The Vikings-Saints NFC championship will stay with me forever—it was the most physical, and fateful, game I’ve ever been a part of
By Sage Rosenfels
I wrote this piece in January 2010, in the few days that followed the NFC Championship Game between the Vikings, where I was the backup quarterback, and the Saints. You may think this game is special for its place in the Saints’ bounty controversy, but to me it’s special for an entirely different reason: In all my experiences in professional football, it best encompasses the true soul of what the NFL is. For my own sanity, I wanted to express my thoughts on the game and take you inside what happened before, during and after it.
The game was a media dream. The New Orleans Saints, less than five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and region (including the Superdome, where the game was being played) were hosting the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings. Both teams' fans had been waiting decades for a Super Bowl berth; the Saints had never made it there in their then-43-year history, and the Vikings hadn't been to the big game in more than 30 years. Favre grew up a Saints fan and lives less than an hour from New Orleans. The storylines were endless. Driving through downtown the day before the game, it was impossible not to feel the growing anticipation. The streets were crowded with Saints and Vikings fans, both groups celebrating what their teams had done already that season while also getting amped for the epic showdown to come the next day.
After our evening meetings, I popped an Ambien to ensure I'd get some solid sleep. I generally have no trouble sleeping before a game, and I usually never wake up before 7 a.m. on game day. On this day, though, I was wide awake at 4 a.m., my mind racing. The Saints’ defense didn't have the best talent in the league, but they did have a great scheme, especially on third down. They brought a lot of really difficult blitzes and coverages that almost every team struggled with that season, and the confusion they created forced a lot of sacks and turnovers. Still, they had some weaknesses. During our ﬁlm study sessions, we felt we had ﬁgured out a method to their madness, and by Friday we thought that unless they changed their scheme, we had an answer for whatever they were going to throw at us. People don't realize how much this thought process can grind on a player. Add to that the anticipation of a 40-second play clock and 75,000 screaming fans with a Super Bowl invitation on the line, and itʼs easy to see why I woke up at 4 a.m.
On game day, as our bus made the short trip over to the Superdome, the streets were ﬁlled with Saints tailgaters and fans. The makeshift marching bands, colorful dangling beads, hurricane-sized drinks and people dancing in the streets made it feel like Mardi Gras in January. The late 6 p.m. kickoff only allowed for more time for partying and celebrating. I scanned the bus and noticed some of my teammates looking out their windows, with a variety of reactions to the scene on the streets. Most of them had serious, business-like looks on their faces, while others smiled at the hilarity before them. To the right of me, an offensive assistant was reviewing the gameplan with the wristbands that we were to use during the game, which, for the ﬁrst time that season, had every offensive play in numbered order. These wristbands were created with the expectation of unprecedented crowd noise. The trainers also had custom earplugs made for every player and coach. They were specially designed by Starkey, a Minneapolis company that specializes in hearing aids and earpieces. Would they give us an edge? Time would tell.
In most regards, getting ready for this game was like most other games that year, but the locker room was noticeably more quiet and focused. During the season, even in big games, the guys had been fairly loose as they got dressed and taped. I can recall Brett holding court at his locker many times, telling hilarious stories of old coaches and players. His stories seemed to keep the players relaxed. But Brett had been subdued during the stretch run and was noticeably anxious about this game.
In the locker room, Brett was talking to me about a blitz he was really concerned about. He felt it may give our protection scheme some trouble. He asked offensive linemen Steve Hutchinson and John Sullivan about the same blitz, and we all reassured him we had the problem solved.
Brett thinks about football differently from most players and coaches, and it took me most of the ﬁrst half of the season to understand how. At times I felt like I was an interpreter between Brett and our offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, despite them having worked together for almost a decade.
Most coaches cringe at what he does because it isn’t very coachable, but there’s almost always a rhyme and reason with Brett.
Football is based on the precision of the 11 guys on the ﬁeld. Teams practice to perfect their footwork, timing, depth of routes, angles of blocking, reads and audible systems. It is understood that the team that has better athletes, plays with more passion and focus and executes the gameplan best usually wins. But Brett’s mind goes beyond strict execution of how plays are drawn up and techniques are designed. He realizes that slight movements by the quarterback, more than any other position on offense, can have a huge effect on the defense. Instead of going through his natural reads to ﬁnd the open receiver, he sometimes gets them open by pump-faking, angling his shoulders and using his eyes to move the defense. He goes by feel and creates to get what he wants, instead of doing everything by the book and getting what the defense will give him. Most coaches cringe at what he does because it isn’t very coachable, but there’s almost always a rhyme and reason with Brett.
