Thursday March 6th, 2008

Strangely enough, the screaming headline news of Brett Favre's retirement led my thoughts in an unexpected direction: to the lowly Falcons, and some reflection on how different the fate of two franchises might have been had the Packers never wrested Favre away from Atlanta in their memorable February 1992 trade.

Talk about your juxtaposition. It couldn't be any starker. While Favre has been the ever-present face of the storied Green Bay franchise these past 16 years, here today are the Falcons, still searching for their first back-to-back winning seasons, and still desperately trying to replace the franchise quarterback they let get away.

At No. 3 in this year's draft, Atlanta is likely in position to select Boston College's Matt Ryan and hopefully end its nightmare at the quarterback position. But, oh, what might have been had the Falcons -- and not the Packers -- benefited from Favre's glorious 16-year run as an NFL starter.

Consider the following:

• In the 16 seasons since Favre arrived in Green Bay and took over the starting job in Week 4 of 1992, the Falcons have started exactly 16 different quarterbacks in at least one regular-season game. The humbling breakdown is as follows:

Michael Vick, 67 games; Chris Chandler, 67; Jeff George, 35; Bobby Hebert, 25; Doug Johnson, 11; Joey Harrington, 10; Chris Miller, 10; Billy Joe Tolliver, 8; Tony Graziani, 5; Kurt Kittner, 4; Chris Redman, 4; Wade Wilson, 3; Matt Schaub, 2; Danny Kanell, 2; Byron Leftwich, 2 and Steve DeBerg, 1. That's a total of 256 games, or 16 games a year for 16 seasons, with seven different quarterbacks starting at least 10 games.

• The Falcons have started the same QB in all 16 games of a single season just three times in those 16 seasons: George ('94 and '95) and Vick (2006). In eight seasons, or half the time, Atlanta has started three different quarterbacks in the same year, including 2007, when Harrington (10), Redman (four) and Leftwich (two) played musical chairs at the game's most pivotal position (with predictable results, 4-12).

• Atlanta has enjoyed just four winning seasons and four playoff trips in those 16 years, with 10 losing seasons and seven years in which it racked up a double-digit loss total. By comparison, Green Bay has posted a gaudy 13 winning records in that span, with 11 playoff trips and just one losing season. Almost polar-opposite fates, wouldn't you say?

What a disaster Falcons quarterbacks have been while Favre was building his Hall-of-Fame career in Green Bay. Who could forget the sideline confrontation with head coach June Jones that hastened the departure of George in 1996? Or the helter-skelter days of 1992-93, when Jerry Glanville went through the likes of Miller, Tolliver, Wilson and Hebert like so many interchangeable -- but ultimately mediocre -- parts?

Chris Chandler (1997-2001) certainly was the best of the bunch, leading the Falcons to a 16-3 record and their only Super Bowl appearance in 1998, but his comically fragile injury history put Atlanta constantly in the position of needing to rely on journeymen like Graziani, Kanell, Tolliver, Johnson, and even that geriatric wonder of wonders, the 44-year-old DeBerg in 1998.

It's all hypothetical, of course, but if Favre had stayed put, the Falcons likely would have been spared the ignominy of Vick's career self-destruction in 2007, which devastated the franchise in almost incalculable ways. They would not have had to endure George's embarrassing meltdowns, or the false hopes that briefly accompanied young quarterbacks such as Johnson, Graziani or Kittner. And they wouldn't have had to traffic so heavily in the veteran retread quarterback market that brought Hebert, George, Chandler, Harrington and Leftwich to town.

Favre under center, year after year, might have trumped it all. For the Falcons, this week's news at least presents one small consolation: It brings to a close the most galling chapter in franchise history, and in one sense puts them out of their misery. After 16 years, No. 4 can haunt them no more. The Falcons finally have one thing in common with the Packers: Now they both can miss Brett Favre.

• Here's the thing about Favre's playing style that I think always resonated so deeply with NFL fans: It had an every-man quality, in that the version of the game he played each week somehow resembled the game we all remembered playing growing up. Be it on the playground or in organized youth football.

