Friday, July 4, 2008

Don't Call Favre A Bad Playoff Quarterback

With all the hubbub about Brett Favre's alleged phone call he supposedly made to Mike McCarthy because he reportedly might want to play again, some of the sad rips on our Hall of Fame quarterback are resurfacing again, from none other than our own fan base.

This is perhaps the worst part of this whole experience, as the media blows a non-story out of proportion, it also serves to make Packer fans turn on Brett as if he is the one who overhypes everything he does. Even if he did make a call to McCarthy, he did it privately, not through the press (as it seems some are presuming he did in some selfish, attention-seeking bid).

But, as the insults and criticisms come bubbling back to the surface, there is one old wound that has never really healed, one that just rubs my fur the wrong way.

"Favre has been a terrible quarterback in the playoffs for the latter part of his career."

This accusation is usually followed with a proud compilation of playoff statistics, which clearly show that Brett Favre has been a Bad Playoff Quarterback since the year 1998, as opposed to being a Good Playoff Quarterback before then.

Therefore, with the Packers just a field goal away from the Super Bowl last year, we should be happy to keep Brett Favre on his tractor, because even if we made it back into the playoffs, Brett Favre will have a bad game there.

Now, out-of-context statistics aside, there are some other things that, when you look at it, really make this a poorly-hashed out statement.

Why don't we comment that Reggie White isn't as good in the playoffs today as he was back in the 1990's? Why don't we complain that Dorsey Levens chokes in the playoffs compared to his glory days?

Oh, that's right. They aren't on the team any more.

Yes, the quarterback is always a flashpoint for evaluating a team's success, but let's get serious. Brett Favre has been the only constant on this team from 1992 through 2007. As he has taken snaps, the guy he hands the ball off to has ranged from Vince Workman to Edgar Bennett to Darick Holmes to Ahman Green to Ryan Grant.

The surrounding cast has changed drastically, sometimes from one season to the next. When Brett Favre was in his MVP days, he was surrounded by an effective running game, reliable receivers, and a dominating defense. When you play on a team like that, you get to throw less often, throw higher-percentage passes, and usually against looser coverage because they have to honor the running game. When you play on a team with a shaky defense and an inconsistent running game, you have to pass more often, often from behind, taking more risks against a defense that knows the pass is coming.

In the early 2000's, when the criticism for Favre's playoff struggles seemed to start, he had an almost completely new surrounding cast from his last Super Bowl appearance in 1997.

And there is where the biggest difference lies. In the mid-90's, Favre was surrounded by veterans with playoff experience, a gifted head coach, and a stable of assistant coaches who went on to become head coaches in their own right. When the Packers entered the playoffs, they knew how to, as a collective group, put the team in the extra gear that a true playoff team needs to have. Guys like Reggie White, Santana Dotson, Don Beebe, LeRoy Butler, Keith Jackson, and Dorsey Levens didn't disappear when the going got tough. They raised the bar.

And so did their head coach.

What's funny to me is that once Mike Holmgren left the team in 1998, this team seemed to fall completely on the shoulders of Brett Favre, when really, it never had before. Favre was never the vocal leader of the team in the locker room (not when you had Butler, White, and Eugene Robinson in there).

Yet, no one seems to connect that the exact moment Brett seemed to have struggles in playoff games coincided with the moment Holmgren left, and Favre was left to work under the miserable tenure of Ray Rhodes (who would publicly thank Favre when he pulled out the game for him) and the mishandling of Mike Sherman (who also tended to stand on the sidelines and wait for Brett to win the game).

The same folks who bring up that Brett Favre loses in the playoffs are usually the same ones who complain that Favre is regarded as "the Packers". Therein lies the conflict: Favre isn't the Packers, no matter how much Peter King and John Madden want you to believe that, and he also isn't the only one who doesn't show up for playoff games.

In 2005, I did a statistical study of the six playoffs games that Favre had played in up to that point in the post-Holmgren era, which can be read here. In summary, in only the St. Louis game did Favre truly let the team down statistically. In every other game, Favre played to the level of the rest of the team. If they played on par with their regular season statistics, so did Favre. If they struggled, so did Favre.

In other words, the Sherman era was marked with teams that tended to fizzle in the post-season, not just the quarterback. That type of choking can't be placed on one player, but on the preparation of that team to execute in the playoffs. And more times than not, as the team posted a 2-4 playoff record under Sherman, they weren't ready.

