GREEN BAY, Wis. – Shortly after Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was scheduled to speak to a large gathering of reporters at Lambeau Field on Monday night, assistant director of public relations Sarah Quick entered through a side door and brought a hush to the crowded interview room.
"This is not a two-minute warning," Quick announced cheerfully. "But I'm here to tell you that I'll be out later to give you a two-minute warning."
Alas, the warning never came. Instead, the night ended with the Packers throwing a delay-of-game flag.
Rather than McCarthy coming out to shed light on the sports world's sauciest soap opera, PR director Jeff Blumb emerged and added to the spectacle of the Brett Favre Circus, announcing that the legendary quarterback and his coach still were meeting and McCarthy wouldn't meet the media until an undetermined time on Tuesday.
That meant the coach wouldn't answer the one question on all of our minds. To borrow from Slim Pickens in "Blazing Saddles": What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin' on here?
A month into a saga that has brought Favre from retirement in Mississippi to reinstatement in Titletown – with public and private sniping, trade talks and multimillion-dollar kill fees heightening the drama – it's still far from clear what's really going down.
Did Favre get his job back, at Aaron Rodgers' expense?
Are the Packers, while seemingly embracing Favre's return, still angling for a deal that could send him to another team, even the dreaded Minnesota Vikings?
Which side made a bigger mess on the PR front – the quarterback who called his once and future bosses dishonest, or the seemingly confused organization that just hired Ari Fleischer as a consultant?
Most important, when Green Bay CEO Mark Murphy announced Sunday night that Favre would return to the team and that the Packers would "welcome him back and turn this situation to our advantage," what did he really mean?
Let's break down the possibilities:
FAVRE SAGA: JUDGMENT WEEK
Silver: Five Favre scenarios
MJD: Anything could happen
AccuScore: Impact on Packers
Silver: Blame Favre for mess
MJD: Big headlines, no news
Fantasy: Favre draft dilemma
Other stars to delay retirement
Silver: McCarthy's boiling point
Silver: Desperate move by Jets
Cole: Wild ways will test Mangini
Johnson: Chad finally G-O-N-E
MJD: Time to rejoice. It's over!
Fantasy: Impact with Jets and beyond
Fantasy: Favre or Rodgers?
Chart: Favre vs. Jets QBs
Puck Daddy: Favre on skates?
1. The Packers Sincerely Will Allow Favre and Rodgers To Compete. In light of the organization's bipolar tendencies of recent weeks, it's hard not to be skeptical of anything Murphy or general manager Ted Thompson says right now. But it's quite possible that, given the circumstances – no trade offers they consider overly enticing; a desire not to allow the Vikings to acquire Favre for nothing; the quarterback's rejection of a reported 10-year, $20-million licensing deal and calling of the team's bluff by choosing to report; commissioner Roger Goodell's intervention – the Pack's powers that be caved and decided to go with the best player, Rodgers' feelings be damned.
This is what many Packers players would prefer, regardless of their loyalties; pure competition is the essence of football. But it still creates a very sticky situation, no matter how it plays out.
If Favre beats out Rodgers – and given that he has missed the entire offseason program, it's not the slam dunk that some portray it to be – the Packers will have alienated an heir apparent whom they drafted in the first round and spent three years developing. Rodgers is signed through '09, but in all likelihood he'd push his way out of Green Bay long before then. If Favre plays poorly, the team likely will be forced to stick with him for the entire '08 season. If his bosses caved in this situation, do you think they have the guts to bench him, thus ending his record consecutive-games streak? Uh, no.
The best-case scenario for Green Bay? Favre plays well in '08 – and the Packers once again will be forced to deal with the same questions surrounding his future, without a clear-cut successor in place.
Conversely, if Rodgers wins the job, he'll be in an unimaginably uncomfortable situation, with one of the greatest passers of all time looming on the sideline and the fans clamoring for a change at the first sign of struggle. Given that Rodgers was booed in a scrimmage at Lambeau on Sunday night, can you imagine how brutal it would be after he throws his first interception in a regular-season game?
2. The Packers Will Rig the Competition In Rodgers' Favor. Because Thompson and McCarthy clearly made a psychic shift toward the fourth-year passer in March, when Favre recanted on his initial decision to end his retirement, I wonder whether they're truly open to reversing course. Telling Favre he has the right to compete for his job could be an effort to placate him – and create leverage with trade partners such as the Vikings – while sticking with the plan they've had in place all along. If a trade can't be worked out, they might be thinking, perhaps Favre will become disgusted, take the licensing deal and retire after all.
