By Tim Layden
January 25, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- The moment was deeply routine, and yet it was not routine at all. Brett Favre sat on a stool in front of a cubicle in the visitors' dressing room in the belly of the Superdome. His pads and helmet were stuffed into a purple canvas bag with the Minnesota Vikings' logo on the outside. His shoes and socks sat on the floor. Slowly he peeled off his white game pants and pulled a sleeveless undershirt over his head. He squirted white, gooey shampoo into his grey buzz cut and it began running down off his head. All of this he has done hundreds of times since he was a little boy, flinging footballs around fields in Mississippi.

He rubbed a sore left wrist and a bruised right thigh. He hobbled on a sprained left ankle. He grimaced when he moved.

Yet in other ways it was not routine at all. Vikings' defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier sat down next to Favre and hugged him, speaking into Favre's left ear. When Frazier stood, quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers approached, showered and wearing a suit, and hugged Favre.

Next came wide receiver Sidney Rice. Over the course of their one season together, Rice flourished with Favre, with 83 receptions in the regular season and then three touchdown catches last week in the divisional playoff victory over the Cowboys. Rice is 23 and Favre is 40. Rice made Favre young; Favre made Rice grow up. They were good together. Now Rice stood in front of Favre with a towel around his waist and they embraced until Favre dropped his head into the crook of Rice's neck and his eyes welled with tears.

Defensive tackle Pat Williams was next, all 317 pounds of him, wrapping Favre in an embrace and then walking out of the locker room without turning back. Those were four. "You probably missed the other 50 guys I gave a hug to," Favre would say after all this when a reporter asked him about speaking just with Frazier.

Maybe this is the way it finally ends for Favre, with a one-season grab at a last Super Bowl falling one game short, an exasperating 31-28 overtime loss to the Saints. There were no pronouncements from Favre late Sunday night in the Dome. "In a situation like this, I really don't want to make a decision right now based solely on what's happened," Favre said after the game. Had he offered a conclusion either way, he wouldn't have been believed, not with his history of indecision.

This much is safe to say: There's a pretty reasonable chance that Sunday's loss was the last game of Favre's career. And if that's the case, it was in many ways a snapshot of his career. He was brilliant and ballsy, competing his aging old butt off in the face of relentless pressure from the Saints. He threw 46 passes and completed 28, for 310 yards and one touchdown, and for most of the night kept the Vikings pushing toward a game that they should have won. Instead, they lost with five turnovers and two other crucial mistakes. And the worst mistake was Favre's.

There was 2:37 to play when the Vikings took possession at their own 21 with the game tied, 28-28. They had lost three fumbles, including one by rookie Percy Harvin that gave the Saints possession on the Minnesota seven and quickly led to a 28-21 New Orleans lead. There had been another by veteran wide receiver Bernard Berrian late in the third quarter in the red zone. And one credited to Favre on a sloppy handoff to Adrian Peterson, one of three times Peterson put the ball on the ground. Favre had suffered a nasty sprained ankle late in the third quarter and was hobbling now.

But there was a chance to end it and quiet the Dome, which had been deafening most of the night. On third-and-eight from the 23, Favre threw 10 yards to Berrian for a first down. On the next play he hit Rice for 20 yards, and on the next, Chester Taylor ran 14 yards to the Saints' 33. Favre could have taken three knees and then let his buddy, Ryan Longwell, kick a 50-yard indoor field goal to send the Vikings to the Super Bowl.

Two running plays gained nothing and then, inexcusably, the Vikings were flagged for having 12 men in the huddle on third-and-10 from the 33. Those five yards took them out of Longwell's range. They had to run a play.

Favre rolled right. There was open field in front of him, but instead Favre made the gunslinger's play and knifed a throw across his body toward Rice in the middle of the field. It was a crazy pass. Every young quarterback is taught: Never throw late over the middle. Trouble lurks. Saints' cornerback Tracy Porter read Favre's eyes and intercepted the pass. "I probably should have ran it," Favre said afterward. "I don't know how far I could have gotten, but in hindsight that's probably what I should have done. I don't know how many yards we needed for a field goal, but I knew we needed some." He paused.

"I was just late to Sidney."

The outcome seemed almost fated at that point, and it was. The Saints won the coin toss and the game on Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal less than five minutes into overtime. They are going to the Super Bowl for the first time in the franchise's 43-year history.

The Vikings' Favre experiment cuts two ways. He was signed to take a very good team to the Super Bowl. They knew it. He knew it. "This was all about winning another Super Bowl," Favre's wife, Deanna, told me after the Vikings' win over Dallas a week ago. That didn't happen, and by that measure the season is a disappointment. That Favre committed the most crucial error in a game full of them only underscores the failure.

And it's fair to say: This is what you get with Favre. He will make the great play, but he will also risk the critical mistake. He has not only the most touchdown passes in NFL history, but also, by a wide margin, the most interceptions. (His last pass as a member of the Packers was also a crucial pick on a bitter cold night in January 2008, all but handing the Giants a berth in the Super Bowl). But that would also be too simple.

A larger story was written, too. Favre made the Vikings much better. You can argue that they went just two games deeper into the postseason than they did with Tavaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte at quarterback, but that ignores a 12-4 regular season and a dominant playoff win over Dallas, which had been the hottest team in the NFL. And it ignores that Favre made the NFL a more interesting place. Granted, the money-minting league hardly needs help in drawing eyeballs, but ratings soared this fall and Favre was surely a big reason for that.

Sports history is full of great players who stay too long, yet Favre was vintage. And the season touched him. "Even though it was one year," he said, "it felt like 50." He meant that in a good way.

"All I can say is it's been a great year," said Favre. "This is a great group of guys. I'd love to win the Super Bowl. Who wouldn't? I didn't have anything to prove coming in. But I'm going out on top one way or the other."

When he was finished talking, he walked through long corridors in the basement of the Superdome until he found his family and put an arm around his wife. It had the feeling of something coming to an end and it wasn't all sad. Two teams move on, Favre stays behind. He deserves to be remembered not just for the last pass he threw, but also for the hundreds that came before it.

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