THE LITTLE BOY in the Milwaukee airport on Sunday wearing the number 4 jersey was the kind of surprise that is so obvious when you see it that all you can think is, Of course. And of course it was a New York Jets jersey. But was the kid a Jets fan?
"No," he said. "I just want Brett to do good."
He looked to be around seven, with the kind of clean-spirited smile you almost always get from Packers fans, even when it comes to Favre, who made their preseason feel like a reality show. And now there are "Favre-tini" cocktails, and fans who bought Madden NFL 09 are left to deal with an outdated cover featuring fresh-out-of-retirement Favre in a Packers jersey; EA Sports has provided downloads of a new cover and a roster update, with Favre sporting a Jets jersey—just like the kid in the airport.
The exhibition season is always a bumpy road, but it is disturbing way beyond any arguments over Brett Favre to see Cincinnati Bengals owner and president Mike Brown re-sign Chris Henry, the likable but darkly troubled wide receiver. This was after Brown and coach Marvin Lewis had been so resolute about getting tough with the kind of bad behavior that saw 10 player-arrests over 14 months. Henry, in particular, had guilty pleas to marijuana possession, concealment of a firearm and providing alcohol to minors, plus a 2006 DUI charge that was dropped due to a faulty Breathalyzer.
To make their point, the Bengals had released Henry on April 3, just hours after he was arrested for the fifth time since joining the team as a third-round draft pick out of West Virginia in 2005, in this case for allegedly punching an 18-year-old University of Cincinnati student and breaking the young man's car window with a beer bottle. But then in mid-August, when injuries made Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh problematic starters and the latest charges against Henry had been dropped following a hung jury, the wide receiver apparently appeared in a new light, at least to Brown.
The week before, Lewis insisted in an SI piece by Jim Trotter that he was laying down the law; a few days before Henry rejoined the team, Lewis had told Trotter that the chances of the troubled player being a Bengal this season were "slim and slimmer."
This is obviously embarrassing for the forthright Lewis, and the feeling around the league is that Brown completely undercut his coach's authority by re-signing Henry—to a two-year deal, no less. Brown is well known as one owner who doesn't expect his players to be choirboys, and as he said at his pre-training-camp news conference, "I happen to be a redeemer. I think people can be made better and right. If that's a fault, so be it."
What this might mean to a seven-year-old in a number 4 jersey is complicated, which hopefully makes it simple for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been very tough on player transgressions. Goodell handed Henry a four-game suspension as a free agent a month before the Bengals brought him back, and also instituted "club fines" that will henceforth take money out of the team's pocket when players run amok. Of course the redemption Brown speaks of has to be a good thing, but surely the message from the NFL cannot be that the more talent you have, the more you can get away with. And that's the message this time with Henry, which is why from some seats he will be watched more closely than Favre.
The owner calls himself "a redeemer," but the message from the NFL can't be that the more talent you have, the more you can get away with.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER