The number sat there all off-season—in the pit of Brett Favre's stomach, like a day-old doughnut. Everywhere the Green Bay quarterback went and in every Packer story he read, there it was.
Last season Favre threw an NFL-high 24 interceptions. This year everybody threw that number back at him, wondering whether the 25-year-old third-year starter was going to be too mistake-prone to be a winning NFL quarterback. How was the wild-eyed, wild-armed Favre ever going to fit in under coach Mike Holmgren, the reigning master of the precision passing game?
"There's no question it bothered me," Favre said last week of the doubt about his ability. "I couldn't understand why a young quarterback was catching so much blame. Young quarterbacks make lots of mistakes. But this season I was determined to play well. I was going to do whatever it took."
In 6° windchill at Lambeau Field Sunday, Favre showed the result of that work, proving that he has become one of the top-10 quarterbacks in the league. His relatively safe 19-of-31 game led the Pack to its best offensive show in more than a decade. Green Bay beat Chicago 40-3, and the Packers' 516 net yards were their most in a game since 1983. The Packers, 7-7 with two winnable games left, are shooting for their third straight 9-7 season.
In '93 Favre threw for 3.303 yards, with 19 touchdown passes and those 24 interceptions. This year he has thrown for 3,270 yards, with 28 TD passes and only 12 interceptions. Holmgren attributes the improvement to playing time. "In the past we'd give good young quarterbacks five years to mature before we handed a team to them. Now, with free agency, we cant. We have to find out if a guy can play before his contract is up. And so quarterbacks play early. I said all along that this would be Brett's takeoff year. We talked in the off-season about game management, and we're seeing better results."
Favre hasn't arrived. He still makes kid mistakes. He piloted the Pack to a 24-0 second-quarter deficit at Buffalo three weeks ago, coming within a charitable I Holmgren decision of getting pulled at the end of the first half. He still opens games with an arm full of adrenaline: Against Chicago he overthrew two piddling screens in the first quarter. "He's not going to be the most accurate quarterback I ever coached," says Holmgren, "but I've coached Joe Montana and Steve Young. Brett's making good decisions, and he's shown he'll be accurate."
He's surely becoming a smarter player. Last Sunday, Green Bay led 17-3 and had the ball at its own 18 with 1:47 left in the first half. It was third-and-four. Holmgren called for a screen pass. "It wasn't there," Favre said. "Last year I probably would have forced the pass in there, and who knows what would have happened."
Perhaps Favre would have been picked off, and the Bears would have had new life, cutting the margin to 17-10 at the half. But Favre saw a hole around the right end. He scrambled for 26 yards. Seven plays later he threw a bullet to Sterling Sharpe for a 13-yard TD, and the Pack led 24-3 at the half. This one was over.
On Dec. 4 Favre had his best game of the year in a loss at Detroit, throwing for 366 yards. In the locker room afterward Holmgren told him. "You played a great game, but it wasn't the perfect game."
"That's asking a lot," Favre said.
"It's what we're shooting for. You've got to know that," Holmgren said.
Favre won't be perfect. But he has proved he can carry a good team. And who wouldn't give the moon today for a 25-year-old quarterback with guts and a golden arm, scars and all?
One Man's Trash...
Tampa Bay Buccaneer rookie running back Errict Rhett is on a mission to emerge from the shadow of Emmitt Smith. As a redshirt freshman at Florida in 1989, Rhett roomed with Smith for road games. That year Smith became the Gators' alltime leading rusher, with 3,928 yards. Four years later Rhett surpassed that mark, finishing with 4,163 yards, but he never escaped the comparisons.
"I didn't try to chase his records, but we were always compared," says Rhett, the Bucs' second-round pick in the '94 draft. "It's time I make a name for myself."
Rhett gained some recognition in the Bucs' 26-21 win over the Washington Redskins on Dec. 4 by running for 192 yards, the second-highest single-game total in team history. On Sunday he rushed for 119 yards in a victory over the Rams, the fourth time in five weeks that he had gained more than 100 yards. He is a top candidate for NFC Rookie of the Year.
A former Florida state high school heavyweight wrestling champion, Rhett is a tireless worker who can bench-press 485 pounds. He spent the spring and early summer running on a football field near his home in Gainesville, dragging a person behind him in a specially built sled. During practice he runs 20 to 30 yards every time he touches the ball, and afterward he runs some more, making cuts while visualizing game situations.
