Tuesday August 3rd, 2010

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When I pulled out of Mankato, Minn., Monday night after spending the day at Vikings training camp, there was no question in my mind that Brad Childress and his players were supremely confident Brett Favre would be their quarterback again in 2010.

Sure, as always there was a slight "if" attached to Favre's return, but it seemed mostly a matter of "when" for the likes of Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Toby Gerhart and others with whom I spoke. Player after player admitted that this Vikings season has been framed as one of Super Bowl or bust by even Childress himself at the team's first meeting of camp, and talked about how the sense of urgency to win and win it all now in Minnesota is almost palpable.

Rest assured that level of anticipation and expectation has not been drummed up because the team can't wait to see what fifth-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson does with a second opportunity to emerge as his team's starter. That wasn't the message.

The Vikings squad I spent time with Monday was a team waiting for the chance to pick up the story where it left off in January's numbing overtime loss at New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game. With the speculation and buzz surrounding Favre and his intentions at a four- or five-year low, the Vikings went about their business with the look and sound of a team that knows it's in position to take another run at a title.

I wonder if that positive vibe could have possibly survived the news Tuesday morning that Favre has begun telling teammates he's through, and won't be playing a second season in Minnesota? Because as good as the two-time defending NFC North champions are, they're one team with Favre under center and another with Jackson at the helm. And there's absolutely no one in the Vikings organization trying to fool themselves about that fact.

Jackson and reserve quarterback Sage Rosenfels both had ragged practice performances at times Monday morning, a fact that fairly well screamed to me how much this team's Super Bowl hopes are predicated on No. 4's return. In fact, Rosenfels looked so turnover-prone in the first few days of camp that the forming conventional wisdom said Minnesota was likely to keep rookie sixth-round quarterback Joe Webb in the No. 3 role, trading or releasing Rosenfels once Favre was back in purple. Both veteran passers steadied themselves and looked sharper in the afternoon practice, but they still gave off the air of caretaker quarterbacks, merely minding the huddle until its owner returned.

Though the Favre Watch clearly wasn't consuming the same amount of time and energy as it did last summer in Minnesota's preseason, I asked Childress Monday if his team was better equipped to handle it this year, given that it knew the ropes this time around? He responded by not sounding stressed in the least about the eventuality of Favre's return, even gently teasing me about my well-chronicled distaste for roughly 98 percent of everything related to the never-ending Favre retirement saga. If Childress feared late Monday morning that Favre was done and no longer in his team's future, he did an Oscar-award-winning job of hiding it.

"[This team] did a hell of a job with it [the Favre watch] last year,'' Childress said. "There wasn't anybody aside from Sage and Tarvaris who didn't want that guy on our team. Obviously, they've seen what he can bring to a team. It's just a topic that everyone else wants to get their fingers in: 'Shouldn't he be here? Where is he?' The only question really is whether he wants to continue on.''

If Favre is to be believed this time and he doesn't want to continue playing -- and remember, we're talking about the NFL's version of the little boy who cried wolf -- the Vikings just went from being a first-tier Super Bowl contender to a team that might have to scratch and claw its way to a playoff berth. Jackson is just 10-10 as a starter in his first four NFL seasons, and even when he helped Minnesota to a division title in 2008, it was veteran Gus Frerotte who started eight of the Vikings' 10 wins.

"It was set forth in the first meeting [of camp] when coach [Childress] said, 'It's Super Bowl or bust this year,' '' Vikings rookie running back Toby Gerhart told me Monday. "Everybody's mentality is that we're going to make it to the Super Bowl and we're going to win the Super Bowl. You can just tell the veteran players, that's all they think about. You can definitely feel the time is now. It's not a building process. It's all or nothing this year.''

The thought of an all-or-nothing year being placed on Jackson's shoulders can't be a comforting thought in Minnesota. Jackson played some last season, and as Childress pointed out to me, he might have been the only backup in the league to play three entire fourth quarters, in comfortable wins against St. Louis, Seattle and the Giants. But those were in mop-up roles no matter how you dress them up, and his season totals of 14-for-21 passing for 201 yards and one touchdown equates to about one good half of play when compared to Favre's boffo showing in 2009.

With or without Favre, I thought the Packers were the team to beat in the NFC North this season, but the balance of power in the division would shift significantly toward Green Bay if the 40-year-old ex-Packer follows through on this retirement (in his third attempt).

The Vikings have no one to blame but themselves for finding themselves in this position, of course. They saw Favre drive Green Bay to distraction with this same dance a few years back, and given the opportunity to buy themselves insurance at quarterback in the form of either a trade for Donovan McNabb or a young passer in the draft, they did neither. Now they might pay for that sense of overconfidence in Favre.

Minnesota is basically in the same sort of limbo Green Bay once was, trying to discern whether Favre really means it this time, while probably still trying to coax him back and prepare for life without him at the same time. But these Vikings had such grand designs on the 2010 season, and those aspirations might have been altered dramatically over the course of a few hours Monday night and Tuesday morning.

"We've got a sense of urgency, because we've got some guys who are aging in different spots,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said Monday. "We have a very veteran team, and you can't keep the band together forever. Whether it be financially or the age of players, something comes up and creates an issue. We know we're in a window where we can win a lot of games in the next couple years, and the time is now.''

Favre being the one to create just such an issue shouldn't surprise anyone by now. Whether he's really finished or not, only time will tell. But the Vikings just learned anew that relying on Favre makes for risky business. With their season and their Super Bowl hopes on the line, the stakes couldn't be much higher.

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