His wasn't some display of the perfect technique or form; he didn't execute at a supremely gifted athletic level that we could only dream of. We could watch Favre and see ourselves flipping a desperation underhand pass on the playground, just before the rushers got to us. We could see him chuck the ill-advised pass into triple coverage and recall when we blindly trusted that our arm could make any throw it had to make, no matter what the odds.

Watching Favre out there reminded us of what it felt like when we were playing the game, and conjured up our own experiences with football long before we just sat and watched others play. I never even knew Favre was doing that, but now that I reflect on it, that's what he reminded me of each week. The kid playing football that almost all of us were at some point. He just got to do it a lot longer than the rest of us.

• They say timing is everything, but I wonder if Warren Sapp really would have preferred not to have his retirement from the NFL announced Tuesday, the same day as a certain beloved Green Bay quarterback.

Maybe it's fitting in a way however, since Favre and Sapp were linked together for a good long time in their careers, as rivals in the now defunct NFC Central division. When the Tony Dungy-led Bucs were finally becoming competitive in 1997 after years in the NFL desert, Sapp and his teammates were literally and figuratively chasing Favre and the Packers.

• I must admit Sapp's retirement after 13 seasons makes me feel rather old. I was the Bucs beat writer for the St. Petersburg Times when Tampa Bay drafted Sapp in the first round in 1995, and my editors sent me to Miami the next week, to kick around for a few days to report and write a character profile on Sapp, who had off-field issues at the University of Miami that served to cloud his status in the draft.

The resulting story ran in time for the start of a Bucs mini-camp which Sapp attended, and while I can't be sure, I don't think it served to endear me to the talkative and rather vindictive rookie defensive tackle.

• Now that the sky has stopped falling in the Boston area, and Randy Moss has returned to New England, it occurs to me the Patriots' receiving corps should be able to muddle through once again in 2008. Yes, Donte' Stallworth was allowed to leave without much of a fight and wound up signing with Cleveland. But the Patriots, we remind you, still have four of their five leading receivers from 2007: Moss, Wes Welker, the newly signed Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington. And it's only early March. Last year at this time, Moss, Stallworth and Washington weren't even on board yet.

How will Tom Brady ever get by?

• I maintained all along that the Patriots would re-sign Moss based on knowing the good thing that they had together and would also bid adieu to cornerback Asante Samuel, who was going to command a contract in free agency that New England was not prepared to pay. Both wound up coming to pass.

But a part of me understood the anxiety level of Patriots fans in regards to Moss's situation, and I think you can blame Adam Vinatieri for it. Like Moss this year, no one around the league really believed Vinatieri was going anywhere but back to New England when he came up for free agency in 2006. But when he bolted for Indianapolis, the Patriots' most bitter rival, it shocked the team's fans as no other departure from Foxboro ever did. Vinatieri was a Patriots icon.

So while most New England fans probably wanted to trust in Moss' pronouncements that he wanted to remain a Patriot, and heard Brady call him and his top receiver "a package deal'' at the Super Bowl, the specter of Vinatieri's surprise exit two years ago wouldn't allow them to completely rest easy.

• By the way, I'm still waiting to hear exactly which Super Bowl contender is holding open its starting quarterback position for Daunte Culpepper, who couldn't even win the No. 1 job in Oakland last year. I mean, if there was that much-heralded story last weekend about Moss and Culpepper discussing how fun it would be to re-unite and finish the business of winning the championship that they couldn't quite win together in Minnesota, it must be true. Nobody would have just floated that idea in order to stir things up and get the Patriots' best contract offer, right?

• Let me get this straight: Muhsin Muhammad left Chicago and is back in Carolina, and Marty Booker left Miami and is back in Chicago? Huh. Maybe Moss really did think about going back to Minnesota with Culpepper. Seems to be the popular move in the NFC.

• In a signing clearly aimed at replacing free-agent receiver D.J. Hackett, I see the Seahawks added free-agent running back T.J. Duckett. What, A.J. Hawk wasn't available?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.