Favre from Over
A blowout win at Lambeau rejuvenated the aging Brett Favre and quieted the whispers that he had lost his magic touch
We expect athletes to have all the answers, assume they know much more about themselves and their sport than what the fans could ascertain on their own. In the case of digesting a complex NFL game plan that notion is true. But more often, athletes are as clueless as the public about what fate has in store for them. The smart ones even admit it.
Like Brett Favre. Last Saturday, 24 hours before the game that would stop Green Bay's slide or send the Packers' season down the drain, the man who's started more consecutive games at quarterback than any other had no idea what his immediate or long-term future held.
"Is the magic over?" Favre said, voicing what every honest member of Packers Nation had been pondering for a month while the team staggered to an 0-4 start. "I think it's human to wonder that right now. I have no idea if we'll win a game this year. I really don't know how we'll play tomorrow, with half our team hurt. But I know I've probably never worked harder in a week to help this team get ready. And I also know one bad game, one bad season, will not define me as a player."
Favre looked almost rookie fresh on Saturday. There were no visible effects from a wrenching 32-29 loss to the Panthers the previous Monday night, which left him so emotionally drained that twice in a 13-minute postgame press conference his voice cracked and he had to pause to keep his emotions in check. Sure, Favre's graying, but on Saturday he was clear-eyed and not the least bit downbeat about the Packers' poor start--the worst since he joined the team in 1992--and his own inconsistent play.
Then on Sunday at Lambeau Field, one day before his 36th birthday, Favre played like he was 26 in a 52-3 victory over the Saints. He connected on 19 of 27 passes for 215 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He misfired on only one significant pass all day--underthrowing a deep post to Donald Driver that would have given him four TD tosses.
More important, Favre showed he could quickly adjust to the young players who had been well down the depth chart when the season began. His three scoring passes were to backup tight ends Donald Lee and David Martin and to preseason No. 3 wideout Robert Ferguson. All are younger than 27, and all have become integral to an offense that is missing Pro Bowl performers at center (Mike Flanagan), running back (Ahman Green) and tight end (Bubba Franks) because of minor injuries; has lost Pro Bowl wideout Javon Walker to a season-ending knee injury; and is still adapting to playing without departed free-agent guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera.
On Sunday the Saints' quarterback, Aaron Brooks, helped Green Bay to an early lead by throwing interceptions on consecutive series, turnovers that the Packers converted into two touchdowns. From there Favre didn't have to take chances. The pass that smacked of vintage Favre was a 25-yard rope to Ferguson in the end zone, with rookie safety Josh Bullocks draped on the receiver's shoulder. "That was the kind of throw only Brett makes," Ferguson said. "I was the only one who could have caught it."
That touchdown upped Green Bay's lead to 28-3 midway through the second quarter and so energized Favre that he ran to Ferguson in the end zone, cradled his 210-pound teammate in his arms and headed for the sideline. Favre went about five yards before letting his wideout down easy. "I guess it was kind of like a honeymoon there for a minute," Ferguson said. Maybe the celebration has only started.
Plenty of Work To Go Around
If Maurice Clarett had paid attention to how Denver coach Mike Shanahan handles running backs, the 2005 third-rounder might still be in the NFL. Clarett was cut by Shanahan in August in part because he complained about not getting more carries with the first team. But he should have realized that all of Shanahan's backs eventually get their chance. "No question, he would have," Shanahan said on Monday, after his running-back-by-committee had had its fourth straight strong performance, piling up 165 yards in a 21-19 win over the Redskins. "But when guys come into the NFL you don't know how hard they're going to work and how diligently they'll prepare."
If they work, they'll get carries under Shanahan. That was true in the past for Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson (who, at 32, is taking his second turn as Denver's lead back) and Reuben Droughns. This year it's a combo of the ramlike Anderson, rejuvenated basher Ron Dayne and outside threat Tatum Bell. In Week 2, with the score tied at 17 against San Diego and Denver driving for the winning field goal, Shanahan brought in Dayne, the Heisman winner-turned-Giants-castoff, who carried six times for 38 valuable yards. The next week Anderson and Bell combined for 145 yards to confound the Chiefs. Then Anderson steamrollered the Jaguars for 115 yards. And on Sunday against the Redskins, Bell, a 2004 second-round pick out of Oklahoma State, rushed for 127 yards on 12 carries against the Redskins, including TD runs of 34 and 55 yards, on the wet Invesco Field grass. Against the Patriots this week, who knows? Once Shanahan sees how a game is going, he decides which back to go with.
"Mike and Ron are basically tough runners who can be really physical inside," said Shanahan. "Tatum brings a different dimension, an explosiveness. If he sees a seam in the defense, he can go the distance. When we play him too much, he wears down a little bit, but he's a guy who, used right, has home run capability."
Clarett must wonder: What if I'd just worked hard and waited my turn? He surely wouldn't be out of football.
He's Found His Footing
Of all the players in the league, the best at his position right now is Neil Rackers. Yes, Neil Rackers, the Arizona placekicker.
After five games Rackers has almost lapped the field by booting 18 of 18 field goals (seven more than any other kicker) and 16 kickoffs that went for touchbacks (five more than the next guy). He also has converted the second-longest field goal in the NFL this year, 54 yards, and took advantage of the high altitude in Mexico City on Oct. 2 to blast two kickoffs through the uprights--80 yards away--in a game against the 49ers.
Talk about the rebirth of a career. After making 20 of 25 field goals and 35 extra points as a senior at Illinois in 1999, Rackers was picked in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by the Bengals. But in three seasons he made only 65% of his field goal tries and had a mere 15 touchbacks and was cut in September 2003. Signed by Arizona two months later, Rackers has since connected on 83% of his field goal attempts (49 of 59) and had 44 touchbacks in 28 games.
"Not to make excuses," Rackers says, "but in Cincinnati the surface was like a kitty-litter box. The footing was terrible. Here I'm in a great comfort zone. I've got my snapper from college, Nathan Hodel [signed by Arizona in 2001]. I've got a great holder, Scott Player. And the field here is rock hard and smooth, like a golf course. It makes a 10-yard difference when the footing is so good."
Looking at the Cardinals' schedule, it's easy to see how Rackers might break the records for field goals (39) in a season. Over the last 11 weeks, 10 of Arizona's games are at home, on artificial turf or under a retractable roof. The only potentially mucky surface will be at San Francisco on Dec. 4. "I am so confident now that if I walked up to [coach] Denny Green and said, 'I want to try that 60-yard field goal,' I think he'd say, 'Go ahead,'" Rackers says. "In Cincinnati I never got comfortable. I never got confident."
The Colts are the last unbeaten team, and unless they stumble two or three times down the stretch against a relatively easy schedule, they could end up playing all their postseason games indoors: AFC divisional and championship games at home, and Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit. Under Tony Dungy, Indianapolis is 1-3 outdoors in the playoffs, 2-0 inside.... Lions president Matt Millen must think the team needs to be more disciplined. Last week he barked at a player for dropping a pass during practice. Then Detroit went out on Sunday and crushed Baltimore.... While Champ Bailey nurses a bad hamstring, the Broncos are starting two rookie corners‚Äö Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth. "They're really competitive, and they're both going to be good for a long time," coach Mike Shanahan says.... For anyone who wonders why Drew Bledsoe has been reborn in Dallas, look no further than the health of speed receiver Terry Glenn. As long as Glenn stays upright--he lost 17 games to injury over the last four years--Bledsoe has the perfect target for his deep throws. After five games Glenn has 23 catches for a 22.5-yard average gain. His two scoring catches in the first 10 minutes on Sunday started the 33-10 rout of the Eagles.