We are early in what I can guarantee will be a very tumultuous month in the recurring Brett Favre will-he-or-won't-he saga, and what I can tell you for sure is this: No. 4 wants to play football again, and the Green Bay Packers desperately do not want him to.
Will he play? I don't know. I don't think he knows. He has, however, told coach Mike McCarthy he wants to return.
The issue is going to be pressed soon. I fully expect Favre's agent to send a letter to the Packers within the next 10 days, stating that Favre, 38, wants to be taken off the National Football League's reserve/retired list. At that point, the team will have no choice but to re-admit the league's most accomplished statistical quarterback ever back to football, and general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy will have a decision to make that you can be sure is keeping them up nights. They can take Favre and his $12.8-million cap number back onto the team and give him his starting job back, they can trade him or they can release him.
Every one of those options makes the Packers wretch. I've been told an edgy McCarthy told Favre, in their most recent phone conversation a couple of weeks ago, the legendary quarterback would put the Packers in a tough spot by reneging on his March 6 retirement. Favre understands. But I don't think it's going to stop him from doing what his body tells him to do -- play football again.
In the past few years, Favre has begun to prepare for training camp by throwing to high-school receivers at Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Miss., and when he's done that in the past month, his arm has felt pain-free and strong. That, plus the fact he hasn't found anything else to do in retirement other than the chores on his 465 acres in Hattiesburg, is making him think he wants to play football again.
And one other thing: I believe as Favre looks back on his decision to retire, he thinks part of the reason he made it was he felt it would have been easier to retire and return if he changed his mind than to blindly say he was going to keep playing -- only to find out in mid-August his heart was not in it. When he made the decision a month after the Super Bowl, he announced it with certainty. But the further he's gotten from the season, the more he realizes he still wants to play. The 2007 season was one of his three or four best as a pro. This wouldn't be a broken-down Johnny Unitas slinking back for an 18th year in San Diego. This would be Favre, in his 18th season, coming off a year when he set personal records for completion percentage (.665) and yards-per-pass-attempt (7.8).
McCarthy has also told Favre he worries about him tarnishing his legacy. The one thing I don't believe Favre understands yet is the tumult which will greet his return to the Packers, or to another NFL team. There are Packer fans who have moved on, and wish he would do the same. He doesn't realize fully -- yet -- that Brett Favre returning to the Packers would bug a slew of Packerphiles who wish he'd make a decision and stick with it and ride off into the sunset with his glory intact. Because he insulates himself from much of the football world in Mississippi, I'm sure he doesn't realize the impact that playing for another team would have on his bleed-Packer-green fandom. Playing for any old NFL team would be crime enough to many of his faithful, but playing for a rival like Minnesota or Chicago would be like Johnny Damon spurning the Red Sox for the Yankees. Times five.
All of this scares the living tar out of McCarthy and Thompson. They've happily proceeded through the off-season preparing the 24-year-old successor to Favre, Aaron Rodgers, to take his place, and they don't want their grand plan interrupted now. It's quite understandable. Rodgers has shown promise, and the Packers have him signed through the end of the 2009 season. Can you imagine what Rodgers would think if McCarthy came to him this week and said, "I know you've been working hard getting ready to start for us, and we've promised you the starting job, but we're going to bring Brett back for one year. Or two. Or three.'' If I were Rodgers, and I'd already waited through three years without starting a game, and Favre returned, I know what I'd tell McCarthy. That's fine, Mike. But I will never sign another contract with the Packers. After 2009, whatever happens, I'm gone.
That's not the only reason why McCarthy and Thompson are scared. There are two more, actually.
One: Say they accept Favre back, then try to trade him. They're going to get, what, a third-round pick from Tampa Bay or the New York Jets or Washington for him? They'll forever be known as the men who sent the greatest Packer packing. And there's no guarantee Favre would agree to go to just any team if he chooses to come back. Don't put it past him and agent Bus Cook to refuse to report to a team Favre doesn't want to play for.
Two: Say the Packers allow Favre his freedom, which I think ultimately is what Favre wants if he doesn't get his starting job back in Green Bay. Overwhelmingly the team that makes the most sense to sign Favre for a couple of years is Minnesota. The Vikings are training Tarvaris Jackson to be their quarterback of the future, but he's an unproven commodity with promise at best. Their offensive coordinator is Darrell Bevell, who was Favre's quarterback coach for three years, from 2003-05. They have a close relationship. Not Steve Mariucci-Favre close, but Favre has a lot of respect for him. Imagine Favre in purple. It's an absolutely vomitous scenario for the Packers, imagining Favre playing for their arch-rivals -- and imagining Favre charging out of the tunnel at Lambeau Field for the opening game of the 2008 season. Lambeau Field, Monday Night Football, the night Favre was supposed to have his number retired for the Packers.
Which is why I believe the Packers, even though they desperately want Favre to stay retired, will take him back if he presses the issue. They'll try to mollify Rodgers somehow, which I think will be difficult. Impossible, maybe. They'll hope Favre changes his mind and goes back into retirement sometime in August ... which, if he shows up for the first day of camp, I will guarantee you he will not do. But they'll grit their teeth and smile for the cameras when he returns, all the while cursing his flip-flopness.
The smartest thing for the Packers to do right now, if Favre continues to charge ahead and insist he wants to play, would be for McCarthy and Thompson to meet with Favre in the next 10 days and try to convince him not to play. I don't think it would work, particularly because I don't sense Favre is feeling all warm and fuzzy about Packer brass right now. But Favre's an emotional sort.
One story that's never been fully told is why Favre returned in 2006, after he was convinced he'd thrown his last pass. A good part of the reason was a visit Thompson made to Hattiesburg, urging Favre to play one more year and to give then-rookie coach McCarthy a chance. The Packers, Thompson told Favre, really needed him. And on that spring day in 2006, Favre decided he'd return. If they can't convince him to stay retired, I believe they'd have a chance -- a chance -- to convince him to accept a trade, which I think would be best for all parties. Favre and Cook could list a slew of teams that would be agreeable to him, and the Packers could tell him, "We're not trading you to a team in the division.''
That seems fair. The Packers want to get on with their lives. What isn't fair to them is for Favre to be able to say he wants to pick up and go play for Minnesota or Chicago, both quarterback-needy teams.
But I don't expect that to happen. I'm told Thompson is not returning Cook's calls -- and what possible benefit would that have, other than Thompson fearing Cook would leak their conversations to favored friends in the media? -- and the Packers recently sent an intermediary to Mississippi to try to talk some sense into him. All that does is alienate Favre from the franchise further.
Final point: I keep hearing Favre was pushed into retirement by the Packers demanding an early decision this off-season, or by Thompson not showing him enough love. He might feel that way, but I think it's nonsense. Favre stood up in front of the world six weeks after he played his last game and said he was finished. If he's not, the Packers are not to blame. He is. He'll have to take the consequences for returning, either in Green Bay (where he shouldn't expect a hug from Rodgers) or elsewhere. But right now, I believe the heart is telling Favre to play, and what the heart wants, the heart usually gets.