When Rhett's legs aren't running, his mouth is. "I'm coming right at you." he'll warn defensive linemen in practice and in games. "Try and stop me."
"I'm a mass of enthusiasm," Rhett says. "Other defensive players would call it trash. But I'm just pumping myself up because I can't play when I'm down. I get myself so hyped up, you'd think I'd eaten a whole box of chocolates."
Dave Krieg isn't reluctant to pose the question Lion fans did so loudly earlier this season when week after week free agent quarterback Scott Mitchell looked like an $11 million bust.
"Why bring in an unproven commodity and pay him a lot of money?" asks Krieg, 36, who graduated from now-defunct Milton College in 1980, signed a free-agent contract with Seattle and 14 years later is ranked sixth in career passing efficiency, with a rating of 83.1, and 11th in career TD passes, with 228. "I'm proven. A team knows what it's getting when it gets me."
In the second half of the 1983 season, Krieg replaced Jim Zorn and led the Seahawks to the AFC Championship Game, which they lost to the Raiders 30-14. When Krieg took over for Mitchell, who broke a bone in his right hand on Nov. 6 in a 38-30 loss to the Packers, the Lions were 4-5 and clawing for a wild-card berth. Now they are 8-6. This is dèjà vu for Krieg.
Although he had practiced only sparingly with the first-team offense before Mitchell's injury, Krieg has thrown for 983 yards, eight TDs and one interception in live starts. His 114.5 quarterback rating is the best in the NFL. He would have a shot at the passing title if he had enough attempts.
What separates Krieg from Mitchell is Krieg's command in the huddle and his ability to find second and third receivers and read defenses—all qualities that Mitchell, with only seven NFL starts before this season, lacks.
"I assumed I'd be at least a backup when I came to Detroit," Krieg says. "My nature was to compete for the first-string job. Nothing has ever been handed to me. so I've learned never to take anything for granted in life. And I've never given anybody the opportunity to take my job."
Krieg is performing so well that he might price himself out of Detroit's budget in 1995. He signed an $825,000, one-year contract in April and should be in for a hefty raise. But Mitchell has two years left on his contract, and the Lions won't want to carry two high-priced quarterbacks. Don't be surprised if one of the expansion teams, Carolina or Jacksonville, comes calling for Krieg.
Back in Action
After Brent Novoselsky suffered a pinched nerve in his neck on Nov. 27 and Adrian Cooper tore his right rotator cuff a week later, the Minnesota Vikings were left with a decidedly green tight end corps. It consisted of rookie Andrew Jordan, a sixth-round pick from Western Carolina, and John Gerak, a second-year guard-center who had yet to play the position. Desperate for an experienced player, the Vikes called Steve Jordan.
A 13-year veteran and the Vikings' alltime leading receiver, Jordan, 33, had failed to come to terms with the team during training camp. As a member of the NFL Players Association's Executive Committee, Jordan had helped push for free agency, an act that some say priced him out of his job. Now he has a $75,000 contract for the remainder of the season.
Few athletes can suit up for an NFL game after an absence of nearly a year and make a significant contribution, but Jordan did on Dec. 1 against the Bears. Two days after taking a leave of absence from his job as an on-site project engineer for the M.A. Mortenson construction company, Jordan was welcomed back to the Metrodome with a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. He caught a 10-yard pass and blocked well throughout the game, helping the Vikings to a 33-27 overtime win over Chicago.
Jordan stayed fit in his 11 months away from the league by catching passes from former Viking quarterback Rich Gannon three mornings a week at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School and running and lifting weights on his own. His experience and sure hands have given the Viking offense another receiving threat that defenses have to account for. Still, Jordan was not entirely sure how smoothly his return to action would go. "The first game back I didn't want to get a fluke injury." he says. "I had to brush up on the offensive system. With Warren [Moon] being a new quarterback, some of the terminology has changed and routes have been refined."
There were many times Jordan wondered if he would ever play in the NFL again. But he had wisely prepared for retirement by cultivating his second career at the Mortenson company during the past seven off-seasons. For the moment, though, his engineering career is on hold. Jordan and the Vikings are suddenly on very good terms.
The domino effect worked well for the Packer defense, which held the Bears to 27 yards rushing.
Shooting for the perfect game, Favre helped the Pack to its best offensive showing in 11 seasons.