An interesting discussion/ debate/ argument over the past few weeks of the Summer Melodrama has been how important Favre has been to the Packers. With his trade to the Jets today, we shall soon get a pretty strong idea of what it will be like without his large shadow looming over the team.
There are folks on one side of the issue, most voraciously in defense of Brett Favre, who are insisting that Favre was pretty much single-handedly responsible for the renaissance of the 1990's, that it was he who pulled the organization out from the muck that was the 70's and 80's. They also claim that he was responsible for influencing Reggie White to come to the Packers, and without him, the new Lambeau Field would never have been built.
Interesting points, all of them. But, in reality, each of them are lacking in full objectivity. The real shift began with Bob Harlan's hiring of Ron Wolf, and giving him much more far-reaching authority than his predecessor, Tom Braatz, did. Braatz may not have had much success as a general manager, but it hard to be successful when you're really not the captain of your own ship, and have a lot of back-seat drivers.
Favre was indeed inspirational, though, and brought a level of excitement to the team and the fans, even in his first season. Certainly, as a man who was present at the game when he replaced Don Majkowski and won a last-minute thriller, I can attest to a palpable magic in the air that day.
Yet, Favre was never asked to be a "leader". In his press conference today, he alluded to his leadership being on the field, not a fiery speech-giver or calling team meetings. In those early days, that was the Brett Favre we knew. Reggie White certainly cited Favre as a reason for excitement when he arrived, but he was also sold on the tour of the Packer Hall of Fame, meeting Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf, and the fact that the Packers offered him the biggest contract of all the teams competing for his services.
It's easy get confused. When White retired, he was asked if the Packers would suffer because of his absence. He responded, "The Packers will be fine as long as they have #4 there." One can easily take that fuzzy ten-year-old memory and fuzz it into White having said that when he came, not left.
In fact, at the time, even with his MVP awards, Favre was still not considered a "leader", a position reserved for guys like White, Eugene Robinson, LeRoy Butler, and Sean Jones. The real leaders of the Super Bowl teams were on defense. Favre was the electrifying inspiration on the field, the wild child practical joker off the field.
That year, 1999, marked the sea change for Favre. White's apparent handing-of-the-baton and Ray Rhodes very different treatment of Brett began a slow process of changing him from the wild horse that needed to be reined in into the deity-like master that should never be questioned. In fact, Rhodes publicly thanked Favre for winning the first game of the season for him. Bad move.
Would the Lambeau renovation been built without Favre? It is an interesting question, because it was around the year 2000 that the first trade rumors began to spread about Favre, moving him on before he got old (and showed signs of decline in 1999 under Rhodes influence). If the Packers had traded him off, there may well have been a backlash that might have delayed the referendum approval.
But, let's be serious. This is a fan base that approved a public tax to pay for the stadium, paid personal seat license fees, and bought up a whole new batch of worthless stock in order to be able to wear cheeseheads emblazoned with the word "OWNER". They even bought Tundra Turf and had to have limits as to the number of patches they could buy.
Certainly, Favre's contributions helped out that movement, but it was really Bob Harlan, once again, pushing the public relations through that got that to approval. And really, he didn't have to sell it that hard.
So, are the Favre Bashers correct, then? Is Favre really just a distraction, a huge ego over the past few years that have loomed over everything and stunted the progress of the team? Are any and all of his contributions jaded, especially now?
I think Favre was important to the team, even in the last 4-5 years when it seems that he's been overhyped and bigger than the team. And the reason is that he was overhyped and made out to be bigger than the team.
Let's face it. We all have grown weary of Favre-o-mania, even before this summer's drama. The national media fawned over Favre, and whenever we sat to watch a nationally televised game with the Packers, we started rolling our eyes at "Brett Favre and the Packers" and endless featurettes and fawning over Favre. As people noted then (and much more in the past few weeks), the Packers were becoming the "Green Bay Favres". Every move he made, every quote he said, every training room he ducked in to escape the media hordes became national news.
