Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Why Brett's Return is Good for the Pack

BFAs we enter what seems to be Episode Six of the media-created furor that is Favre Wars: The Phantom Retirement, most of us have accepted that Favre's decision, for yea or for nay, should be coming within the next week or two.

With that clearly in mind, I would like to state for the record that I believe the Packers are a better team in 2007 with Brett Favre at the helm. Patronize me, and I will explain why.

First of all, I will tell you something you already know, and then something that may suprise you. First of all, Brett Favre is not the quarterback he was in the mid-90's. I'm not sure who would argue with that, except for the critics who declare a 3-time MVP and future HOFer should never make mistakes. That, however, is the part that shouldn't surprising to most of us.

The part that may hit some of us between the eyes is that Brett Favre isn't the quarterback of the first half of the 2000's, either. No, this is not Mike Sherman's Favre, the lightning rod that the entire team would sit back expectantly and wait for to go out and win the game for everyone, or go down trying (it didn't hurt the rest of the team that, as a result, Favre took the lion's share of blame when it didn't pan out, either). No, this Brett Favre has had some physical decline. There's a little less accuracy on his throws. He's admitted himself he doesn't trust his legs anymore. Yes, Virginia, there is a Brett Favre, and he is growing old.

But "old" doesn't necessarily mean "bad". The one thing that is for certain, though, is that this is not a Brett Favre that is going to be able to lift an entire team around him anymore. He used to be able to do that, but only a handful of quarterbacks in NFL history can actually claim ever being able to do that at all. So, he's gone from Superman to Batman.

Unfortunately, a young offensive line and an inconsistent ground game made Mike McCarthy do the unthinkable: despite declaring boldly at the beginning of the season that he was going to commit to the run, he actually had Brett throw even more times than his 2005 NFL and career high in pass attempts. The results, though, weren't as many last second drives and bombs for the win, as it was dropped passes, errant throws, and red zone stalls. The defense, also young and developing, got on the boat as the season went on, and began to do what it could to carry the team. The result was a 4-0 record to finish the season, albeit against perhaps lesser teams.

So, why are the Packers a better team with Brett Favre than without? For that, we need to do a short history lesson.

In 2005, Ted Thompson, the rookie general manager for the Packers, quietly watched his team floundered to a 4-12 record. Mysteriously, despite a bit of wiggle room with the cap, he watched as the offense literally lost important cogs to either free agency or injury, to the point that at the end of the season, only Favre, Tauscher, Clifton, Driver, and Henderson were left standing among the original starters. While stating he was committed to winning, it is evident now that 2005 was a cap-clearing year.

For fans of Favre, this was infuriating. Why not commit to winning today, to make the offense as strong as it could be? Well, injuries have a way of changing a team's fortunes, and many teams found themselves floundering with less injuries than the Packer had that year. Thompson followed the 2005 season by firing the coach, and leaving many guessing that Brett Favre was not a part of the future.

What followed was several months of a blinking contest, in which Favre held on to his retirement decision until the last possible second before deciding to return. As for me, I was hoping for him to retire, or to request a release. I felt that he deserved a better opportunity in his waning years to play with a winner, rather than continue to be a part of some rebuilding project. I wouldn't have begrudged him a bit had he decided to go play with any other team in the NFL. Okay, except the Bears. And Vikings. And Cowboys.

But here's the key: despite knowing he would be playing with a very unstable and inexperienced offensive line, despite knowing his receivers were not much improved over what he finished the season with in 2005, despite knowing that the running back situation was far from a sure thing with Ahman Green trying to return from serious injury, Favre elected to return. He said the right things. He did the right things. He came back for the right reasons, and it made me look at the situation in a different light.

But why would the Packers want him back? Aren't they rebuilding?

My usual disdain for Ted Thompson aside, I have to not-even-begrudgingly acknowledge that, now that it's evident he is doing a all-out rebuild (not a "reload" or a "revamp"), he is doing it the right way. Yes, Ted Thompson is rebuilding this team the right way. You heard me say it.

When you rebuild a team, you do NOT start with the quarterback. Ask Tim Couch, David Carr, Steve Young, and Akili Smith how they felt about being the "first piece of the puzzle", while waiting for the team around them to eventually be put in place. Not a very high success rate. To do it right, you start with the lines, both offensive and defense, and work on the rest of the defense first. Next, as the offensive line gels, you work on the running and receiving game.

