Shocks To the System

With teams suddenly willing to make trades, some big-name players showed up in surprising places, but the most famous of them all—the unretired Brett Favre—was still waiting to see where he would land
August 03, 2008

IT WAS after 11 last Saturday night at Brett Favre's sprawling home west of Hattiesburg, Miss., and he and his wife, Deanna, were still following the same line of conversation that had started before dinner four hours earlier. So many thoughts. So many options. Except two: The Packers would not give Favre his old job back, and they would not release him to freely sign with another team. ¶ It is not easy for legends with the gas-tank needle on 1/8 to stay retired. Nor is it easy for a player who spent 16 seasons in Green Bay, at the center of football's most close-knit community, to accept a trade to an unfamiliar locale in New Jersey or Florida.

Tortured is too strong a word to describe what Favre, leaning against the polished marble counter in his spacious kitchen, and his wife, sitting, often shaking her head, were going through on Saturday night. But agonized isn't far off.

"I don't know what I'll do," said a weary Favre, running a hand over his customary six-day stubble. "It's strange to think I'll never play for the Packers again. Does it hurt? Hurt's not quite it. To see those fans I love cheer for another quarterback.... That's the way it goes, but it'll be hard. Maybe the situation I want to play in hasn't presented itself yet. I don't know. Maybe I won't play. If I don't, I've had 17 great years [in the NFL], loved every minute of it and loved playing in Green Bay...."

"You're a football player," said Deanna, who doesn't say much but when she speaks is usually spot-on. "You need to play football."

He knows that. Over the past few weeks Favre, who announced his retirement on March 4 and who turns 39 in October, has made it more and more apparent that he was not ready to spend 10 hours a day edging and trimming and planting on his 465 acres, but would rather play in the NFL again this season. But for which team and when? These were the overriding questions.

As the Packers took the practice field in Green Bay on Monday, beginning their first training camp without Favre under center since 1992, only one thing was clear: The most popular player in franchise history was no longer welcome at Lambeau Field—unless it was for his jersey-retirement ceremony. And because Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson won't give Favre his outright release, the two men entered into an ugly pas de deux that could be the riskiest gambit of their careers. Thompson was determined to trade Favre to a team outside the NFC North and to get adequate compensation. Favre was determined to fight for his freedom. "Tell Ted to release me," he reiterated to a reporter in a text message on Sunday night.

In the meantime, a few blocks south of Lambeau on Sunday, two teenage boys walked down the street wearing BRING BACK BRETT T-shirts. And plastered across a billboard on Route 41, halfway between Appleton and Green Bay, was the sign BRINGBACKBRETT.COM.

AS FAVRE'S football future hung in the balance last weekend, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that other NFL stars had already been on the move and were opening training camp with new teams. Franchise defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and Kris Jenkins were dispatched to the Bills and the Jets, respectively, in the off-season, each traded for two draft picks. The 2007 NFL Man of the Year, defensive end Jason Taylor, was dealt from the Dolphins to the Redskins on July 20 for second- and sixth-round draft picks. A day later the Giants sent flamboyant tight end Jeremy Shockey to New Orleans for second- and fifth-round picks.

Now Favre was on the block. Why the sudden burst of trades in an NFL previously averse to them? The biggest reason is the recent lack of marquee free agents. In each of the last two years the 32 teams have entered the off-season with a total of more than $600 million in cap money to spend; if a team has an important player it wants to keep, the tendency now is to slightly overpay and keep him off the market. Second, teams in the win-now mode that have significant holes to fill are choosing to trade for veterans rather than develop young talent. Cleveland general manager Phil Savage, for instance, wanted to fix a defensive line that allowed 4.5 yards per rushing attempt last year. With no surefire run-stuffers on the open market, Savage gave up a handful of picks to acquire 653 pounds of defensive line help in Shaun Rogers (from the Lions) and Corey Williams (Packers).

"When you see all these really good players being dealt, you start to think, What's going on here?" says New Orleans G.M. Mickey Loomis. "What it is, is teams with cap money that have to solve problems."

Solving problems was what the Dolphins and the Giants had in mind when they traded Taylor and Shockey. Both were eager to move, and both quickly tried to blend in with their new teams; they didn't even try to buy or wangle for the uniform numbers (99 for Taylor, 80 for Shockey) they've worn throughout their careers. "The last thing I wanted to do was come in looking like some guy on a white horse," Taylor said last Friday. "They've got a playoff team. I just want to blend in. Buying the number would have sent a bad message."

On the Saints' practice field in Jackson, Miss., on Saturday, Shockey looked like a changed man—and a far more inconspicuous one. He had shorn his flowing locks and partially covered his heavily tattooed arms, and after plays he often quietly took a teammate aside and offered instructions. "Here's the attitude I have: I'm just here trying to make the team," Shockey said. "After being in New York, this is the first time I've ever felt like just one of the guys, not like an animal in a cage that everyone's come to see."

Taylor, Shockey and Favre, three stars with a combined 19 Pro Bowl selections, on the trading block in late July—that's something the NFL hasn't seen in the 16 years of unfettered free agency. In this new era, teams flush with cap money will pursue difference-makers harder than they ever did because of the year-to-year pressure to win—and because some teams have shown that this personnel strategy works. After trading for All-Pro wideout Randy Moss in 2007, the Patriots became the highest-scoring team in league history. Last season receiver Chris Chambers of the Chargers and running back Ryan Grant of the Packers made big contributions to their teams' playoff runs after being acquired for draft picks. The Cowboys think cornerback--return man Adam (formerly Pacman) Jones, picked up for a fourth-rounder, could make that kind of impact this year. Unlike some of their old-guard, build-through-the-draft predecessors, G.M.'s such as Thompson, Loomis and Savage aren't afraid to give up draft picks. New Orleans pulled the trigger on the Shockey trade 13 weeks after the initial proposal to the Giants "because it just made too much sense not to happen," Loomis says. "Plus, [coach Sean Payton] was on me every other day, telling me we had to have Shockey."

ON MONDAY morning, as the Packers went to their practice field across the street from Lambeau, Favre was 1,025 miles away, tending to his Mississippi property. After threatening to appear for the start of camp, he'd agreed with Thompson on Saturday to skip the first couple of days while the G.M. continued working to trade him.

The pressure was on Thompson to structure a deal that Favre, the Packers and the fans could live with. Last week he had given the Jets and the Bucs permission to talk to Favre's agent, James (Bus) Cook, but on Saturday the three-time NFL MVP said he had little interest in going to New York or Tampa Bay. More likely, he hoped to wear down Thompson with constant requests to be set free, so he could go to either of his preferred teams, the Vikings or the Bears. Last week Favre spoke twice with commissioner Roger Goodell, hoping he could influence Goodell to lean on Thompson to release him.

"As bad as Ted has it now," said one source close to the Green Bay front office, "it would be 10 times worse if he let Brett go and [Favre] signed with Minnesota. Brett's got to realize: He's either got to agree to a deal and go to a team that wouldn't threaten the Packers, or he's got to sit and wait until a good quarterback gets hurt so he could go to a contender that doesn't need a quarterback right now."

The question most often heard around town was, Why don't the Packers want Favre to come back and play for them if he clearly gives the team a better chance to win in 2008 than Aaron Rodgers does? Green Bay's 2005 first-round pick, Rodgers has never started an NFL game—largely because Favre hasn't missed a start since 1992. The answer is, Thompson and his handpicked coach, Mike McCarthy, are tired of riding the Favre retirement merry-go-round. In the two off-seasons before this one, they had to wait as long as five months before Favre told them he wanted to return to the team. This year, 17 weeks after he announced his retirement, Favre changed his mind. This time the Packers said they have moved on without him.

"I know the perception is I've waffled," Favre said on Saturday night. "But any veteran who's played in this league this long is going to have some doubts about playing a 16th or 17th year. And [the Packers] wanted an answer from me early in the off-season. If I waited, and I told them I was going to retire three days before training camp, that would have been pretty low-class."

Favre could make it ugly for the team by showing up, staying in camp and making it tough on Rodgers when the fans call for the new quarterback's head the first time he throws two straight incompletions. But Favre is nonconfrontational by nature and would dread inciting the fans against his old team. Perhaps this is the best solution: Favre makes a list of 10 teams outside the NFC North that he'd play for; Thompson agrees to trade Favre if, say, a Philadelphia or an Seattle suddenly finds itself in need of a passer before the Oct. 14 trading deadline; and Thompson makes the deal even if the compensation falls short of the second- or third-round pick he wants in return.

Favre and Goodell even discussed by phone over the weekend the idea of Favre's sitting tight, staying in shape and waiting for the right team to come along.

"Maybe even Green Bay," the commissioner said.

"Maybe not," Favre said.

Trades were the off-season trend, but a few free agents did cash in. Samuel, the former Pats cornerback, signed with the Eagles for $9.25 million a year—more than Donovan McNabb or Brian Westbrook—then promptly tweaked a hamstring during the team's second practice.

After dancing with the stars, the six-time Pro Bowl defensive end boogied north from Miami to Washington for two draft picks. "There are a lot of people in this city counting on me to still be Jason Taylor," says the man with the most sacks—112—in the NFL over the past 10 years, "and I think I can be."

Another marquee free agent in a thin 2008 market, the 10-year Steeler and five-time All-Pro left guard found a new home with the Jets, signing for five years and $40 million. He'll help stabilize a line that boasts promising third-year players in tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold.

With no powerhouse interior D-linemen in free agency, the Browns shipped a draft pick and corner Leigh Bodden to Detroit for the 340-pound Rogers, whose role as nosetackle in the 3--4 will be to occupy blockers. Says the eighth-year man, "I'll make my living being surrounded."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoMISSISSIPPI MEN While Shockey donned Saints gear in Jackson, Favre stayed home in Hattiesburg, figuring out his next move. PHOTOALLEN FREDRICKSON/REUTERS[See caption above] PHOTODREW HALLOWELL/GETTY IMAGES (SAMUEL) PHOTOSIMON BRUTY PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (FANECA) PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTOBOB ROSATO (SHOCKEY)ALL TOGETHER Shockey got to know his new teammates, including former Jet Jonathan Vilma, another trade subject.