Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Reading Between the Defensive Lines

Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently published an interesting article on the education of Aaron Rodgers. I think if we read between the lines, we can see some of the motivations the management had for unloading Favre on the Jets and their strategies for achieving it. Sadly, I can’t analyze football worth a damn, but I can definitely analyze institutional politics.


Silverstein recounts what we all remember—Favre was fairly hostile to Rodgers at first

When Rodgers arrived, Favre made no bones about refusing to be a mentor to him, stating in an interview that it wasn’t his job. Nobody had done it for him, and besides, Favre’s No. 1 responsibility was to win games.

Rodgers had to accept that, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to watch Favre.

“The best way to describe it was we were teammates the first year,” Rodgers said. “It was a very business relationship. But I was kind of in his hip pocket. My biggest thing was if we’re not going to be friends yet, which is fine, I’m still going to be in his hip pocket until he tells me to get lost.

“So I’d stick my head in there when he’s talking in the huddle and lean in and listen to what he’s saying and listen to him in practice. I’d watch him like a hawk. This guy is one of the greatest quarterbacks to every [sic] play, so I better figure out what he’s doing.”

As far as I can tell, Brett Favre was the fucking queen of the team during the Sherman years. The problem was that the team was run around Favre’s sensibilities. Well, as any opera manager can tell you, the company will not be a success when the prima donna and not the director and conductor rule the roost. Yes, we may all “ooo” and “ah” to her lilting voice, but an opera is a play with a cast. Like football, opera’s a team effort. After Holmgren packed up and left, there was no one to reign Favre in. He always got his way. The problem was, as talented as Favre is, he needed good coaching to keep him in line. Favre the prima donna was unleashed. He frequently got cocky and was not pulled back into line. Sherman wasn’t tough enough as a coach. When Sherman got his hands on general management, the core of most of the team’s personnel rotted away. The final straw came when the offensive line broke—Rivera and Wahle were lost to free agency before the 2005 season. The team collapsed.

After the 2005 season, Sherman was fired and McCarthy hired.

All of a sudden there were new demands on Rodgers. He was required to attend off-season quarterback school, six hours of it several days a week. Then McCarthy got on him about his weight. Rodgers weighed 228 at the time and measured about 15% body fat. McCarthy wanted the body fat down to 10% to 12%.

“I fought it and I was like, ‘Why?’ ” Rodgers said. “But I think it definitely helped me out. I’m 217 right now, the lightest I’ve been before my sophomore year at Cal, and I’m a lot stronger and more fit. But I fought the system. Change has always been tough. Any type of change in my life I’ve always met with some resistance, so we butted heads the first year a little bit.”

Favre didn’t attend McCarthy’s quarterback school and didn’t make his decision to return for another year until just before the draft. When he showed up, he didn’t know any of the terminology of McCarthy’s system.

With Nall gone to Buffalo, Rodgers was the only familiar face in the quarterback room, and he was able to lean over and tell Favre which plays under the Sherman system corresponded to the ones McCarthy was teaching. It was at that point that Favre and Rodgers started to become close.

I'd always wondered how it was that Favre went from looking at Rodgers like a leper to getting all “shits and giggles” with him, at least in front of the camera. Silverstein has isolated the moment. Favre found a use for the kid when it was clear that the Packers were installing a new system and he had to learn the new terminology. It was either that, or show up to quarterback school. Favre isn’t about to get schooled. Moreover, showing up at quarterback school would undoubtedly contribute more to Rodgers’ education than Favre would like. After all, Rodgers was already spending his days following Favre around with a notepad. Favre wasn’t about to help Rodgers ease him out of his own job!

But apparently, last year, Rodgers had gotten cozy enough for McCarthy to get Favre to actually contribute—

Rodgers’ education continued into ’07. McCarthy urged Favre to spend more time mentoring Rodgers, and Favre responded.

