WHAT BETTER way for one of the biggest records in America's favorite game to fall than for Brett Favre to improvise a play at the line and execute it with the flair that has made him America's favorite quarterback? It helped to see the action unfold live on Sunday in Minneapolis because the clip aired later on the highlight shows did not do justice to Favre's 421st career touchdown pass, the one that moved him past Dan Marino atop the alltime list. The replay had Favre lasering a 16-yard touchdown pass to wideout Greg Jennings, the first points in a 23--16 Packers win over the Vikings that lifted Green Bay to 4--0. But that brief clip started eight seconds late and didn't reveal the full story of the play—nor why it exemplified Favre's unflagging mastery of his position.
So let's start with eight seconds left on the play clock, the Packers with third-and-seven at the Minnesota 16-yard line late in the first quarter and the noise in the Metrodome sounding like the takeoff runway at O'Hare on a Friday at 5 p.m.
:08 ... As Favre, in the shotgun, prepared to take the snap from center Scott Wells, he looked up and saw two reasons to worry: To Favre's left, linebacker E.J. Henderson was fixing to blitz; and to the quarterback's right, about 10 yards up the field, free safety Dwight Smith was positioned directly in the line of Jennings's pass route. Favre realized he had to call an audible. But that noise....
"Today was as loud as I've heard a stadium in recent memory," Favre said afterward. "I think we went on silent snap count on all but two plays [all game]." The audible was Y Dragon: Instead of tight end Donald Lee's running 12 yards upfield, which would encourage Smith to clog the middle, Favre wanted Lee to run a shallow flat route toward the sideline. This would give Jennings, who was split right, single coverage on a quick slant to the post. And the defender covering Jennings would be a rookie nickelback, Marcus McCauley. "I needed a quick-strike play because we probably weren't going to be able to block all they were bringing," Favre said. "Y Dragon was perfect."
:07 ... :06 ... :05 ... As Favre tried to get his teammates' attention and made the hand signal for Y Dragon, he realized that Lee, tight to the formation next to the right tackle, wasn't acknowledging the audible. So Favre scurried over, slapped the tight end on the butt and signaled the play. "He sees everything," Lee would later say of Favre, "so every decision he makes we know is the right one." Jennings felt a thrill of anticipation: "I'm thinking touchdown."
:04 ... :03 ... :02 ... Favre dropped back into the shotgun and, still unsure whether the play would come off, thought for a millisecond about calling a timeout. "But if I do," he said, "not only would we probably have changed our personnel group, [but the Vikings] would have changed to match up with us." Favre's eyes darted left to see Henderson edge closer to the line, to a gap that Favre knew he would quickly get through. "I looked up at the clock," Favre said, "but by then I knew it'd be a big play if we could get it off on time." He stomped his foot, signaling Wells to snap the ball.
:01 ... At the snap Henderson barreled in from Favre's left. "I knew I only had a second or two," the quarterback recalled. Lee, as directed, darted to the right flat, taking Smith with him and opening the hole in the coverage that Favre needed. Jennings sprinted four yards upfield and pivoted toward the post. "As I got into the route," Jennings said, "I realized how perfect the play was. There was nobody there."
Moments after the play clock hit :00, Favre, as he'd done so often in his career, threw a tight spiral that led his receiver perfectly. The ball hit Jennings between the 8 and the 5 on his white Packers jersey. McCauley trailed him helplessly. "I think I got hit on the play," Favre said. "But I didn't feel anything." Henderson did pop Favre a split second after the pass was released, bouncing the quarterback to the turf.
"I was happy," Favre said. "We got the play off, everybody did what they were supposed to do, there were no flags, and I just thought to myself, This is what an efficient offense is supposed to be—it's supposed to make the plays that are there. Then it took me a few seconds to realize that was the record."
Favre ran to Jennings and lifted him onto his shoulders. He missed Marino's taped tribute on the video screen as he hugged his teammates and handed the ball to Pro Football Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan. (There won't be any asterisk branded on this ball.) Then he embraced his wife, Deanna, who was in the front row, and his thoughts moved past the record. "We've got to win this game now," he said to Deanna. As the Packers kicked off, Favre sat on the bench, flipping through a binder of Polaroids showing Minnesota's defensive formations during the game's first 10 minutes.
IT'S ALL SO unexpected—Green Bay undefeated and leading the NFC North, the team's eight-game winning streak dating to Dec. 10, and Favre, who'll be 38 on Oct. 10, turning back the clock in his 17th NFL season. Or is it? Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, given how he rededicated himself to the job after announcing last February that he was not ready to retire. For four months at home in Mississippi during the off-season Favre had a live-in personal trainer, and he arrived at camp as flexible and fit as he'd been at any point in his career. Because Favre, who stopped drinking in 1999, lives a workaday life in Green Bay during the season—"He just doesn't go out, at all, anymore," Deanna says—the game occupies more of his time than ever.
Each Monday he has the Packers' video staff load his laptop with the previous four games of the upcoming opponent. On Tuesday, the players' day off, Favre goes to the offices at Lambeau Field for four hours, to get a head start on the game plan—and to plant a few seeds in coach Mike McCarthy's head. "He'll give me all kinds of ideas and plays, and I'll have to say no, no, no," says McCarthy. "But there's a few every week I really like. I don't want to speak for him, but I think he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He wants to make sure he leaves nothing to chance. In the last few weeks, all anyone's talked about is the record. Not with him. The big thing with him is January football. You look in his eyes, and you can see the wars he's been through, trying to get to more January football. It's all he cares about right now."
McCarthy has asked him to take fewer chances, and Favre has been happy to oblige. He's thrown only two interceptions this season, after tossing a league-high 47 over the previous two years, and he's completing 65.9% of his attempts, the highest rate of his career. What's more, he remains a compelling figure to anyone who loves the game. "He's still our Michael Jordan," Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard said on Sunday night. "When your game is over on Sunday, you hope you can go home and catch the end of the Packers game, so you can watch Brett."
Green Bay's defense appears to be good enough to help get the team into January, thanks to the pressure brought by ends Aaron Kampman, Cullen Jenkins and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. But the offense will have to do something about its league-worst running game. ("Nonexistent," Favre called it on Sunday.) An astounding 84.2% of the Packers' total yards in 2007 have come through the air. And now, with four games' worth of Green Bay video to watch, opposing defensive coordinators will be figuring out ways to clog Favre's short passing lanes, something the Vikings failed to do in allowing him to throw for 344 yards and, in the fourth quarter, his 422nd TD pass.
For now Favre is the feel-good story of the NFL season. He knows it. As he walked off the field on Sunday, wading through the photographers and minicams and hangers-on, he looked up and waved to the fans, an unabashedly adoring crowd in a stadium that has not been friendly to him over the years. Then, struggling to be heard over the din, he said, "I guess I can still do it." So we see.
"The big thing with him is JANUARY FOOTBALL," McCarthy says of his quarterback. "It's all he cares about right now."
A Bridge to Favre
Relive the Green Bay quarterback's career in pictures.
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Photograph by John Biever
CARRIED AWAY Following record-setting touchdown pass No. 421, Favre gave Jennings, its recipient, a celebratory lift.
Photograph by John Biever
[See caption above]
Photograph by John Biever
4 ON THE FLOOR Favre's preparation and low-risk approach are paying off in a career-high completion percentage.