After years of Mike Sherman not holding Favre responsible, after years of the national media fawning over him, after three summers of be able to hem and haw about his own retirement, after being told he is a living legend over and over again, it is no wonder he behaved the way he did in the past few months. Like it or not, we and the media helped build that monster.
Many Packer fans are looking forward to "Life After Favre", without having the incessant press, the Maddens and Kings and Wojciechowskis fawning over him, having the rest of the team overshadowed by his records and streaks. They are looking forward to having a team of players who can fart and not have ESPN there covering it.
But, and this is where it is important, the Packers don't have a player that has anything near that level of captivation for the national eye. Our most charismatic players are also our oldest. Donald Driver, Charles Woodson, Al Harris...all are considered the new "must-have interviews", and all are getting very close to their own retirement age.
And none of them truly capture public attention. Soon, the Packers are going to have to deal with a level of anonymity. Like it or not, we have an incessant need to associate a team with a face or two. Even recently, when you think of the Patriots, you think of...Tom Brady. When you think of the Colts, you think of....Payton Manning. When you think of the Chargers, you think of....LaDanlian Tomlinson.
Players like that...Brady, Manning, Tomlinson...are worth the price of admission. Or, for many of us fans, worth sitting down and watching a game not involving our team. Even as Favre is still waiting to take his physical with the Jets, already the calls are not for him to matchup with defenses or the other teams in his division, but to matchup with Tom Brady. Oh, and also the Patriots.
Now, let's try this again. When you think of the Chiefs, you think of..... When you think of the Jaguars, you think of...... When you think of the Raiders, you think of..... Hard to come up with a name, isn't it? And teams like the Chiefs, who have had reasonable amounts of success in the past few years ( did you know they made the playoffs in 2006?), still barely make a blip on the national scene. Would you care to watch a Monday Night matchup with the Jags and the Chiefs?
Players like Brady, Manning, Tomlinson, and Favre are always good for an extra nationally televised game or two a season. And, you can expect that the Jets will likely get a bump-up in the latter part of the season for more national coverage, simply because of Favre's presence.
It isn't fair, indeed, but that is the commercial life we live in, and whether we are embittered towards "All Things Favre" the past few seasons, we are now looking at a sharply different environment for the Packers without him.
Aaron Rodgers now has the pressure on him to perform, but few of us objectively expect him to enter the realm of Favre, Manning, or Brady in his career. We expect him to be a good game managing quarterback, and relying somewhat on the talent around him to make him effective. And, if he isn't able to beat the injury bug, he'll have even less of a chance to be the "face of the franchise.
So, failing Rodgers, who can pick up that role in the future, giving the national fans reason to keep Green Bay on their radar? Jennings? Hawk? Kampman? Grant?
There is somewhat of a collective sigh of relief from many, including the Packer brass, that the large looming shadow of Brett Favre is finally gone, and now we can focus on the young talent that we have.
But the other shoe is that we no longer have our long-time identity, and we are going to need to quickly discover what our new one is, and if it is worth the attention of the national media. There's nothing worse than becoming a non-descript, anonymous franchise in the NFL, like the Chiefs or the Jaguars. Even the Rams have seemingly slipped out of the public consciousness, and it wasn't long ago that they had the most visible faces in the league.
Match that up with what may be interpreted as a backlash against the team that sent Favre packing, and it is going to be up to Ted Thompson to put a team on the field that will continue to capture the attention of football fans everywhere, and especially Packer fans.
Favre may have been a lot of things the past few years. He also was not a lot of things that some people like to think he was (see above). But, as the New York Bretts are finding out, he did bring one bit of importance that you can't deny in a business-driven industry that pays attention to the bottom line.
Brett Favre brought an instant identity, credibility, and attraction for the average football fan and the media. He helped fill seats and bring in commercial viewers.
Continued team success will bring a new face to the forefront...another 13-3 season and deep playoff run will create that kind of identity, and we'll want to put a face to it. Maybe it will be Rodgers.
But if this team falls to 9-10 wins or less, and keeps that up for a couple of seasons, the Packers will be the thing they can't afford to be.