EDEN PRAIRIE, MINN. -- The plan going into the Minnesota Vikings' third preseason game is to have Brett Favre play the first half, or slightly less than five innings. Manager Brad Childress and pitching coach Darrell Bevell -- that is, head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively -- will be watching closely from the dugout, or rather, sideline and booth to gauge Favre's velocity and location. Going over signs and getting some rhythm with his young backstop, er, catcher, er, center John Sullivan has been a daily part of workouts for the recently signed veteran NFL passer. If he
gives up takes too many hits, Favre could be in for a rough night Monday against the Houston Astros Texans at Minute Maid Park Reliant Stadium.
Why all the baseball? Don't blame me. Blame the Vikings, who introduced the concept of a "pitch count" for their expensive and risky new quarterback addition after his Minnesota preseason debut Aug. 21 vs. Kansas City.
It isn't a widely used or at least commonly known metric in football, but numerous teams employ it, at least informally and early in camp. Besides, Childress' friend and former boss Andy Reid has used it with Donovan McNabb -- and what's good enough for Reid usually is good enough for Childress. Also Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who worked with both of them, counted Marc Bulger's passes this summer, limiting him to 60 or 70 throws, by Bulger's estimate, until a fractured pinkie took care of that.
With Favre air-dropping into the Vikings' preparation for 2009 three weeks late, with the lofty expectations and maybe a reckless urgency created by his decision to un-retire again, and with the wear and tear of 18 NFL seasons already hanging at his right side, it makes sense. If, of course, the strain, stress and torque on Favre's throwing arm bears any resemblance to what a grizzled deliveryman of fastballs and curves puts himself through over a lengthy career.
Childress and Favre surely believe it does. The Vikings head coach said after Favre's start against the Chiefs that he didn't want his QB overthrowing in either quality or quantity. Not at age 39, not after spending the past few months mostly tossing the ball around a high school field, not with $12 million -- $6 million of it reportedly guaranteed for skill and injury -- at stake. "You have a tendency to get on it a little bit harder with coaches around,'' Childress said. "I think by his own admission, he probably threw 200 balls in the Jets' first day of practice [last summer] and probably set himself back last year. With the fans and the crowd and trying to throw deep, showing off a little bit. So you have to make sure.''
Two hundred?! Tim Wakefield doesn't throw 200 times in nine innings and he flutters knuckleballs.
Favre himself made the connection with the national pastime -- come to think of it, the NFL is the national pastime -- when he revealed upon arrival at Winter Park the torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. That's a baseball injury, as far as your average sports fan knows. "That scared me, being a quarterback or pitcher at age 39, just coming off surgery for something totally different,'' Favre said that day. "I was reluctant [to play again], would be an understatement. I just kept thinking, 'I don't want to go through what I went through last year.' ''
That's when Favre suffered a torn right biceps muscle and his performance after 11 games veered down like a spiral thrown smack into a 50 mile-an-hour wind gust. The subsequent surgery, along with the unrepaired rotator cuff, makes the otherwise resilient Favre less Nolan Ryan and more Sandy Koufax in sheer arm bionics at this point. Hence, the pitch count.
"I think it would be kind of foolish to go out the first day and just unload, even though my arm feels pretty good,'' Favre said the other day, when I asked him after practice about Childress' and Bevell's vigilance of his throws. "I'm not going to lie to you. The rest of my body feels like it hasn't practiced in quite a while, but with each day I assume I will get fresher. But my arm feels fine.''
Overdoing it wasn't a problem in Favre's first game with Minnesota; he took seven snaps, threw four times and completed one pass for four yards before making his intentionally early exit after two series. It doesn't seem to be a problem now in practice, either, since the Vikings' greatest concern would have been those morning and afternoon sessions down in Mankato. That might have been like pitching the front and back ends of a doubleheader for Favre.
"He's not getting as many throws as he would have during training camp,'' Bevell said. "It would have been a big factor in counting those throws, but we're still counting them and making sure they don't get too high.''
How high is too high? "If there were two practices, then we wouldn't want him throwing over 90, but we won't get that in one day,'' said the coordinator, a former Rose Bowl quarterback at Wisconsin. "We're still going to count them and keep track, and obviously go by the way he's feeling as well.''
Keep in mind, with Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and John David Booty still in purple, the Vikings are pitching a four-man rotation in practice, too.
Running Favre's numbers thus far, we know he has attempted 9,280 passes in his career -- that's just regular season by the way, not counting preseason, postseason, practices, balls thrown on plays nullified by flags, soft tosses with the kids of Oak Grove High or the many takes required by the director of his Wrangler commercials. His two throwing-est seasons came as recently as 2005 and 2006, when he attempted 607 and 613 passes, respectively, at ages 36 and 37. Favre not only has ranked among the NFL's top 10 in attempts 15 times in his 18 seasons but also has 11 of the top 100 single-season pass totals in league history.
So maybe an aging quarterback with a 169-100-0 lifetime record and a ticket already punched for Canton really does have lots in common with a Cooperstown-bound baseball pitcher of similar years. Handing off to a back as stellar as Adrian Peterson could become the equivalent of throwing strikes and trusting your infielders and outfielders for Favre.
Vikings receiver Bobby Wade said, so far, the offense hasn't backed off on anything due to a limit on Favre's throws. "Obviously his skills speak for themselves, so it's just about him being comfortable and understanding the players around him and being more confident,'' Wade said. "We're still keeping our pieces together, rotating receivers the way we always do, whether they're in with Brett or not.''
Favre has tried to keep it simple as well, his ambitions on a leash. Heading into Monday's game at Houston, he was hoping to take a step or two forward from his brief Metrodome outing. "I'm glad that I got the handoffs [against Kansas City], called the plays correctly, we got 'em off on time,'' he said. "We were crisp enough, considering 2 1/2 days of practice. Believe me, I'd love for this week to be 'Every time they were out there, they scored.' If that happens, just remember I'll be probably the most surprised person in the building. But it's the things that people don't see that are most important. No one wants to see the ball on the ground, calling the plays wrong, throwing the wrong way. That stuff will come.''
That's how the great ones get to Carnegie Hall -- practice and preparation. Does Yo-Yo Ma count bow strokes? "You're not going to get that many reps to the same guy on the same exact play,'' Favre said. "But you watch it on film, you see where one guy may bend [his hook route] in a step more than another guy. That's where film is important -- you don't just watch film of who you're playing. I like to watch it of my guys. That's been the case throughout my career.''
A career and even a stay in Minnesota that, let's face it, has been and will be measured more by complete games and victories than by pitch count.