Brad Childress's office at the Metrodome conveys all the charm of the sterile, antiquated stadium itself. The windowless, dimly lit room is barely large enough to hold a desk and two chairs. The beige concrete walls are cold and unadorned, save for a small television screen that on Sunday was tuned to the in-house feed of player interviews following the Vikings' heart-pounding 33--31 victory over the Ravens in Minneapolis. ¬∂ Childress had yet to change out of the black-and-purple outfit he'd worn on the sideline. He leaned back in his chair and watched quarterback Brett Favre's press conference intently. After a few minutes the 53-year-old Vikings coach reached for the remote hidden beneath some papers and pressed the mute button.
"We've come a long way," Childress said, referring to his team and in particular to Favre, the 19-year veteran who in August came out of retirement for the second time in as many years—this time to serious questions from the national media about his potential effectiveness. "From game manager, to not sure he can still throw the deep ball, to he's just going to throw the check-down." Childress paused, then added, "I think we're past all that s--- now."
There could be no doubt after Sunday, when Favre, who had turned 40 a week earlier, showed yet again how much life is left in his arm and how much magic to his touch. Three weeks after leading Minnesota on an 80-yard drive that culminated with a 32-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left to beat San Francisco, Favre drove his team 66 yards in six plays to set up the decisive field goal with 2:00 to go against the visiting Ravens, whose upset bid ended on the final play when Steven Hauschka's 44-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left as time expired.
Favre completed 21 of 29 passes for 278 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Vikings improved to 6--0 for the first time since 2003. Notably, it's also the first time in Favre's NFL career, including his 16 years in Green Bay, that he's been 6--0. He's there thanks to the kind of throw many observers believed he would no longer be able to make, not six months removed from surgery to repair a torn right biceps that had ruined the last half of his 2008 season with the Jets: the deep strike.
Baltimore had just erased a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and taken a 31--30 lead on Ray Rice's 33-yard touchdown run with 3:37 left when the Vikings started on their own 20. On second-and-six Favre play-actioned to his left, bootlegged right, then released a missile that traveled 60 yards in the air. Third-year wideout Sidney Rice, who'd beaten one-on-one coverage from cornerback Frank Walker, grabbed the ball in stride for a 58-yard gain. Four plays later Ryan Longwell kicked a 31-yard field goal that would prove to be the game-winner.
Afterward, in the silence of his spartan office, Childress contemplated that pass and was incredulous that anyone would have doubted Favre's ability. "Does he still have it?" Childress said. "Uh-huh. That last throw came from the bottom of his toes."
It seemed a little over the top in August when Childress drove his black Cadillac Escalade onto a private airfield in St. Paul to personally pick up Favre. Just a few weeks earlier the three-time league MVP and 10-time Pro Bowl selection had told Childress he was done playing; then the silver-haired QB suddenly decided he wanted to suit up for another year after all. Given how quarterback-poor the Vikings were, perhaps it's more of a surprise that Childress didn't fly to Hattiesburg, Miss., handcuff Favre and drag him to Minneapolis.
Not only has Favre performed exceptionally well through the first six games—69.7% completion rate, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions—but he's also doing it at a time when so many quarterbacks around the league are struggling. Sunday's results highlighted the vast gulf between the best and the worst at the game's most critical position this season.
• In New England's 59--0 thrashing of Tennessee, Tom Brady set an NFL record with five touchdown passes in a single quarter during a 29-of-34, 380-yard tour de force. New Orleans's Drew Brees faced off against the Giants' No. 1--ranked defense and completed 23 of 30 for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 48--27 victory. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 417 yards, second most in his career, in the Steelers' 27--14 victory over the Browns. Meanwhile, Indianapolis's Peyton Manning was enjoying a bye—and sitting on an AFC-best 114.1 passer rating.
• On the other hand Tennessee's Kerry Collins was 2 of 12 for minus-7 yards and a 4.9 passer rating against the Patriots, and the Jets' Mark Sanchez, coming down to earth after a 3--0 start, completed 10 of 29 for 119 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions (8.3 rating) in a 16--13 overtime loss to the Bills. So ineffective was Detroit's passing game in a 26--0 loss at Green Bay that the Lions had two quarterbacks with sub-23.0 ratings: Daunte Culpepper (22.3) and Drew Stanton (22.0).
Over the years the NFL has weighted the rules heavily to benefit the passing game, tinkering with interference infractions and more strictly enforcing illegal-contact rules against defensive backs. Still, the 49ers have yet to pass for 200 yards in a game, the Jets have gone five straight without hitting that mark, the Bills four straight and the Redskins three in a row. In back-to-back weeks the Bucs were held to 58 and 100 yards, respectively, by the Giants and the Redskins.