As we went out for warmups, the atmosphere was as I expected. We could feel the anticipation on the ﬁeld and in the stands. I glanced over to our bench and saw our owner, Zygi Wilf, with a huge smile on his face. He understood how special the opportunity was for his team. As I watched the fans ﬁle into the Superdome, I could tell they were ready to unleash once the game started. I also knew that communication for our offense was going to be extremely difficult, especially for the linemen who were going to make a lot of calls to pick up the Saints’ exotic blitzes. After the game, Brett told me that on every play he had to yell at the top of his lungs in the huddle, and then scream the cadence at the line.
Everyone had a sense the game would come down to the wire. And it lived up to that, reminding me of a classic heavyweight ﬁght that went back and forth. Every play felt like a fourth down. Brett was playing unbelievably well while taking lots of shots, legal and illegal. He kept our team together, moving the offense up and down the field while making very few mistakes. Still, the raw physical brutality was unprecedented in anything I had seen in my nine-year career. There had been rumors during the week that the Saintsʼ plan was to take Brett out of the game, and the hits started to wear on him mentally and physically. By the fourth quarter he had a badly swollen left wrist, a deep scratch on his forehead, ribs that were in pain whenever he took a breath and a badly sprained ankle which could easily have been broken.
Even though we moved the ball, we continued to turn it over at crucial times. We fumbled twice inside the red zone and Brett threw a pick when we were in ﬁeld goal range. We also fumbled inside our own 10-yard-line, which set up a Saints touchdown. Despite all of this, the guys never seemed fazed or worried. There were mistakes, but the feeling I was getting was that as long as we stayed within a touchdown we were going to win. Well, with the score tied and a little over two minutes left, we got the ball deep in our territory.
As Brett limped out to the ﬁeld, I thought those ﬁnal minutes were going to be the most important moments of the season. We converted a key third down, and then Brett threw one of his best passes of the year on a seam route to Sidney Rice. After that play, which brought us near the 50, it got crazy on our sideline. Everyone could taste how close we were to winning the game and going to the Super Bowl. After Sidney’s catch, I heard coaches yell "Clock! Clock! Clock!” to indicate that we should spike the ball to stop the clock, then heard Bevell relay that to Brett on the ﬁeld. We had timeouts left and still a minute and a half to go, so, not wanting to waste a down, I ran up to Bevell and told him we should run a play. As everyone was lined up to spike the ball, Bevell relayed to Brett to run "Mayday,” a basic handoff to the tailback. Brett did, and with the defense exhausted and confused, we picked up another ﬁrst down and were in ﬁeld goal range. We took our time and ran two more safe running plays that gained very little, calling timeout with 19 seconds left. Everyone, players and coaches, was wiped.
The third-down call was to run a simple pass play that was great against blitzes. Usually, this play involves a fullback, and I’m sure we had a couple of similar plays in the gameplan that involved a fullback. But for this one, we went without the lead blocker, instead hoping for man-to-man coverage and for Bernard Berrian to be open in the ﬂat. Coaches and players were scrambling to get on the same page. Every offensive coach was making sure his guys were going to do their job correctly. Meanwhile, the special teams coach was one step ahead, getting the ﬁeld-goal team ready.
The only problem was that a couple guys heard the play call and thought it was in a personnel grouping that involved the fullback. When the players huddled on the ﬁeld, one last play from a game-winning field goal try to go to the Super Bowl, we ended up having 12 men on the ﬁeld. We noticed it from the sideline, but there was nothing that could be done. Ryan Longwell was one of the best kickers in the league, but he was not known for his strong leg. The penalty moved us from the 33 back to the 38, pushing the field-goal attempt just outside of Longwellʼs range, making it important to pick up some yards on the play after the penalty.
Still, we called the same play as before the penalty, hoping to get a blitz. Jonathan Vilma, their defensive leader, recognized the formation and audibled to the best possible defense. As you may remember, Brett rolled out to the edge and had a chance to run, but he saw Sidney Rice ﬂash open and decided to try to fire it in to him instead. It was intercepted by Tracy Porter and nearly returned for a touchdown. The game was going to overtime.
Brett later told me he couldn't get anything on the ball, thanks to a combination of exhaustion and his busted-up ankle.
After the Saints won the toss, I walked back over and sat next to [Favre]. He turned to me and said 'I choked.'
I sat on the Gatorade coolers on our sideline, and Brett limped over to sit next to me. I didn't know what to say to him; I could feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. I could tell he felt the interception cost us the game and season. I could also sense that he envisioned the story of that year—at 40 years old, he was having his best season—was going to be summed up by that one play. A play that never really should have happened in the ﬁrst place. He had played almost ﬂawless football, fighting like it was life or death to him, and this is the way it was going to end. We sat there for a few moments in silence.