Without even pulling up the stats, you can see the dead-on comparison this past season in the playoffs. Against the Seahawks, Favre had a fantastic game. But then, so did nearly every other player on that team. Ryan Grant ran like a man possessed. Atari Bigby looked like he was an All-Pro. The Seahawks were completely outmanned in every facet of the game.

But against the Giants, Favre had a mediocre day, statistically, with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. On some days, that's more than enough to win, especially if your running game generates yardage and your defense does its job.

But few other players showed up against the Giants like they had done the previous week. Grant was non-existent, gaining only 29 yards rushing. Atari Bigby, the reigning hero, was invisible with only one pass defensed and no big plays. And, of course, Al Harris was treated like a rag doll by Plaxico Burress for 154 receiving yards.

As a team, the Packers struggled, and in particular, the rushing game completely disappeared, leaving the offense to win or lose the game completely on Favre's shoulder. The Giants had two 60-yard rushers that day, and two rushing touchdowns.

Certainly, Favre can take some extra accountability due to his position, his reputation, and his salary cap figure. But, in the long run, this is a game that is won or lost as a team, regardless of what John Madden and Peter King say, and the team lost this game.

So, why does that become "Favre's Playoff Record" in discussion? Why don't we say that Brett Favre essentially won all those games himself in the mid-90's? "His" playoff record was 9-5 under Mike Holmgren. Was there anyone else on those teams that would also deserve any credit for helping win those games?

My contention has always been that Favre's playoff performances are greatly impacted by the coaching and the team around him. When he was with Mike Holmgren and surrounded by hungry, disciplined veterans, he did well. When he was with Mike Sherman and surrounded by young players who didn't seem prepared for playoff football, he didn't do as well.

Mike Sherman ain't Mike Holmgren, and Darrell Bevel ain't Andy Reid or Steve Mariucci.

When Vince Lombardi left the Packers, was Bart Starr as successful in the playoffs under Phil Bengston? Oh, wait...the Packers never made the playoffs under Phil Bengston, did they? And Bart Starr, considered by most to be the greatest quarterback of all time, especially in the playoffs, couldn't make it back to the playoffs.

Was that Starr's fault? He was only a year removed from Super Bowl II...why didn't he get the team back into the playoffs, at least? He was surrounded by many of the same talents he had while under Lombardi. Shouldn't Starr, the highly regarded quarterback, have done more to get his team that one step further?

Certainly, in 1968, Starr's statistics were among the best of his career. After that, they went into steep decline. But Bart Starr's playoff record after 1967 is 0-0. Do you think perhaps there was a difference between Vince Lombardi's coaching and preparation versus Phil Bengston's coaching and preparation?

Could you imagine the ESPN mentality of the media going after Bart Starr in 1968 and beyond, the way they have gone after Favre?

In conclusion, this latest non-story has ignited the Favre Critics to launch salvos at Brett, really for no reason at this point. Favre is being called selfish, a drama queen, an attention-seeker, a distraction, and potentially, a GM-killer.

But, if you're going to call him a bad playoff quarterback, think twice. It isn't his playoff record, it's the team's playoff record. The example of Ryan Grant's disappearance and Al Harris's dubious performance in the NFC championship proves that you need more than a quarterback to win in the playoffs.

And, hopefully, we all realize that when Aaron Rodgers takes his first snap as a starter in the playoffs.


Rich Beckman said...

I don't understand. Are you trying to imply that it wasn't Farve's fault when we gave up the first down on fourth and twenty six?

LosAngelis said...

Yeah, kind of strange, isn't it?

Or, that the Vikings held the ball for all but one minute of the 4th quarter just when the Packers got within a touchdown.

Brett can take his lumps for whatever he has done, but to take all the lumps just because he's the only constant from one regime to the next?

Not fair, and I'm never a fan of the misuse of statistics.

Anonymous said...

While it is certainly true that the Packers' dismal playoff record in the past 10 years isn't entirely Favre's fault, it is also true that he has been the major constant, through several head coaches and lots of personnel changes. They have been a bad playoff team and he has been the quarterback, and that is a fundamental relation. I would also argue that a statistical analysis doesn't fully reflect the devastation of playoff interceptions, of which Favre has thrown far too many. The basic message of your quite thoughtful piece, to me, is that Holmgren shaped Favre and made him a great quarterback, and after Holmgren left he wasn't ever quite the same. I thought it was plain as day, incidentally, that Favre didn't want to be out there in the second half of the NFC championship game in Jan. It was written all over his face. He'd had enough; he was done. I hope, for his own sake as well as for the Packers, that he doesn't try to unretire.

LosAngelis said...

