Brett Favre and the art of great timing
There are a million factors that fed the legend of Brett Favre.
His numbers and streaks, his good looks and charisma. His postseason awards and his charmed 1996 Super Bowl season. By the time of his third and final retirement in 2011, the media’s adoration of the gunslinger had become so cliche that Frank Caliendo built a career on making fun of it. One reason typically gets ignored.
Brett Favre was peerless in a very literal sense.
Look at the state of the league in January 1998, probably the zenith of his career. At 28-years-old Favre had just finished his third MVP season. The Packers were the reigning champions, challenging for a repeat.
In the broader sense, the league’s best quarterbacks are getting old. Dan Marino, Steve Young, and John Elway are all in their late-thirties. Warren Moon is 41. Troy Aikman’s career is coming to a premature end due to concussions. In the last two drafts, only one quarterback has been taken in the first round: Jim Druckenmiller. Favre is simultaneously the league’s best quarterback and best young quarterback.
Brett Favre picked the best possible time to be alive.
Born in 1969, Favre was in middle school when six quarterbacks were taken in the first round of 1983 draft. Four of them turned out to be longterm starters; three were elite; two of those went to the Hall of Fame and were still playing in 1998. That draft started a trend.
Throughout the next six years, good and great quarterbacks flooded the draft. The period produced five busts in Canton: Marino, Elway, Aikman, Young, and Warren Moon. Eight quarterbacks who entered the league during this period threw for at least 200 touchdowns in their careers.
If those years were the roaring twenties, then the day after Favre was taken in the 1991 draft was black Tuesday.
In the 1997 playoffs, half of the quarterbacks were younger than Favre, but they were a mediocre bunch. The best was Drew Bledsoe, who had been promising during his first few seasons, but who would never appear in another playoff game. Then there was Mark Brunell, a former back-up in Green Bay, who came to define the term “game manager” in Jacksonville. Of course, Kordell Stewart, a tantalizing athlete who never quite mastered the position, was a few years away from officially failing to live up to expectations. After that, it gets ugly.
Trent Dilfer, widely perceived to be the standard of how bad a quarterback can be and still win a Super Bowl. Elvis Grbac, who would replace him in Baltimore and prove that theory to be correct. Also, young Danny Kanell, who never achieved the status as a full-time starter during his brief six-year career.
There was no next generation behind Favre. In seven years, not a single future Hall of Fame Quarterback entered the league: the longest gap since 1949-1956.
Three types of quarterback tend to get the most media attention: rising stars, current greats, and aging legends. In every facet of his career, Favre had a near monopoly on each basket.
Marino and Elway were tied at the hip. Young and Aikman battled for NFC dominance in the early 1990s. Even later iterations seemed to come in pairs and cross paths: Brady and Manning, Roethlisberger and Rodgers. On the other hand, Favre had no nemesis. He beat Bledsoe in 1997, and that seemed to settle the debate.
The drafts from 1990 to 1997 look like a recession. There were outright busts (Heath Shuler, Andre Ware, Rick Mirer), mild disappointments (Dilfer, Jeff George) and even a few mild successes (Bledsoe and Steve McNair).
The end of the recession went straight into a boom. Kurt Warner, Todd Hasselbeck, and, most notably, Peyton Manning entered the league in 1998. The 1999 draft produced Donovan McNabb. Then Tom Brady came in 2000, Michael Vick and Drew Brees in 2001, Carson Palmer in 2003, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and finally Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers in 2005. During that era, six of seven drafts produced a franchise quarterback.
This era will likely exceed the 1980s in Hall of Fame inductions. Warner has already been inducted. Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers seem likely, with Eli Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger remaining possibilities.
The boom was mirrored by the rapid exit of the old guard. Elway retired after the 1998 season. Young and Marino followed the next year. Aikman, the youngest of generation, left in 2000.
That exodus meant that Favre, who was allowed to retain the status of being the best young quarterback in the league until age 28, took the mantle of being the best legacy quarterback at age 30. He went seamlessly from rising star to an aging generation of one.
For an entire decade, Favre was the only quarterback on retirement watch. He helped his case by remaining effective for nearly the whole time. However, it bears mentioning, that he did relatively little to expand his Canton resume after losing Super Bowl in 1998. He was a mainstay in the playoffs, but he never got past another NFC championship game.
Still, his retirements were massive stories. Since injuries had taken Young and Aikman and Marino’s star had diminished slightly after years of mediocre Dolphins teams, the prospect of his retirement hung over the league in a way that hadn’t happened since Elway a full decade before. It took five more years for Peyton Manning’s decision to match the attention, and even then, it was mingled with a discussion of the potential retirement of Tom Brady.
That is the charmed life of Brett Favre: starting two years after Troy Aikman and seven years before Peyton Manning. In sports, timing is everything.