Brett Favre sat at the end of the Green Bay Packers' bench,
stewing. It was the night of Oct. 20, 1994, during a game
against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, and Favre seemed
perilously close to losing his starting-quarterback job. He had
been sidelined after the first quarter by a bruised left hip but
the way he figured it, the injury gave Green Bay coaches what
they wanted: a convenient excuse to begin the Mark Brunell era.
Though Brunell, Favre's lefthanded understudy, played well the
rest of the game, Minnesota won 13-10 in overtime, dropping the
underachieving Packers to 3-4. "Good," Favre recalls thinking.
"We lose the rest of the games this year, that's fine with me."
On the flight home, coach Mike Holmgren wouldn't make a decision
on Favre's future. As is his custom, Holmgren first wanted to
review the game tape and consult his coaching staff. But the
statistics were telling. In 38 games directing Green Bay's
passer-friendly West Coast offense, the talented Favre had
thrown almost as many interceptions (44) as he had touchdown
passes (46). Before the season Holmgren had told Favre, "I will
not hesitate to pull you if we're losing games with the same
mistakes we made last year." Now Holmgren was considering
The next few days were dicey around Packers headquarters. In
quarterbacks coach Steve Mariucci's office, Favre threw a
tantrum in frustration over trying to master the complex
offense. "The lowest point of his Packers career," Mariucci
says. Irvin Favre, Brett's father, called Mariucci, pleading
with him to urge Holmgren to ease up on Brett. "I know my son,"
Irvin says, "and if Mike hadn't stopped butchering him after he
made a mistake, Brett would have dwindled to nothing." One of
Holmgren's confidants, longtime friend Bob LaMonte, was certain
Favre would be benched. "I know Mike was livid with Brett,"
LaMonte says. "Mike told me at the time that it was just galling
to see a player of this magnitude continue to self-destruct."
At a coaches meeting that week, Holmgren polled each member of
his offensive staff on who should be the starting quarterback.
Brunell, whom the coaches considered a better decision-maker
than Favre, won the vote. So what did Holmgren do? Later, he
called Favre into his office and told him, "Buddy, it's your
job." Holmgren's decision was based largely on his belief that
Favre was close to mastering the offense and that the only thing
holding him back--a tendency to force situations--was
correctable. "We're joined at the hip," Holmgren told Favre.
"Either we're going to the Super Bowl together, or we're going
In the 41 regular-season games since, the Packers are 30-11.
Favre has thrown 101 touchdown passes and only 33 interceptions.
He has twice been named league MVP, joining Joe Montana as the
only back-to-back winners of the award. And Favre and Holmgren
are going to the Super Bowl--together.
During a game the quarterback is the brain of any offense, and
he must repeatedly make quick assessments and correct decisions.
This is particularly true in the West Coast offense favored by
Holmgren, who, with his expanded use of the tight end, has
advanced the system created by San Diego Chargers coach Sid
Gillman in the 1960s and perfected by San Francisco 49ers coach
Bill Walsh in the '80s. On pass plays the quarterback may have
to read three or four options in a split-second progression and
then have to improvise if every option is covered.
The complexity of the system helps explain why the marriage
between Holmgren and Favre was so rocky for so long. The Super
Bowl will be the thoughtful Holmgren's 90th game as Packers
coach, and his game plans for the first 89 contained about 1,800
plays. Favre is an act-first, think-later gunslinger who, until
he reached the NFL in 1991, hadn't run something as elementary
as the seven-on-seven passing drill. While at Southern Miss, he
wowed the pro scouts with his derring-do and his cannon arm.
Upon returning from a scouting trip to see Favre in 1990,
Buffalo Bills vice president and general manager Bill Polian was
asked by owner Ralph Wilson if he had seen any good players. "I
just saw the NFL's next great quarterback," Polian, who is now
general manager of the Carolina Panthers, replied.
But Favre, a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, believed
he would never supplant starter Chris Miller in Atlanta, and his
propensity for partying got him on coach Jerry Glanville's bad
side. When Favre arrived late for the team photo, Glanville
fined him $1,500.
"I got trapped behind a car wreck," Favre claimed.
"You are a car wreck," Glanville shot back.