The drawback, as noted earlier, is that if Favre sticks around it would create an uncomfortable situation for Rodgers once the season begins, not to mention a potential rift in the locker room if the fourth-year passer gets off to a poor start. Though Rodgers is popular with teammates, many of whom prefer him to Favre, a run of futility would affect his approval rating as sharply as it would his passer rating. That's something to which Fleischer, late of the Bush administration, can certainly relate.
3. The Packers Will Trade Favre (Even If They Have To Make A Lousy Deal). Though head coach Brad Childress denied the Packers contacted the Vikings on Friday about a potential deal for Favre, I believe the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's report was accurate. Certainly, the Packers would listen to offers, and the team's insistence that Favre is being welcomed back might merely be an attempt to jack up the stakes.
If that's what's going on, you have to give the Packers credit for gumption, for a lot of Green Bay fans will feel jerked around and betrayed if it turns out this was all about leverage. One thing to watch: If another team's starting quarterback gets injured in the near future, you have to figure Favre very much will be in play. And while I know Favre has said he wants to go to an NFC North team so he can play the Packers twice a year – think about that as the quarterback and his bosses do their best to convince everyone things are all warm and fuzzy – that doesn't mean Thompson can't deal him to a team like the Jets or Bucs against his will.
Last year, remember, after Jake Plummer told the Broncos he was retiring, the Broncos traded their former starting quarterback to the Bucs for a conditional fourth-round pick. When Plummer, as threatened, elected not to report, the Bucs were off the hook for the fourth-rounder. However, Tampa assumed ownership of Plummer's rights, meaning he couldn't end his retirement and sign with another team of his choosing. If the Packers were to deal Favre under similar terms, they could prevent him from ending up with the Vikings or Bears in '08.
Now consider one other possibility: Favre, too, may be bluffing about his desire to play for the Packers. He said some harsh things about Thompson, and to a lesser extent McCarthy, in his interview with FOX News Channel's Greta Van Susteren last month. Perhaps he has overcome his bitterness and sincerely will embrace a return to the franchise for which he is an icon. But maybe Favre, in his heart, wants to leave Green Bay and stick it to the Packers (thus his desire to play them twice), and he is playing along in an effort to get the Vikings to bite on the Packers' trade demands.
4. The Packers Will Release Favre Before the Start of the Season. Assuming Rodgers is declared the winner of the competition, be it legitimate or rigged, and there are no sufficient trade offers, the team then would wait until a few days before the first regular-season game and grant Favre his freedom. That would put him in a tough spot, even if he were to sign with a team that features an offense with which he is familiar, like the Vikings. Oh, and by the way, Minnesota opens its season at Lambeau on Monday, Sept. 8. Again, it seems unlikely Thompson and McCarthy would go to this much trouble – and create this much tension for Rodgers – if this is the ultimate intention. But I suppose it's possible.
5. The Packers Will Give Favre His Job Back, Consequences Be Damned. The franchise and its all-time passing leader are like co-dependents in a lousy relationship, and neither side can walk away. For years Favre has been conflicted about his intentions, overly sensitive when he feels he's not getting enough love from his superiors and chafed when they don't run the team the way he wants them to (i.e. not trading for Randy Moss after the '06 season). Thompson, meanwhile, puts up a tough front but seems to live in fear of alienating Favre and his fan base.
Just when it seemed the GM had finally summoned the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the QB and make a clean break, he retreated into grovel mode. He seems to be running scared – that Favre, by joining the rival Vikings or Bears, could come back to burn the Packers; that he'll look like a chump for releasing a productive player and getting nothing in return; that the fans never will forgive him for parting ways with a legend. Instead of making a sound, if unpopular, business decision to begin the Rodgers era, giving a promising quarterback a chance to grow with an up-and-coming team the GM shrewdly has stocked with talented performers, it appears that he practically begged Favre to go away before reversing course and kowtowing yet again.
If this is in fact what happened, and things play out accordingly, Thompson will have done more than screw up his franchise's succession plan at the most pivotal position; he'll have exposed himself as a flaccid flip-flopper who doesn't have the stomach for a standoff. I hope that's not what's happening here, but if it is, Thompson will get pummeled in the PR war he seems so desperately to want to win. Blumb, Quick and fellow assistant Adam Woullard are among the best in the business, but they can only do so much damage control – especially if Favre gets his way and then starts whining about not being appreciated and questioning his desire to return in '09.
Don't laugh; it could happen.
And with all due respect to Ari Fleischer, there won't be any way of spinning that into a feel-good story.
- the Packers