“My first year, he was kind of like, ‘Yeah, he needs to grow up and this and that,’ ” McCarthy said. “I told Brett, ‘You need to give back now. You’re at the point now where you’re older than most the quarterbacks coaches in the league. You can give back, not only to Aaron.’ Brett really embraced that. That’s one of the things you don’t really hear about.”

In my opinion, the fact that McCarthy has gone to lengths to point Favre’s goodwill out shows just how good the Packers are at PR and team-building. It probably helped that, at least according to his retirement speech, Favre was feeling older and older as the season wore on. In his retirement speech he spoke of how little pleasure and how much stress he was feeling. He became more malleable with respect to Rodgers, probably thinking of his legacy. This was a triumph for management.

Besides continuing to study coverages and meeting with Favre on the sideline during games, in ’07 Rodgers was given a scouting assignment. As soon as the game was over, he started working on the next opponent, providing a report on Wednesday morning to the coaches and other quarterbacks.

He would watch tape on Mondays and Tuesdays and write the report Tuesday night. It started out being a report on the cornerbacks Favre would be facing that week, but it advanced into in-depth reports on schemes, tendencies and other players.

Favre used to joke that Rodgers’ presentation was his least favorite part of the week, but Clements said the work was invaluable for Rodgers. Soon he was coming up with the same evaluations as the coaches.

Damn, but they were good. Favre’s outright hostility and refusal has now become passive-aggressive snarkiness vented while providing complete cooperation. That is, of course, if Favre was even being snarky. He may have been simply referring to the pain of having to look at the next week’s challenge. I’d like to think it was the latter. Again, he did mention those feelings in his retirement speech. Either way, by the end, Favre was actively abetting in his own downfall. By November of last year, they knew what they had what they needed:

It wound up being especially valuable when Rodgers got pressed into action against Dallas on Nov. 29. When Favre got knocked out of the game, Rodgers came in and completed 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown, nearly rallying the Packers to victory on the road.

“The touchdown I threw was exactly what we saw on film, the exact defense we were expecting,” Rodgers said. “It was the exact play call we talked about during the week, the play I had seen on film on Tuesday. I said, ‘I hope we get this look during the game.’ And sure of enough we’re on the 8-yard line and they give us that look and I hit Greg (Jennings) and he scores.”

As the season begins, there should be many more opportunities like that one. Rodgers carries with him a Harvard degree in quarterbacking, the kind only a few have the luxury of obtaining. Rodgers won’t outwardly resemble the quarterback Favre was, but there will be subtle similarities that coaches and teammates will recognize.

Indeed, that Cowboys game was the first convincing performance we ever saw from Aaron Rodgers. Unlike his other two ugly debuts, he played beautifully. And now we know why. He studied his ass off. He’s learned to play the pro game.


People have been pissed about the way the Favre retirement was handled, but as far as I can see, Thompson and McCarthy won at the lowest probable cost. They had what they really needed from Favre—time for Rodgers to grow. My instinct was that TT was never going to ask Favre to leave. But the minute he was out the door, there was no way he was going to prevent the installation of his new centerpiece. Think of the lost investment they’d placed in their first round draft pick. They needed this break. Favre is simply too old to build a new team around.

But they’ve treated Favre with kid gloves the entire way. They were deeply aware that the break would have to come at some time and they definitely wanted Favre to initiate it. Once he had crossed to the other side, they promptly closed the door. Management preferred that he stay retired than to return, but if he were to return, they clearly needed to trade him. They managed to trade him to the best possible team that they were unlikely to meet. From the PR perspective, it was a triumph. If the Packers have a good season this year, the bitter fan feelings will fade. Thompson and McCarthy will have won control of their team.

It’s not that they didn’t think Favre was good. Hell, they knew he was good. It was that they stood to lose Rodgers. Rodgers was their last, best chance to have a durable quarterback for the long-haul. Rodgers contract extends to the end of the 2009 season. At that point, they’d lose him and everything they invested in him to some other team who picks up the next hot QB for cheap. They wind up training someone new, who may not be as fine an athlete and who will need a few years to hit his stride. By that time, they may start losing larger parts of the team to free agency. Kirk said it first, and I think he’s right (and should write a fucking football blog, damn it)—the team as a whole would never peak because the quarterback lag would hold the rest of the team back as they reached their peak. When the new QB started to get good, they would be trying to repair the cracks in the rest of the team.