When all those pieces are pretty much in place, or at least somewhat solid, you can place your young quarterback in there. Ask Phillip RIvers, Carson Palmer, and Ben Roethlisberger how much success they've enjoyed compared to the aforementioned "starter pieces".

It's very possible that Aaron Rodgers is that guy, that young quarterback who will finish this puzzle. The problem is, this puzzle is barely even started, especially on offense. It is very possible that many key starters from 2006 will be gone by 2008 (Green, Clifton, Henderson, Franks, even Driver). The offensive line is still developing, and it is going to be time for Thompson to begin working on finding the next true running back, and the next tight end, and the next WR to play opposite Greg Jennings (he probably had him with Terrance Murphy, unfortunately). The rest of the offense are mostly rookies and former practice squad players.

If I truly believed that Aaron Rodgers was ready, I would be supporting him as a starter. But at this point, I don't think Rodgers has what it takes to be a starter in this environment. Now, don't take that as some Rodgers-Bashing-Hating statement. I do think he can develop and be a solid game manager, but not without a solid running game (ours finished 23rd in the league in ypg and scoring), not without solid reliable receivers (Packer receivers led the league in dropped passes, and had the second-highest drops per attempt in the league), and not without solid red-zone targets (Bubba Franks finished with a career-low receptions (25) and no touchdowns for the first time in his career).

Now, factoring in an offensive line that needed extra blockers in for protection purposes (according to former offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski) and Rodgers' lack of pressure awareness and labored reads would lead me to believe that he would get hurt in his first significant playing time of the season.

Oh, wait. He did.

I don't know what Thompson's plan is for this season, but I am assuming after prettying up contracts for Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett, and Al Harris, he has only one glaring hole to fix on the defense (free safety). This frees up a lot of draft picks and salary cap space to start working on the offense this year. Perhaps Marshawn Lynch or Tony Hunt will be brought in to split time with Ahman as the torch prepares to be passed. Perhaps a wide receiver-rich draft class will produce some true talent in the ranks. Perhaps a solid veteran will be brought in along the offensive line, paving the way for Daryn Colledge to replace Chad Clifton at tackle.

Which brings us back to Brett Favre, the old man of the game, who is showing signs of being "only mortal" behind the line. The Packers will benefit from having his savvy back there. No, they won't be able to do the old "sit back and wait for him to win the game for us" trick that marked much of the early 2000's, and even a bit of 2006. But what Favre brings to the table right now is exactly what this offense needs: a savvy ability to sense pressure and move within the pocket to evade it. This lets the line off the hook often, and gives the receivers more time to gain seperation with their second and third moves, instead of hoping for something on their first.

He still has a rocket arm, but doesn't need it. He cut his interceptions down this season, despite passing more and having more dropped passes than any point in his career. But the biggest question has to be: why would he be coming back?

In his own admission, the only record he cares about, the starting streak, he already owns. He's not likely to play for a team that will go deep into the playoffs this season, as a more difficult schedule awaits a team that has only a #16 pick in the draft, instead of a #5.

Ted Thompson is essentially saying, "Brett, feel free to keep playing, and when we're ready to make the big step forward, we're probably going to bring in someone else to play quarterback."

If Brett Favre is fine with this, and Ted Thompson is fine with this, I'm fine with him being a $10 million dollar segue. For now, it is far better than watching Aaron Rodgers or some other project finding his way to the injured reserve list by the sixth week of the season. He brings stability and experience to an offense that is going to be going through much more flux in the next season or two.

In watching the recent ESPN retrospective of John Elway, you can't help but be moved by the emotion he felt at announcing his retirement after his 38th birthday, fretting about leaving too early rather than too late, wondering if there was anything left in the tank that he could have used to spend playing a game he could never return to. This isn't an easy decision for Favre to make, either four years ago when the media storm started, to today, when the media has finally learned that there are better things to worry about.

Any Packer fan wishes Favre could go out like John Elway, a game manager playing with an innovative defense and perhaps the strongest running game in the league at the time, and getting a ring for both hands. It's not likely that Favre will leave with that glory, getting to go out on top.

If Favre does decide that playing with a young group of kids is worth his time and a little bit of change, then the Packers will be the better off for it in 2007. If he decides against it, the Packers are far from doomed, though you will see Ted Thompson have to go to plan "I have another $10 million to spend and no marquee quarterbacks to spend it on!".

The Packers will survive, and will go on to have great seasons, sooner or later, whether Favre retires now or next year.

But we don't plan for "sooner or later". We plan for today, and right now, Favre still makes this team better with him suited up than sitting on a tractor.

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