In the old days Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre would have come unglued by the sort of distraction that hit the Pack the day before its season opener. That's when Favre's No. 1 target, flanker Sterling Sharpe, went AWOL in an attempt to get Green Bay management to renegotiate the 10-year, $15.5 million dollar contract he signed in 1991. But the new, improved Favre barely batted an eyelash when Sharpe, a four-time Pro Bowler who accounted for a quarter of the Packers' total yards from scrimmage in 1993, failed to show for last Saturday morning's practice and threatened to sit out the season. Instead of freaking out, Favre got angry. Real angry.
"Sure, Sterling's the guy I've thrown to the most the last two years," said Favre, who signed his own five-year, $19 million blockbuster deal on July 14. "But I can't fold my tent, then walk into the huddle and let the others see that I've given up. In my opinion Sterling's under contract, and he should honor that contract. If they give him more money, what's to stop other guys from wanting to renegotiate? The Packers can't do that. Listen, no one's that good."
Except maybe Sharpe, who settled his differences with management by Saturday evening, in time to attend a meeting at the team hotel that night, presumably a richer and happier man. With Sharpe back in the fold, Green Bay defeated the Minnesota Vikings 16-10 at Lambeau Field on Sunday, but what may be more important is that Favre showed the kind of leadership the Packers will need if they are to finish atop the tough NFC Central Division. He not only blasted Sharpe but also picked apart the Vikings. He completed 22 of 36 passing attempts for 185 yards and one touchdown—a 14-yarder to Sharpe in the second quarter. And he finished with no interceptions.
That Favre, 24, was able to respond as he did to such a sensitive situation is a big step in his growth as an NFL quarterback. If Green Bay is to be successful, Favre will have to display a maturity that he has shown only in flashes the past two seasons. After leading the NFL in interceptions (24) in 1993, he spent the better part of the off-season analyzing what went wrong. The passionate and spirited Favre came to the conclusion that he had been his own worst enemy. He wanted to be so good, so quickly, that he may have worked too hard at the game. He routinely put in 12-hour workdays at the Packer training facility, studying film well into the evenings. Even on Tuesdays, the players' day off, Favre barricaded himself in the Green Bay headquarters to lift weights, run and watch film, which is all but unheard of among starting NFL quarterbacks. Favre wrote detailed notes in his playbook and scribbled reminders on yellow five-by-seven-inch note cards. "I'd write over and over, I will not throw into coverage," Favre says. "At times I felt like I was back in sixth grade. I was so overprepared for every game."
Now, in retrospect, Favre says that being overprepared and having a contract negotiation hanging over his head may have been what ailed him. "Last year I didn't admit that things were getting to me," Favre says. "My first year here , I finished among the top six quarterbacks in the league, and we won games we shouldn't have. The expectations grew rapidly. Then we signed Reggie White last year, and everybody was talking Super Bowl. I expected a lot from myself, I told myself, If I don't play well, we can forget it as a team. I pressed too much."
According to Packer quarterbacks coach Steve Mariucci and offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, most of Favre's interceptions came when he was flushed out of the pocket and had to scramble. Flustered, he failed to work through his receiver progressions. At times he became overly aggressive, forcing the ball into coverage. In the hopes of keeping Favre on a more even keel, Mariucci is now stationed on the sideline instead of upstairs in the coaches' box.
"Brett does well in practice; then on game day, he gets so involved that he's tackling his own teammates," Mariucci says, rolling his eyes. "Brett used to hyperventilate in games. He has a tendency to be way up or way down. We want him to be steadier."
Mariucci has also helped Favre cope with the spotlight of the NFL and the fish-bowl of Green Bay. He's especially sensitive to the fact that Favre, who grew up in tiny Kiln, Miss., and went to Southern Mississippi, hadn't been groomed for a high-profile life—and the responsibilities that go along with it. Favre has never hidden the fact that when his work is done, he likes to party. During his up-and-down 1993 season, there were frequent Favre tavern sightings, though Favre swears that partying has never interfered with football and that he only goes out on Sunday and Monday nights.
"We have had many man-to-man talks," Mariucci says. "I tell Brett what I think. Ninety percent is about football, 10 percent about personal things. Right now, it seems to me, he has settled down. He is living a more normal lifestyle."
"None of this has been easy for me," Favre says. "I didn't go to Quarterback U. I've had to do a lot of learning on the run. One year I'm playing against Tulane; the next I'm on Monday Night Football in front of 80,000 in Kansas City. I'm thinking, Holy cow! Look at this! There are still moments in meetings when the coaches say, 'We've got to protect Brett this week.' And I think, I'm a starting quarterback in the NFL. Sometimes I catch myself saying, 'Are they really talking about me?' "
Favre's counterpart on the Vikings, Warren Moon, struggled in his first game for Minnesota. He completed 20 of his 37 passing attempts for 166 yards, but he had no touchdowns and he threw three interceptions.
Both quarterbacks believe they have a lot to prove this season. Too often the critics put a big but after Moon's statistics because, in 10 seasons with the Houston Oilers, he never got to the AFC Championship Game. "The only thing I have left to prove is that I can get a team into the Super Bowl," says Moon.
Meanwhile, Favre also wants to take Green Bay to a championship. "After we failed in our Super Bowl bid last year," says Favre, "I'd say, 'I'll be in the league 12 years, so I can do it another year.' But now I look at it and say, 'I want to win now.' "