You know, I agree with you in a lot of ways. I don't know if he was necessarily a "different quarterback", but the paradigm shift from being Holmgren's rascally son, always getting "the eye", to being held unaccountable by Rhodes and Sherman.

I think, fundamentally, that is the biggest problem and biggest tragedy. I don't care how old Favre is, he needs that father-figure disciplinarian figure keeping him in line, like Irv and Holmgren. Mike Sherman's legacy in Favre's career is going to be as the guy who didn't ride his butt when he threw those damaging interceptions.

I cited a quote from Sherman once, in which he was asked if he had discussed a drive ending interception before halftime with Favre between quarters. Sherman looked shocked and said, "No, there was no need to."

I also don't disagree with you a bit about the cold. Brett and I are about the same age, and I'll tell you what...I don't deal with a lot of things (like cold) as well as I did ten years ago. I think it affects you more. However, it also affected everyone else on the field, and it is during poor weather that you NEED to establish a running game, and Grant had a far worse game than Favre.

Are we going to expect Rodgers to throw 40+ passes in those situations, without a running game?

Anonymous said...

Running is critical, absolutely, which is one reason I am a little nervous about running the WCO in GB, esp. MM's short-slant version of it. If Lombardi were hired today, I think he might come to the same conclusion he did almost 50 years ago: to win late in the season in the north, outside, you have to be able to run. You control the clock and wear out the other guy's D. This hasn't changed. I believe Vince would have loved Ahman Green, who gets my vote as the greatest Packers back since the '60s glory people (Hornung, Taylor, Pitts, Anderson); he was fast, punishing and crashed into and through people rather than trying to dance around them. Will Grant turn out to be this kind of back? I hope so, because if he does, the Packers are going to be hard to stop. My hope is that Rodgers will turn out to be a QB more in the Bart Starr mold: poised and patient, someone who understands the system and how to run the machine. Favre really (if I may offer a heresy) was an Al Davis, Raiders, mad-bomber kind of quarterback. Holmgren managed to restrain him some, but certainly Rhodes and Sherman couldn't or didn't. McCarthy did succeed here to some extent, but Favre threw many long passes this past season I thought were ill-advised, and I wondered if McCarthy had actually called them. After Favre retired, I watched some ESPN footage of him playing in college -- last-second, desperation heaves that bounced off people's helmets before ending up in his receiver's arms for the winning touchdown. It occurred to me that this might be a matter of faith for Favre, a kind of religion: "I will chuck it up there, and God will put it into the right hands, and we will win." It's a fatalistic way to play football. I would rather have someone methodical, frankly, someone who didn't think he had to come in, after the team had recovered a fumble or made an interception, and immediately throw a deep ball for a TD. Favre became very predictable in this respect in recent years. Most of those throws were unnecessary and didn't work. The worst thing about the OT intercept in the NFCCG was that it wasn't necessary; they'd won the coin toss, they had the ball, and all they had to do was move down the field into field-goal range. Then they would have won a game they didn't really deserve to win.

Sherman, incidentally, is underrated in my view. I think his great failings had to do with undercoaching Favre and letting the defense slowly decline. But his run-heavy offenses from 01 to 03 were tremendous and Lombardi-esque, right down to the sweeps with pulling guards, and pitch-outs. The tragedy of Sherman is that the GM who hired him quit after a year, which meant that if they hired a new GM with power to hire a coach, Sherman likely wouldn't have been that coach, so turmoil. An alternative would have been to hire a new GM but keep Sherman, which would have meant the GM, lacking the authority to hire or fire the HC, would have been underpowered. Making Sherman GM insured short-term stability but in the end wrecked everything for him. --

LosAngelis said...

Thanks, anonymous..

I agree on a lot of fronts. I think Favre is certainly up there on the list of greatest all-times, but you know, even the greatest needed the team around them to be successful. Just look at Marino, Kelly, and Elway over most of his career.

I put Unitas and Montana above Favre on any list, simply because they seemed to always make the team around them better. After that, I think all quarterbacks needed that team and a running game to get them over the hump.

I liked Sherman, to be honest. I do think, in the end, his mishandling of Favre is his greatest black mark. But, like you, I think his whole tenure is tarnished by the dual role of GM/head coach, and while there are some out there who can swing it, Sherman wasn't.

I think that dual role sabotaged his own approach to the game. As time went on, he seemed to become more and more protective and defensive, more micromanaging. That's a difference from the coach we saw those first few years, that really kind of got me supporting him.

Furthermore, it killed the clubhouse. The same guy controlling your playing time also was controlling your salary and contract. The negativity started with McKenzie and kept on rolling.