Favre’s extraordinary talent is an article of faith for many. It has been for me. I was a believer back in the aftermath of the 2005 season when lots of people called him a washed-up has-been. And I didn’t even like him very much then, even though I wore his shirt all the time because he was a god and the legendary quarterback of my beloved Green Bay Packers. But Favre, physical god that he still is, is going to retire soon. In my opinion the bottom line is, if you are really a Packers fan, we needed for Favre to leave before they lost Rodgers. In my opinion, management made the correct decision.

Is this ingratitude? Certainly there are many who will argue this, especially those who worship exceptional athletic talent. I have previously argued strongly on this position. I do believe football players should be paid millions of dollars because exceptional athletic talent is far rarer than exceptional business talent. Moreover, it is obscene to me that the bodies of these men should be destroyed to enrich the pockets of others.

That said, I don’t think that Brett Favre has the right to hold back the whole team’s development. I believe the Packers’ rhetoric when they claim that they were okay with him reversing his retirement when he talked about it last spring, But June is too late. The train has already left the station.

It was really clear that Favre wanted to be talked out of retiring. His response was like that of the hurt prima donna. But that drama could be re-enacted on a yearly basis. The bottom line is Favre isn’t going to be a quarterback in this league three years from now. He’s going out. Management had to think of the transition. After that Cowboys game, the Packers weren’t going to try to talk him out of retiring. If he came back, they’d welcome him. There was one more year on Rodgers contract and firing Favre would he a PR disaster. They could afford one more year. But they really wanted Favre to retire. Rodgers was ready to start. And indeed, one has to imagine that they really were ready to have full control of their team again, and that includes a quarterback that they can force to go to quarterback school and who will lose weight on command (although I point out immediately that Favre has been coming to camp leaner and more fit every year—no one can fault him on that count).

Is this a bad deal for football? Actually, I think it’s a great deal for football. Favre was increasingly a bad match for the Packers, because the Packers have been rebuilding and, at this juncture, they need to install the new QB if the rebuild is to have longevity. In contrast, the Jets, while improving their offense, really aren’t engaged in a rebuilding process. They’re simply trying to upgrade the existing team. There’s no reason to think of their approach in that same “investment” framework. They aren’t thinking of the long-term. They seem to just care about winning this year. They didn’t really have any good QB options. Favre, in contrast, will this year remain among the strongest QBs in the league. Moreover, he will rally their fan base and increase merchandising sales. This is a total no-brainer for the Jets. While I’m not a Jets fan per se, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for them. Certainly, I like them way better than the Giants. Moreover, and most importantly, Favre will still play football. It’s definitely in the interest of the sport as a whole that Favre play as long as he’s able.


When this drama began, I overreacted. I was pissed off at Favre because I wanted him to be a personal hero. Seeing him come back last year really helped me as I’ve tried to pull myself back together and learn how to be a researcher again. I wanted him to be noble. Instead, he was a prima donna. But I forgot that I never wore Favre’s shirt because he was a personal hero. I wore it because, not only was he our quarterback, but he was our legendary quarterback. That’ll never change. Sure, no doubt, he isn’t alone. In fact, Bart Starr is a hero to me in many ways that Favre could never be. But I can’t cancel what Favre has meant to me.

Favre was deeply human in the ways we like to forget when we contemplate the ways that human beings can approach perfection. His perfection as an athlete engaged in the game is not the same as is his perfection as a sportman in the sense of the best sportsmanship. Favre did what he did because he combined talent with a love of the game. How many Sundays did he make magic for me and every other Packers fan?

I wore his shirt yesterday, and I’ll probably keep wearing his shirt. Because personal hero or no, I’ll never forget the magic he made every Sunday. I came of age wearing Brett Favre’s jersey. I won’t take it off now.

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