Solving mystery of Favre popularity

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Yes, I am putting a dateline on this story. I am putting a dateline on it because it is 5 degrees outside. I am doing this because the wind is howling, and hard snow (hard snow?) pelts you from all directions, and the sky is the sort of dull gray that drains the color out of everything. I am doing this because it is utterly miserable here, and nobody expects the misery to end any time soon. Snow swirls along the ground, looking for all the world like the death smog in The Ten Commandments. And spinning car tires. And frozen ears that feel like they can be broken off. And piles of snow in the driver's seat. And so on.

All this gloom reminds me again why pro football will always matter more here and in Green Bay and Cleveland and Pittsburgh than in, say, Miami or San Diego or Arizona. It has something to do with the sky. And, in a weird way, yes, it has something to do with Brett Favre, too.

"I'm not going to lie to you and say that I went outside this morning and said, 'I can't wait to get to practice ... and I hope we practice outside,'" Favre says to laughter all around.

It's true: There has not been a player in recent American sports -- not even Derek Jeter -- who has been as mythologized as Brett Favre. Favre is a gunslinger*, of course, and he's like a kid out there, yes, a kid gunslinger, or more precisely a gunslinging kid sketching out plays in the dirt with a stick. Oh yes, he's a gamer too, a gamer who loves to play the game, a player who plays for the love the game, a gamer who games for the play of his love. No, wait, no, point is he loves to play, and plays to love, and he's just a gamer gunslinger sketching plays in the dirt with a stick, but remember he's also a kid, always. To sum up: He's a gamer who happens to love the gunslinging he can do as kid who loves the game.

*I laughed out loud** at this tweet from Ken Tremendous: "Collinsworth just called Favre a "Gunslinger." Interesting analogy. Anyone ever heard that used before?"

**What percentage of the time that someone types LOL in an instant message or text did the person ACTUALLY laugh out loud. I say 22 percent at most.

This is all well-trodden ground, of course -- both the mythologizing of Favre and the mocking of the mythologizing of Favre. His back-and-forth retiring has added to the noise, though John Madden's retirement has subtracted from it. I'd say that right now, with the Vikings 10-2, we are in Favre Code Yellow, meaning the hype is elevated. When the Vikings make the playoffs it could move up to Code Orange. At a Vikings Super Bowl, we definitely could be looking at Favre Code Red.

The question today, though, is why? Why has Brett Favre so thoroughly captured people's attentions? Why do so many people LOVE him beyond measure and why are so many people SICK of him beyond the same measure? Why is he the most idolized and disliked player of his time?

I ask because -- and believe me when I tell you now that this is intended to be a positive Favre commentary -- the Favre career is kind of spotty. I mean: How do you measure a quarterback? Is it by his efficiency? If so, then you could argue pretty persuasively that Favre was never the most efficient quarterback in the league for any extended period of time. Troy Aikman or Steve Young were really efficient in the mid-90s, John Elway was the king of the late '90s, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner and Tom Brady and others this decade have certainly been more efficient.

But most people wouldn't say that the best quarterback is the most efficient. So what then? Production? Favre led the league in passing yards twice. But, hell, Jeff George and Steve Beuerlein have led the league in passing yards. Touchdown passes? Well, yes, Favre led the league in touchdown passes four times, but Jim Everett led the league in touchdown passes in back-to-back years and there wasn't much hype about him being a gunslinger and a kid out there.

He has most of the career passing records ... but it is true that football numbers don't translate the way baseball numbers can. So what else? Some would say you measure a quarterback by Super Bowl wins -- but Favre has just one, the same as Mark Rypien. There are regular season wins -- Favre has led nine teams to 10-plus win seasons. But his winning percentage is not as good as Young's or Elway's or Manning's or Brady's or Joe Montana's and it's not much different from Jim Kelly's or Dan Marino's.

Of course these are all Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- but nobody here questions Favre's Hall of Fame credentials. The question is why has he become so hyped ... and so famous for being hyped? Is it because he has just been around for so long? The guy has now started 281 regular season games -- 17 1/2 seasons worth -- and I suspect no one is going to break that record anytime soon. Sure, it's hackneyed to use the ol' presidential timeline as a reference, but it is true that when Favre first caught the nation's eye, the first George Bush was president. And if that doesn't FEEL long enough ago, you are getting old like I am, like Favre is. For our British audience, Brett Favre made his first start two months before Charles and Diana officially split up.

So is this all just ... familiarity? Maybe. But I think there's something more at play here ... and it's something I really noticed listening to him Wednesday on this miserably cold and snowy day in Minnesota. Brett Favre manages -- probably better than anyone in sports, and anyone in memory -- to make everyone around feel like they are part of the game. He has a knack for making fans feel like they are thisclose to the field.

