In the end, Favre gave the organization he loves the greatest gift of all: The best chance to succeed in 2008 and beyond.
This is not what Packers fans want to read on this day of collective mourning, and I'm not here to pick a fight with a cult. My baptism as a national football writer coincided directly with Favre's emergence as a superstar – in that way, we grew up together – and I adore the guy as both a person and a player.
From writing his first Sports Illustrated cover story in '95 to laughing about our shared challenges in raising daughters this past fall, my Favre experiences have been 100 percent positive – and trust me, that's a rarity in this business. A part of me is mourning, too.
Yet after witnessing the final two performances of Favre's incredible career, I'm convinced that his decision to retire was the right one for the Packers. And though Favre, like most fierce competitors, probably wouldn't concede this – and, in truth, likely isn't even conscious of it – deep inside, this was an act of selflessness made with the franchise's best interests in mind.
As terrific as Favre was in 2007, as deliciously surprising as it was that he returned to Pro Bowl form after two shaky seasons, what went down at Texas Stadium on Nov. 29 was drenched in symbolism. In the biggest game of the regular season in the NFC, Favre, for whatever reason, looked positively awful against the Dallas Cowboys. He was 5 for 14 with 56 yards and two interceptions before getting knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a separated left shoulder and bruised right elbow.
At the time, the Packers trailed the Cowboys 27-10 and seemed to be overmatched against their aggressive hosts. What happened next, to most outsiders, was somewhat stunning. Aaron Rodgers, the former first-round draft pick who'd been chilling like the old hamburger buns in the back of a freezer for three seasons, ran into the huddle and played like, dare I say, the young Favre.
He got Green Bay back into the game, cutting the Dallas lead to 27-24. The Cowboys ultimately prevailed, 37-27, but Rodgers was a revelation. He looked smooth, unruffled and utterly in command, completing 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions.
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Yet after the game, Rodgers wasn't the big story. Nor was the masterful performance of Wisconsin-raised Tony Romo, another young passer who'd waited a long time to get his turn to shine. It was all about "The Streak." And that amazing record of Favre's, warm and fuzzy as it made us all feel, was not helping the franchise.
Favre returned to play 10 days later against the Oakland Raiders and eventually ran his string of successive overall starts to 275 (including 22 playoff games). It's one of the more amazing accomplishments in the history of sports, and I doubt it will ever be approached. But to Packers fans it had become bigger than winning, and its aura had seeped into the Pack's brain trust as well. Consider that the day after the Dallas game, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy felt compelled to begin his press conference by saying, "Just to quote the medical staff, his streak is not in danger."
Eventually though, someone had to end The Streak for the Pack to move on, and neither coach Mike McCarthy nor general manager Ted Thompson was willing to do the deed. Thankfully, Favre chose to end it himself, rather than let some ferocious defensive end or blitzing linebacker do the honors.
It's time to see whether Rodgers can carry the young Packers to the next level, rather than pretending that Favre's toughness can overcome any obstacle. As long as The Streak was alive, Favre was going to start, no matter the context. Rodgers, drafted 24th overall in 2005, wasn't going to develop, and the Packers were never going to know conclusively whether he was as good as they suspected.
Source: NFL, Pro-football-reference
Meanwhile, Jason Campbell, the man drafted immediately behind Rodgers, was growing into his role as the Washington Redskins' young starter. Alex Smith, the passer the 49ers chose over Rodgers as the No. 1 overall pick in '05, was already on the verge of flaming out in San Francisco.
All of this could have been overlooked had Favre continued to play as brilliantly as he did for most of '07. But in the NFC Championship game, given the most golden of opportunities to get back to the Super Bowl, the 38-year-old quarterback couldn't come through.
Even the biggest of Favre fanatics has to concede that the table couldn't have been set any better on that frigid Sunday night at Lambeau Field: The New York Giants' upset of the Cowboys had given the Pack a home game, with negative temperatures and a minus-23 wind-chill greeting the NFC's fifth-seeded team. Yet Favre, with 72,740 hypothermia candidates cheering him on, wasn't particularly sharp, especially after halftime, when he was 9-for-17 for 73 yards and two interceptions.
Still, when the Giants' Lawrence Tynes shanked a 36-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, and the Pack won the toss in overtime, it seemed the football gods had weighed in: Favre was going back to the Super Bowl.
Except, for whatever reason, Favre failed: On the Packers' second play from scrimmage in overtime, Favre dropped back and, with plenty of time, sailed a sideline pass for Donald Driver that was easily intercepted by Giants cornerback Corey Webster and returned to the Green Bay 34-yard line. Three plays later, Tynes banged home the 47-yarder that sent the Packers shuffling off to their locker room in stunned silence.
Brett Favre celebrates after the Packers scored against the Seahawks during the NFC divisional playoff game on January 12, 2008 at Lambeau Field.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Some of the fans leaving Lambeau, at least those who could move their mouths, uttered the unthinkable to one another: "Maybe we'd have won the game with Rodgers."
Favre didn't see Webster lurking when he floated that ball to Driver, but the great quarterback's vision was impeccable when it came to looking at the big picture.
Because of Favre's stellar season, many assumed he'd want to come back in '08 to enjoy the Pack's surprising revival. But Favre knew it wasn't that simple, especially in today's NFL of sudden rises and falls.
At one point in January, Favre referenced the Saints and Bears – the teams that battled in the '06 NFC title game but missed the playoffs in '07 – as proof that nothing about the Pack's '08 prospects should be taken for granted. Even after his fantastic performance led Green Bay to a 42-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, he voiced that sentiment, saying in his postgame press conference, "We could be 3-13 next year. Who knows? So enjoy it and try to get the most out of it."
I think Favre is at peace with himself, with his career and with his decision to walk away. He was never particularly nurturing toward Rodgers, as most of us might not be to the young worker we feared was brought in by management to take our jobs, but he also knows that the kid's time has come. The Packers had the league's youngest roster in 2007, and they'll gravitate toward Rodgers' refreshing energy, even as they stumble and fall while trying to forge what could be a nice run of prolonged championship contention.
Favre will appreciate it from afar. And every so often, he'll return to Lambeau, where the measure of his sacrifice – including this last act of putting the team's best interests above his ego – will only increase the reverence of the masses.
If I close my eyes, I can still see Favre's errant pass to Driver settling into Webster's hands as a collective gasp fell over the frozen tundra. But that's not the way I'm going to choose to remember Favre's farewell.
Instead, I'm flashing back eight days earlier, to the aftermath of that playoff victory over the Seahawks in which Favre brought the Pack back from an early 14-0 deficit, played nearly flawless football and produced one of those incredible instances of improvisation that fired up even the most cynical of football fans.
A couple of hours later, as the competing players exchanged hugs and 72,168 fans stayed in the stadium to celebrate, I traversed the snow-covered Lambeau grass to get a close-up glimpse of a legend in his finest hour. As Favre stood there among his public, large, white flakes falling on his sweat-covered green jersey, it occurred to me that though I was very much in and of this transcendental moment, I lacked the proper skills to describe what was happening.
So I gave up and joined the crowd in awestruck appreciation.
I watched as Favre hugged his wife, Deanna, and their daughters, Brittany and Breleigh. He waved to the crowd, which responded with an intensity that I can only call religious. I put away my notebook, exhaled deeply and tried to take in what I was witnessing.
At the time, I didn't know it was the end. But I was pretty sure I'd never see anything like it again.