The referees and team captains went out for the coin toss to start overtime, and I got up to see who won possession. Brett didn't even bother. He didn't have the energy, and I think he was still in shock from the interception. After the Saints won the toss, I walked back over and sat next to him. He turned to me and said "I choked." I paused for a second and said, "Brett, you are the most amazing football player I've ever seen. It has been an unreal experience to watch you play this year." I can't really describe the look he gave me, but I can tell those words meant something to him.
We never got the ball in overtime. There were about ﬁve plays that could have gone either way; two challenges and two pass interference calls that were questionable. As the Saints lined up for what was the game-winning field goal, I still felt conﬁdent we were going to win. But we didn’t.
I walked across the ﬁeld to congratulate my friend Drew Brees after the game. I was happy for him and all he had done in New Orleans. I then walked to the end zone and took a knee, watching the celebration, the confetti falling and players from both teams sobbing. The place was pandemonium, but our locker room was completely quiet when I walked in. Guys were pissed, crying, shocked. Heads hung in disbelief. Tarvaris Jackson, the other quarterback, and I sat in silence. Brett slowly took off his shoulder pads next to me, in tears. I tried to imagine what was going through his head. Front ofﬁce personnel were making their way around the locker room, consoling players and shaking hands. Mr. Wilf shook every players' hand, thanking them sincerely. Person after person walked up to Brett, his eyes still red, and told him how much of a warrior he was in that game.
The next day I woke up and flipped on Sportscenter as my kids went off to school. Talking heads discussing the game accused Brett of choking. This immediately pissed me off. How could these sports analysts have such a lack of understanding of the way Brett performed? How could they not see the hits he took and the injuries he sustained, and how he carried our whole team on his back through them all? How could they not see the time and effort it took to prepare for that game; the hours and hours of ﬁlm, meetings, practice time and conditioning it took to get to that moment? How he helped make good young players into Pro Bowlers? How could they not realize that if we hadn't fumbled earlier in the game or hadn't had the miscommunication that led to the 12-men-on-the-ﬁeld penalty, he wouldn't have ever been in that situation in the ﬁrst place? It was discouraging to see the entire game encapsulated by one bad play.
Guys at the facility were cleaning out their lockers and waiting for the team meeting. Brett wasn't in his usual seat for the meeting, but no one questioned why he wasn't there. He could have been getting multiple MRIs or X-rays for all we knew. Our coach, Brad Childress, addressed the team, thanking everyone, and went over some administrative things like offseason schedules. He then had Mr. Wilf speak, which he usually does only once a year—the day training camp starts. Watching him speak, his hands shaking and his eyes holding back tears, my eyes started to well up also. He spoke about understanding how much this game meant to all of us and our families. He truly realized this when he saw his wife and daughter weeping in the tunnel after the game. It made him realize that the game of football is about family, and how we should be appreciative of ours. He told us not to wallow in our sorrows, but to go home and tell our families how much we love them, and to support them.
After the meeting, I met with Bevell and my quarterbacks coach, Kevin Rogers, to discuss the game and the season. I then went down to the training room to ﬁnd the old man sprawled out on the training room table with ice bags and ace wraps around multiple parts of his body. We talked about the game and different plays that occurred, some of the hits he took, and his injuries. Before I left, he brought up what I said to him in overtime, and how much he appreciated those words. I told him it bothered me that his incredible season could be remembered by one play.
Quarterbacks all have different abilities and traits. Some are playmakers, some are executors, and some are a little bit of both. I've never been around a guy who could make more positive things happen for an offense than Brett Favre. He made defensive linemen miss in the pocket. He found receivers who may have run the wrong route. He ﬁt throws into the smallest windows. The physical beatings he took every game were at times difﬁcult to watch. The most amazing part is that he did this all at 40, nine years older than me.
Before writing this, I talked to some friends who were at the game. All of them said it was, without a doubt, the most amazing sporting event they had witnessed. The atmosphere during the game, the intensity on the field and in the stands with celebratory tears flowing, and the all-night party in the French Quarter were unforgettable. For those who were in the Superdome that night, the experience was incredible. But whether you were there or just watching on TV, there was more to that game than can be summed up by a line in a box score or recap. It was all of football, the emotion, physicality and subtle twists and turns of fate that dictate the lives of everyone associated with the game, all represented by a quarterback who fought like a warrior and came up short, through no fault of his own.
Sage Rosenfels was a reserve quarterback for the Vikings in the January 2010 NFC Championship Game. A fourth-round draft pick of the Redskins out of Iowa State in 2001, he spent time as a backup with the Dolphins, Texans, Vikings and Giants. He officially retired from the NFL in July.