The Vikings have had no such worries with Favre, who has made a mockery of the purported importance of training camp. He didn't join the team until after it had left its summer digs in Mankato, Minn., yet he is on pace to throw for 32 touchdowns (his career best was 35 in 1997), and his two interceptions are the fewest he's thrown over the first six games of a season. His passer rating of 109.5 is nearly 24 points higher than his lifetime mark. "He seems to get younger and younger every day," says defensive tackle Kevin Williams, "and he's playing better and better every week."
There was no better fit for Favre than the Vikings in 2009. He joined a team that won its division the previous year, had all its key players returning, boasted a topflight defense and had a star running back, Adrian Peterson, who could make the quarterback's job easier. Peterson's presence creates more passing lanes for Favre because opponents must commit a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to protect against the run. On Sunday, however, the Ravens couldn't stop Favre or Peterson, who carried 22 times for 143 yards, the best rushing day for a back against Baltimore since December 2005.
There is one lingering question about Favre, of course: Can his body hold up for an entire season, especially after the way it gave out over the second half of last season in New York. His workload in Minnesota has been substantial. Favre ranks 10th in the league in attempts with 178 and has been sacked 14 times, more than all but six passers.
The record of older quarterbacks in the league also sends up a cautionary flag. Only 12 passers in the Super Bowl era have started an NFL game after turning 40, and not one has taken a team to the playoffs as the full-time starter. Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who turned 41 in November 1997, started 14 games and averaged 36 attempts that season for the Seahawks. (Favre is averaging just under 30 a game in '09.) Moon threw six touchdowns in his first six starts and 19 in his final eight, including four in the season finale.
To limit wear and tear as he aged, Moon wouldn't throw on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday; in practice he took only the reps he needed to be sharp. The Vikings are monitoring Favre's pitch count, though not as strictly as Moon watched his. "He does throw on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday—and Sunday," Childress says of Favre. "Does he throw as many as he used to? No. But he likes to get looks in practice. He has certain plays he wants to see with his receivers. He's a grinder."
Moon says he also took better care of his body in his 40s, seeing a chiropractor as well as a massage therapist twice weekly and an acupuncturist occasionally. Favre? "He hates all that massage stuff," says a Jets assistant who worked with him last season. "He's just tough as nails, a physical freak."
As Favre changed in the locker room after Sunday's win, wide receivers coach George Stewart stood nearby talking to Vikings owner and chairman Zygi Wilf. The two marveled at the positive impact the veteran quarterback has had on Minnesota's receivers, particularly Rice.
A 2007 second-round pick out of South Carolina, Rice had 31 receptions as a rookie but only 15 last season, when he was slowed by a knee injury. This year, healthy again, he leads the team in catches (23) and receiving yards (409). A big reason for the turnaround, he says, is the constant support he gets from Favre. "He has confidence in me," Rice says, "which has raised my confidence level and put me back on pace to do the things I know I'm capable of doing."
According to Rice, Favre likes to look for him in one-on-one situations, because at 6'4" and 202 pounds Rice is a physical mismatch for most corners. On the 58-yard play against the Ravens, for instance, Favre's first option was meant to be tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on a crossing route; Rice was supposed to run a short comeback, but when Minnesota lined up, he saw single coverage from the 5'11" Walker. Favre saw it too, and when Rice switched up and went long, the quarterback read the receiver perfectly.
"The guy's incredible," says center John Sullivan. "We know that with this team we're going to fight till the end, and if there's time on the clock, we have a chance because we score points. Brett gives us a swagger."
The Vikings shake their heads at the stories out of New York that Favre was standoffish and an aloof teammate last year. They scoff too at intimations that his signing created a divide in the Vikings' locker room. "Nonsense," says linebacker Ben Leber. Instead, another franchise is discovering—by way of his performance, his work ethic and his attitude—the meaning of Brett Favre. "As much talent as he has, it doesn't come without the hard work and preparation that a guy of his caliber brings," says Vikings president Mark Wilf. "Seeing it on the field and off has been impressive. He loves the game of football. He loves talking about it, he loves studying it. It's the whole package."
The sentiment is familiar; only the colors have changed.
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"We know if there's time on the clock, we have a chance," says Sullivan. "Brett gives us a swagger."
Photograph by TOM DAHLIN
PURPLE REIGN Showing typical command and no rust despite an abbreviated camp, Favre has the Vikes at 6--0. It's his best start ever.
Photographs by TOM DAHLIN
ALL-DAY PROTECTION Peterson (28) deflects some of the spotlight from Favre, while Rice (below) has built a rapport with number 4.