Late last week, as he prepared for the season opener, Packers
quarterback Brett Favre added a new twist to his preparation.
Along with watching hours of film on Tampa Bay's defensive
fronts, Favre, last year's NFL MVP, also turned on the Weather
Channel each morning to keep an eye on several tropical-storm
fronts. The tendencies of the Buccaneers' new coach, Tony Dungy,
worried him a little, but what Favre was really fretting over
were the actions of Edouard, Fran and Gustav.
"I've been watching every day, making sure no hurricanes were
gonna stop the game in Tampa," said Favre last Friday. "I saw
one moving that way, and I just thought, Aw, man, here's one
more thing trying to stop my season from starting."
It turns out no act of nature, and certainly not the pitiful
Buccaneers, could stop Favre from getting back on track after an
off-season that included a six-week stay at the Menninger Clinic
in Topeka, Kans., to treat his addiction to the prescription
painkiller Vicodin. The storms proved no threat, but Favre and
tight end Keith Jackson blasted the Tampa area with a hurricane
of their own, connecting on three touchdown passes as Green Bay
handed Tampa Bay its worst home-opening loss in its 21-season
Favre used eight receivers and completed 20 of 27 passes for 247
yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. And the way he
beamed on the field, throwing crushing lead blocks and diving
for first downs, you could tell this was one cheesehead happy to
be back under center.
"Sunday was a day I thought would never get here," Favre said.
"After everything I've been through, the one place of
tranquillity left for me is the field. Unfortunately, [the game]
only lasts three hours and then it's back to reality."
At times, that reality can be too much for Favre to take. The
NFL substance-abuse program he voluntarily entered last spring
requires him to undergo up to 10 tests per month for drugs and
alcohol. "When the counselors I saw used terms [for me] like
alcoholic and drug addict, that kind of pissed me off," says
Favre. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Mentally, Favre may still be coming to grips with his addiction
but physically he has never been better. At 215 pounds--10
lighter than last year--Favre looked sharp rolling out against
the Bucs' defensive line. And having only three weeks to prepare
after returning from Menninger has turned out to be a blessing
in disguise. A classic over-trainer, Favre has required only
three preseason ice treatments on his arm this year as compared
with more than 50 at last year's camp. The zip in his arm was
most noticeable with 49 seconds left in the first half on Sunday
when he lofted a pretty 51-yard pass to Jackson, who stomped
into the end zone to make the score 24-3 at the break. "I want
to win the Super Bowl, and right now guys are walking around
feeling like we can't be beat," said Favre.
The Packers' defense was improved up the gut during the
off-season with the addition of free-agent tackle Santana Dotson
from the Buccaneers and safety Eugene Robinson, who was acquired
in a trade from Seattle. On Sunday that unit forced two fumbles
and grabbed four interceptions while holding Tampa Bay to 59
yards rushing--all to the delight of the more than 10,000 Packer
Backers who rocked Houlihan's Stadium. "It was like a home game
out there," said Packers wideout Robert Brooks. "We are
America's team now."
Pretty soon, though, the Bucs may not be Tampa's team. On
Tuesday, Hillsborough County residents were to vote on a
half-cent sales-tax increase that would generate funds for,
among other things, the new football stadium needed to keep the
Bucs from leaving town. But, really, who would actually want
this team? This will be the Bucs' 14th straight losing season.
Still, the vote was expected to be so close that both pro- and
antistadium camps believed that even a decent showing against
Green Bay would push the referendum through.
Favre, of course, may have vetoed that. And as he walked to the
sideline after leaving the game early in the fourth quarter, he
winked at Packers tight end Mark Chmura, then pounded his friend
on the shoulder pads. "I'm back," he said with a smile so wide
it seemed to connect his sideburns. "I'm all the way back."
Leading 10-7 late in the third quarter, the Lions had just
marched 83 yards to the Vikings' two-yard line. That is when
Detroit coach Wayne Fontes inserted a short-yardage package, in
which Barry Sanders, arguably the best running back in the NFL,
was removed in favor of Eric Lynch. On the next play Lynch
fumbled without being hit. The Lions lost the ball and
ultimately the game, 17-13. Afterward, explaining why Lynch was
in the game instead of Sanders, Fontes refused to second-guess
himself, saying, "He hasn't fumbled in three or four years."
Entering Sunday's game, Lynch had had one carry--for no
gain--since 1993. In that same period Sanders had carried the
ball 645 times, and at one point last year had a streak of 703
straight carries without a turnover.
Here are some first-year players who came from humble beginnings
to earn a spot on an opening day roster.
--Shar Pourdanesh, offensive tackle, Redskins: The "Shar of
Iran," the 6' 6", 313-pounder is believed to be the first
Iranian-born player in the NFL. Pourdanesh, whose family
immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, learned English by watching
reruns of Gilligan's Island. He started at left tackle on Sunday
against the Eagles, protecting the back side of his li'l buddy,
--Joe Nedney, kicker, Dolphins: He made only 55.7% of his field
goal attempts at San Jose State. But after kicking "about 10,000
balls," as he puts it, last winter, Nedney came in as a free
agent and unseated eight-year vet Pete Stoyanovich. In the
Dolphins' 24-10 defeat of the Patriots Sunday, Nedney made his
only field goal attempt, a 34-yarder.
--Moses Regular, linebacker, Giants: A rookie from Missouri
Valley, an NAIA Division II school, Regular, despite wearing
uniforms numbered 86, 51 and 46 in camp, caught coach Dan
Reeves's eye. He will also be the team's long snapper.
And then there's David Diaz-Infante, a guard for the Broncos.
He's 32 years old and doesn't qualify as a rookie, but he is
worth watching. The last time he played in an NFL game was with
San Diego as a replacement player during the '87 strike. The
quarterback he was protecting was Rick Neuheisel, who is now the
coach at Colorado.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Rarely ruffled by a rush, Favre picked the hapless Tampa Bay pass defense apart for four TDs. [Brett Favre in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG [Tony Mandarich]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [Carolina Panthers' locker room]
Despite having no single back rush for more than 21 yards,
Kansas City won its seventh straight season opener, 20-19 over
Oakland, the AFC's most-penalized team in 1995, is off(sides)
and running in '96, having been flagged 12 times for 60 yards in
its 19-14 loss at Baltimore. The Pride and Poise boys now have
the league's longest losing streak, seven games.
Quarterback Scott Mitchell, who threw four interceptions in
Detroit's 58-37 NFC wild-card playoff loss at Philadelphia last
December, tossed four more in the Lions' 17-13 loss at Minnesota.
With four new starters on defense, Denver finished with nine
sacks in its 31-6 victory over the Jets, almost one third of
its total (30) all last season.
The tattoos are still there, outdated though they are with '80s
slogans like APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION. He still enjoys riding
Harleys, hunting big game and spending half the day in the
weight room. But it was a different Tony Mandarich who took the
field for the Colts on Sunday. Gone is the larger-than-life
Mandarich who was supposedly the baddest blocker in the land
when the Packers made him the second pick in the 1989 draft. In
his place is a more mellow Mandarich who this winter, after
three years out of the game, rang up the Colts' Lindy Infante,
his coach in Green Bay, and asked for another shot. "The game
has humbled me," says Mandarich, who is making a league-minimum
$196,000 to back up right tackle Jason Mathews. "I'm not taking
it, or myself, so seriously now."
No one, actually, took the brash, mouthy Mandarich seriously
during his first go-round. Yes, the Packers gave him a
four-year, $4.4 million contract, but he quickly became a
punching bag for defensive linemen. He started 31 games in 1990
and '91 but missed all of '92 with a thyroid problem and
postconcussion syndrome, and was released in March '93.
He returned to his home in Traverse City, Mich., and, after a
year off to heal, began working out again--regaining the 60
pounds he had dropped from his 6'5", 325-pound frame--while
studying for a degree in law enforcement at Northwestern
Michigan College. Mandarich seldom watched football in his time
away from the game but tuned in last fall as his alma mater,
Michigan State, defeated Michigan. That inspired his comeback.
"I'm having a blast with football again," he says. "I'm a lot
more mature now." --D.F.
A LOOK INSIDE
THE CAROLINA PANTHERS' NEW STADIUM
OFFICIAL NAME: Ericsson Stadium CAPACITY: 72,685
COST: $187 million MAN-HOURS OF LABOR: 1.8 million
THE LOWDOWN: Located in downtown Charlotte, the new home of the
Panthers includes 137 private suites, 23 "family" restrooms
(where parents may take kids of either sex) and 412 concessions
areas, roughly double the league norm. But perhaps the stadium's
most impressive feature is the Panthers' locker room (above),
which, at 45x18 yards, has nearly the same dimensions as an
Arena Football field. Recently, when it rained as Carolina was
preparing for a walk-through workout, coach Dom Capers joked
that "we might as well just hold practice in the locker room."