Nevertheless, in February 1992, new Green Bay general manager
Ron Wolf dealt a first-round pick to the Falcons for Favre. As
the New York Jets' director of player personnel the previous
season, Wolf had been so intrigued by Favre that he wanted the
Jets to draft him, but the Falcons selected him with the pick
immediately ahead of New York's. Holmgren, whom Wolf had hired
away from the 49ers a month before the trade, was interested in
acquiring Favre, as well. "I really didn't know his reputation,
but I do remember that when I'd scouted him while I was with San
Francisco, I wrote in my report: 'This guy is blue-collar,'"
says Holmgren. "I figured he was a throwback with a personality.
And personalities as a rule don't scare me, as long as they're
responsible and willing to meet me halfway."
But would Favre? He viewed Holmgren's sophisticated offense as
some sort of hieroglyphics. "In the first year or so I don't
think anybody on our team knew exactly what we were doing," says
Favre. "I'll give you an example. We'd call Red Right, 22 Z In.
I didn't care what the defense did, I was going to the Z [the
flanker], and if he was covered, boom, I was gone. I was
running, trying to make something happen."
It was just such a broken play that thrust Favre into the
limelight. In the third game of the 1992 season, against the
Cincinnati Bengals, he replaced the injured Don Majkowski and,
with 13 seconds left, fired a game-winning, 35-yard touchdown
pass to wideout Kitrick Taylor. "What people don't remember
about that day is I should have had six or seven interceptions,"
says Favre. "I was all over the place." But he was also
electric, and he has started every Packers game since. He
finished that first season in Green Bay as a 64% passer who
threw 18 touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions. But in '93
he regressed, accounting for 30 of the Pack's 34 turnovers,
including 24 interceptions.
"I struggled and I struggled for a long time," Favre says. "But
think about it: I got thrown into the toughest offense in the
game as a starter at 22. Every other guy who's played it sat for
a year or two and learned. Joe Montana sat behind Steve DeBerg.
Steve Young sat behind Joe. Steve Bono sat behind both of them.
Ty Detmer and Mark Brunell sat behind me. That's why it was
frustrating when people would get on me."
Throughout the 1993 season and during the first seven games of
the '94 schedule, Favre was the target of Holmgren's incessant,
irksome ragging. "Let the system work for you!" was one of
Holmgren's nicer suggestions.
"He deserved it, believe me," Holmgren says. "He would say
things to me like, 'Hey, we're 9-7, and we made the playoffs.
That's a pretty good year.' And I'd say, 'You want to be 9-7
your whole life? Not me. We want to win the Super Bowl here.' We
had a test of wills. He's a knucklehead. His way was simply not
going to be good enough. And I don't care what his father says.
If I'd treated him any differently, with more sympathy, I'd have
been cheating him."
Holmgren's vote of confidence after the 1994 game in Minnesota
changed Favre's perspective, but his confidence still seemed
shaken. "I remember Brett so clearly in my office after the
decision was made," Mariucci said last week, a day after the
49ers shockingly named him their coach. "I told him, 'You've got
two choices: You can go in the tank and feel sorry for yourself.
Or you can buckle down, shake it off and be the best quarterback
in football the rest of the season.'"
Upon hearing that, Favre replied, "The second half of the season
is going to be like no other." He lived up to that promise. He
threw only seven interceptions in the final nine games, led the
Packers to the playoffs for the second consecutive season and
turned his career around.
By 1995 Holmgren was listening to Favre more and more in the
Saturday-morning game-plan sessions, a practice that carried
over to the '96 season. On the day before a game, Holmgren, his
three quarterbacks and quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg
discuss what will work best against that week's opponent.
Holmgren asks everyone to submit, in order, their 15 favorite
plays. Later, he retires to his hotel room to script Green Bay's
early game plan. Holmgren hands out the First 15, as he labels
the sheet, at the team meeting on the eve of the game. He'll ask
Favre if he likes the order. "These are really good," Favre told
Holmgren before the NFC Championship Game against the Panthers
two weeks ago. And he wrote Holmgren's final words to him that
night on the bottom of the sheet: "Relax. Play smart."
In the early going against Carolina, Favre forced a pass on a
slant route to wideout Don Beebe. Linebacker Sam Mills
intercepted, setting up the touchdown that gave the Panthers a
7-0 lead. "Why'd you make that throw?" Holmgren snarled as Favre
came off the field.
