to adore him. He's not even chasing money; he just wants out. LeBron James is the most infamous example, and Ken Griffey Jr.'s exit from Seattle always bugged me, but Favre is perhaps the worst offender.
More than wanting to leave Green Bay, he wanted to play for Minnesota, a hated division rival. When Donovan McNabb got traded to Washington in 2010 and returned to Philadelphia in a different uniform, the most ruthless fans in sports gave him a standing ovation. A year earlier, when Favre walked onto Lambeau Field wearing Viking purple, he was resoundingly booed. Fans can tell the difference between a player who was traded in a situation largely out of his control, and a narcissist who deliberately made things difficult for his old club.
After a shaky year with the Jets in which he played unevenly and allegedly texted a photo of his penis to a female employee, Favre's image with the public got even worse in Minnesota. While loyal announcers celebrated his career-high passer rating, Favre publicly feuded with head coach Brad Childress, and eventually got the coach fired, less than a year after an NFC Championship Game appearance and contract extension. Favre wasn't willing to defer to anyone or compromise on anything. No one likes an armchair psychologist, but I invite you to read a list of diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), better known as megalomania. Among the possible causes of NPD is "excessive admiration that is never balanced with realistic feedback."
I've never met Brett Favre, and most people who have seem to like him very much. But his image changed decisively, from that of a nice guy living the dream to that of a self-centered diva trying to manipulate his own legacy. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and it bothered not only Packer fans, but everyone who admired Favre partly for his devotion to the NFL's last town team.
Favre was a great player, probably one of the top 10 QBs in history. He is a Packer legend, and I imagine the team will want to retire his jersey eventually. But not now, and not in the next few years. When the team hangs No. 4 in the rafters, it should be a joyous occasion, with fans concentrating on their good memories of the success Favre had in green and gold.
Today, we're still too close to the betrayal. If the Packers retire Favre's jersey in 2013, I suspect he would hear as many boos as cheers. Like him or not, Favre deserves to hear nothing but positives at that moment. I don't blame the fans who might boo him, because they have cause. I just think we need some more distance, some time to forgive. Keep No. 4 on the shelf; don't give it out to other players. But save an official retirement ceremony for a decade down the line. Give Green Bay and its hero some time to remember what they liked about each other.