IT'S CLOCK mismanagement. There are sunset times listed for each day of the calendar, and yet Brett Favre played past the flicker of streetlights one year ago, well into darkness by the end of the Jets' 2008 season—the difference between a send-off and a push-out.
What could have been sweet punctuation for Favre's deification tour—a playoff opera last January, surrounded by adoring Cheeseheads, amid the arctic lore of Lambeau—was displaced by his deconstruction off the Jersey Turnpike.
"A diva," whispered one teammate, describing life with the Jet Favres.
"If somebody's not playing well, they need to come out of the game," said running back Thomas Jones, arguing the NFL's oldest starting QB should have been benched.
"I think Brett Favre basically is a selfish guy," Jets motivational guru Teddy Atlas told the New York Post, blaming Favre's let-it-rip improvisations for coach Eric Mangini's firing the day after the season ended.
The indelicate postmortems over Favre's mortality sound like the X's and O's of blasphemy to those who think of the 39-year-old quarterback as a favorite pair of Wrangler jeans: holed and frayed, worn at the same waist size for life, if belted beneath the love handles. Favre has always seemed like us—flawed, vulnerable and hanging on—but that doesn't mean we can relate to him.
The one person who can most identify with the deliberations and disillusionment Favre must be experiencing is Michael Jordan. There are obvious differences between the two legends: The bearded Favre looks as if he's peeking through eyeholes cut in a pair of fuzzy slippers; the corporate MJ was always shaven to a shine. But each confronted an awkward goodbye in his Midwestern market—Chicago itched to rebuild post-Jordan, as did Green Bay sans Favre—and both became suckers for East Coast owners who looked at them longingly and said, "We wish we knew how to quit you."
In September 2001, Wizards owner Abe Pollin helped coax Jordan into shedding his executive's suit when the moribund franchise needed a makeover, when his newborn arena in D.C. needed seat fillers, when he couldn't sell a jersey to a naked politician. (Imagine the lost income.) Last August, Jets owner Woody Johnson, steeped in an inferiority complex next to the Super Bowl--champion Giants, with his own seat licenses to peddle for a new stadium, latched onto Favre as his trophy date.
On the remote chance there was one more miracle left in the tank, Favre and Jordan were given an opening to fail like they had never failed before. And they jumped through it. For a while it seemed like an excellent idea. Jordan, at 40, kicked the tires on his inner Airness and dropped 43 points on the Nets in February 2003, becoming the oldest NBA player to reach such a high. "I thought it was a misprint," Jordan said. Favre, at 39, cranked up his right arm like a phonograph and threw an astounding six touchdown passes against the Cardinals in late September. "I've never thrown six," he said.
The bucket list for Jordan and Favre was shrinking, milestone by milestone, to their own amazement. Reality then settled into their bones. In December, with paper clips holding his shoulder together, Favre had two touchdowns, eight interceptions and a passer rating of 53.3 as the Jets lost four of their last five and plunged from the playoff picture. By the end of 2002--03 Jordan, with the elasticity shot in his knees and doubting the fighting spirit of his young teammates, was worn out by one part fatigue and two parts frustration. He had lost the ability to create heirlooms out of last-second shots, missing more than a half dozen game-winners. More important, he was no longer held in awe.
He slowed us down, Wizards teammates complained. "The tour has come to an end," guard Jerry Stackhouse said upon Jordan's last game.
However cruel they sound, teammates are the first to know if a legend has lost it. Jones wasn't the only Jet to openly dismantle Favre; he was a bellwether in the locker room. Players count the ice bags on the folk hero in the training room; they see the missed practices and in-game mishaps. They also snicker at the warped worship from coaches and owners. Mangini named his newborn son Zack Brett Mangini four games into the season, when Favre's quarterback rating was at desert heat (110.8). Now he needs Wite-Out.
Jordan overstayed his greatness, like Favre, but to MJ's credit, he accepted the exit cues from his teammates. When he'd lost them, he knew it was over. "It's time for me to move on," Jordan said—and this time he meant it. Now the question for Favre: As he weighs his decision again, to return or to retire, will he be like Mike?
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The indelicate postmortems over Brett Favre's mortality sound like the X's and O's of blasphemy. The person who can most identify with his plight: Michael Jordan.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER