Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Losing A Legend

The NFL regular season finished on Sunday, and no sooner was it over than the owners and general managers started sticking their knives into their coaches. One of the high-profile casualties was Mike Sherman, head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Despite successful playoff runs the last three years, after a fairly disastrous season this year, his fate was sealed.

What I am about to suggest will never be corroborated by any other source. I think, however, that he was sacked this season deliberately to hasten the departure of Brett Favre.

Favre had made it known before the season ended that he wasn't keen on having to learn an entirely new system. Not without good reason, either - he's been playing a long time. So long, in fact, that he has the longest consecutive run of games played of any player in the league, and that whenever he stops, the nearest active player would have to play for six more seasons to catch him. Not just that, but he has a reputation for playing hurt. Not just niggling injuries, but playing with a broken thumb - quite significant, you would think, for a position that requires you to throw the ball upwards of 30 times in a match.

Favre also has the accolade of being one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Winner of one Super Bowl, two NFC Championships, and three MVP awards (not to mention a whole host of individual records), he was the undoubted star of the team. His supporting cast was good, but not stellar in the same way that a quarterback like Joe Montana or Steve Young was assisted. Favre simply had the ability to make throws that no-one else thought were possible. His real strength was the speed of his throws, but at the height of the game his accuracy was beyond doubt too. He was a quarterback who made the game of football fun to watch - the fact that he played for the storied franchise of the NFL, the Packers (a small-town team, still owned by their fans, with a strong history), made the story even better.

Watching him play the last two seasons, however, has not been great for the football fan. There is no sadder sight in sport than watching a true legend, an all-time great, slowly fading away into obscurity. Watching Favre is even sadder, because he still hasn't come to terms with the fact that his skills are not as they once were. Sure, his team has been plagued by injuries this year, and hasn't given him much support. But some of his passes have been downright ugly. Others, such as interceptions thrown into triple coverage (a frequent error this year), are the mark of a man who wishes he had his old powers. In his heyday, the passes might have had a chance of reaching their target. Now his precision, especially over long distances, has gone, he is a shadow of his former self.

Sport, however, is a sentimental business. Favre knows this as well as anyone, for an incident late in 2003. Deciding to play after the sudden death of his father, Favre turned out what statistically was a wonderful game - 399 passing yards and 4 touchdowns in the first half alone. So total was the demolition that even the Oakland Raiders fans, not noted for their sportsmanship, gave him a standing ovation. That said, it is easy to put up big numbers when your receivers are making implausible catches on inaccurate throws. That didn't detract from the story, of course.

That's because Favre is one of the most popular players in the league. In an era where players hop from team to team in search of a bigger payday, Favre has been a byword for loyalty - starting every game for the team in the last fourteen seasons. He has handled success and defeat gracefully, and doesn't seem given to attention-seeking comments to the media. He is a simple man who loves to play football. Add that to the fact that he plays for a lovable team, and you have a personality that the league will be much the poorer for losing. Brett Favre is a player on whom fans of a team really can feel proud and justified of pinning their hopes.

That doesn't mean that from the business side of sport, he should be kept, however. The Packers drafted hot young prospect Aaron Rodgers last year, obviously with the intention of grooming him as Favre's replacement. There is only so long he can be kept on the sideline before he goes stale. Moreover, the failure of Favre to comprehend the loss of his powers hurts the team more than having a less able quarterback who plays to his limitations.

Yet because sport trades off its sentimentality, there is no way that Ted Thompson, general manager of the Packers, could force out Brett Favre. He'd be seen as an ogre, a man with no respect for tradition, and unless the team succeeded again quickly, his position would quickly become untenable. Given that Packers fans of my acquaintance blame the woes of the team on Thompson, not Sherman, success may not be likely.

Instead, of course, Thompson can fire Sherman. Favre's already made public pronouncements that continuing his career was partially dependent on the team's coaching situation - so with yesterday's news, the chances of us seeing Favre suited up for one last season diminish. If my suspicions are right, then it is Thompson's way of trying to sack Favre.

If that's true, it is doubly sad. Sad because we have had to watch a player in visible decline for too long. And sad, too, because the business of sport is preventing us from seeing a player leave in his own time.