"Four years ago," Favre says, "I'd have been crying if he
questioned me like that. I just smiled to myself, called him a
name to myself and went on."
That was his last throwing error of the day. One of the plays
Favre and Holmgren agreed would work against the Panthers got
Green Bay even. It was play number 8 of the First 15--Two Jet
All Go, Fake Fullback 40. "I will call this three times in the
game," Holmgren had said in that Saturday-night team meeting,
"and we will score a touchdown on one of them." Antonio Freeman
was split left, with fellow wideout Andre Rison to Freeman's
inside. Tight end Keith Jackson was outside the right tackle,
and fullback Dorsey Levens was on the wing. At the snap all four
players streaked toward the end zone.
"The Panthers play a lot of single-safety coverage in the middle
of the field," Holmgren said last week, "and [free safety] Pat
Terrell was so deep. We figured he would shade toward one of the
guys, Rison or Jackson, running up the seams. Now if you run
Levens out against their best corner, Eric Davis--a fullback on
a great cover guy--they're not going to respect that. So Brett
sees the corner keeping half an eye on the inside receiver. You
can just see Davis conscious of the middle, getting a little
lackadaisical on Dorsey."
Early in his career, Favre says, he might have tried to wedge a
bullet to Rison or Jackson. "Now the only place I'm going to
throw it is where Dorsey catches it or no one does," he says.
Precisely. Levens skied over Davis to pull in the ball at the
side of the end zone for a 29-yard score. Perfectly scripted,
With Favre, though, not every big play is so beautiful to
behold. In the third quarter, facing third-and-seven at the
Carolina 32, he improvised, making a two-handed chest pass while
being tackled by linebacker Kevin Greene. Favre had looked for
Beebe on a crossing route, but Beebe hadn't been open. "I
thought maybe I'd just run for it," Favre says, "but I took off
and, s---, the hole closed! I started pushing Greene off as I
was going down, but then I looked ahead and saw Dorsey, and I
sort of pushed the ball out with my left hand just before my
Gain of eight. First down. Holmgren just shook his head. "I
thought I'd seen it all," he says.
Holmgren has seen plenty with Favre, including the inside of an
addiction and dependency center. Twice during the off-season
last year Holmgren traveled to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka,
Kans., to see how Favre was getting on in his 6 1/2-week
treatment for an addiction to painkillers. "It was pretty
impressive to see Mike there," Favre says. "How many bosses
visit their employees in drug rehab?"
One day during his stay, Favre says, he was angered because the
doctors wouldn't give him a weekend pass to be with his
girlfriend (now wife) Deanna Tynes. So he punched a hole in a
wall. "Mike, I've got to get out of here," Favre said during one
of Holmgren's visits. "I'm going crazy. The walls are closing in
on me. And I haven't thrown a football. I've got to get ready
for the season."
"Don't worry," Holmgren said. "Just take care of this. The
football will take of itself. You're going to be fine."
The coach knows the quarterback pretty well.
Since joining the Packers in 1992, Favre has thrown 147
touchdown passes, the second-best total over a five-year span in
NFL history. He also is the only NFL quarterback to throw more
than 30 TD passes in each of three consecutive seasons, with 33
in 1994, 38 in '95 and 39 in '96. Here are the five best
touchdown totals over five years.
Quarterback, Team Years TDs
DAN MARINO, Dolphins 1984-88 176
BRETT FAVRE, Packers 1992-96 147
LEN DAWSON, Texans/Chiefs 1962-66 132
GEORGE BLANDA, Oilers 1960-64 128
DAN FOUTS, Chargers 1978-82 128
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
After the arrival of Holmgren and Favre five years ago, the
Packers made steady progress toward Green Bay's first Super Bowl
appearance in 29 years. Here is a year-by-year breakdown.
Season Record Postseason Performance
1992 9-7 Did not qualify for playoffs
1993 9-7 Sixth seed in NFC; first-round game on road;
lost in second round
1994 9-7 Fourth seed in NFC; first-round game at home;
lost in second round
1995 11-5 Third seed in NFC; won two playoff games; lost
NFC Championship Game
1996 13-3 First seed in NFC; won two playoff games;
advanced to Super Bowl