Pro football is not framed like that. No, football players and coaches make it clear all the time that they don't think like us. They think on a higher plane. They have watched all the films. They have studied all the scenarios. They have deep secrets and coded plans and fascinating bits of information that they cannot share with YOU because YOU would not understand or YOU do not need to know or YOU would only tell the opponent or YOU are not in the inner circle.

This is fine -- it's mostly an amusing part of football. But it's also something that separates us fans from the game. Football coaches and players never seem tired of letting fans know that fans don't know -- fans don't know how it works, fans don't know what the players are thinking, fans don't know the commitment level it takes, fans don't know what is really happening.

With Favre, though, there's none of this. Favre says what a fan might say. He thinks what a fan might think. He does not seem to shield his emotions, on the field or off. Someone asked Favre Wednesday about the interceptions he threw against Arizona last Sunday -- that was the first game this year that Favre really looked bad.

What do you think a typical NFL quarterback would say there? He would say something bland or coded. He would say he misread the coverages. He would say that there were a couple of breakdowns. He would say interceptions come down to many factors. He would say there was a lack of execution. He would talk in technicalities -- the safety was supposed to be here and the linebacker dropped there and we didn't get the spacing here. He would say nothing at all, something like, "We just need to correct our mistakes -- all of us, and that includes me -- and we have to play a lot better this week." That's not to knock the typical NFL quarterback. This is the NFL environment.

Favre, though, flat admitted he got frustrated. He said he got it into his head early that the Cardinals were hot and that the Vikings were going to have to score every time. He admits that's the wrong thing to get into your head but, hey, that's part of the game. Then a guy hit him late, and he had a little temper thing going, and that was bad too. He got caught up in the moment, and he wanted to make the big play, and his judgment was off, and he threw stupid interceptions.

See the difference? I get what Favre is saying here. We all get that, right? Frustration. Anxiousness. Real emotions. And when Favre talks, it's pretty much always like that. Favre talked about the mindset of being a quarterback, and how sometimes you feel like you want to take a shot, you feel like you want to go down the field and make something happen even if it isn't quote-unquote "the smart play." He talked about how you will sometimes see a team down two touchdowns with 40 seconds left, and the quarterback will throw some sort of short check-down pass because it's open, and how some people might say that's smart football (take what the defense gives you) but that DRIVES HIM NUTS. Well, sure it does. It drives me nuts too. It drives all of us nuts.

He was asked about his great record in freezing weather -- that's the quintessential image of Favre: his face in a ski mask as he breathes steam on a frozen field -- and he talked about how he HATES cold weather, and always did. "I just played on teams that found ways to win the game when the other team really didn't want to be there," he said. See how human that sounds? There was no talk about the will to overcome, the power of ignoring the conditions, the glory of the moment. No. It was cold. He had to play. He hated it. But they paid him a lot of money. And it sucked a lot less when he won.

This was, from what I could tell, a pretty typical Brett Favre press conference. He talked about how much it sucks to lose. He talked about how it ain't easy to motivate yourself to play football after all these years but he still likes the challenge of it. He talked about how he was brutal at the end of last year with the Jets, and he could blame that on his arm issues but that wouldn't be entirely right. He talked about how he thinks this Vikings team is really good but that doesn't really mean anything.

And look: It isn't that he talks more honestly about being an NFL quarterback that anyone else ... it's that his honest talk rings truer somehow. This is his gift, whether he's selling jeans ("Has he really ALWAYS thought about Wrangler jeans when thinking about value?") or talking to the media or playing on Sundays. He just seems to be giving just a little bit more of himself. That's how it seems on the field too. His touchdown passes seem more remarkable. His interceptions seem more catastrophic. His celebrations seem more euphoric. His losses seem more painful.

So people hype him up. And then other people lash out against the hype. And the hype people get defensive and continue to hype him up, which makes people lash out even more. It's the Farving Process*. It's that way with Bruce Springsteen too. Is he really more authentic than other rock acts or is that just what we fans want to believe. Doesn't matter. We hype him up, people rebel against the hype, we rebel against the rebelling and so on and so on.

*I know it should be the Favring process. but it looks even more wrong that way.

Brett Favre's authenticity, his joyful nature, his gambler spirit -- sure, it's probably overplayed. But, you know, the NFL has been losing its old spirit for a long time. Some of this is good, some of it not so good, but either way it's reality. Quarterbacks have plays narrated into their helmets by gurus sitting high above the field. Linebackers are pawns in intricate defenses designed to trick as much as intimidate. Coaches are CEOs who delegate during the week, calm the stockholders and give tepid pregame speeches that focus more on adjustments than inspiration. That's football in 2009. That's what comes with progress.

But on a colorless winter day, with snow blowing, and wind howling, and traffic crawling -- with even friendly Minnesotans offering a sincere "good-bye" rather than an insincere "Have a nice day" (nobody's having a nice day in this weather) -- the football game on Sunday is pretty much everything. And maybe people want something real to cheer. Is Brett Favre real? I'll tell you what, on a miserable day like today: He's close enough.