By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 11:15 PM
This is not what Brett Favre expected. He could really use a hug. Give, give, give, all he does is give, and what does he get in return? Not what he expected. Oh, the suffering, the repeated blows to his dignity, to be paid $16 million for one more season of perpetual, unending, exasperating boyhood.
"I would never have expected to be in this situation," Favre said after the Minnesota Vikings fell to 3-7 on Sunday. He didn't expect what? To age? To be exposed as a juvenile Peter Pan narcissist, on and off the field? He didn't expect his offseason lassitude to result in losses, quarrels and a league-leading number of interceptions? He didn't expect to be investigated for seedy stalking, allegedly sending inappropriate messages and images to Jenn Sterger as an attempt at seduction? Mainly, it seems Favre didn't expect to be denied the abject hero worship and Super Bowl he believes is his perennial due.
Here's Favre, throwing his 17th interception Sunday, and yet he has the nerve to argue with and wave off offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on the sideline. Here's Favre, dragging a whole franchise into his retirement psychodrama for the past two summers, and helping to cost Brad Childress his job as coach. Yet he has the effrontery to suggest it's a personal sacrifice for him to play out this losing season, as if 20 years in the league should have entitled him to some sort of get-out-of-adversity-free card.
If there is a theme in the NFL this week, it's the heavy, heavy toll a team pays when a quarterback's ego runs amok. By the time last Sunday was over, after watching the histrionics of Favre and Vince Young, I half-enjoyed seeing Richard Seymour drop Ben Roethlisberger with one punch.
You can say what you want about Donovan McNabb and "My Way" Mike Shanahan, but they've kept the Redskins from becoming the circus that the Vikings and the Titans are. Shanahan, with his clandestine ministry-of-information routine, doesn't always strike the right note, and McNabb has struggled in the offense, but whatever their issues, McNabb isn't tossing his uniform into the stands like Young. Or throwing the coach under the bus with muttered quotes such as "It's a damn shame," as Favre did with Childress. That's a tribute to McNabb, who is obviously determined to resolve his problems in an adult-like manner. Give the edge to the Redskins over the Vikings this Sunday, if only because the other team's dysfunction outstrips their own. Refreshing, for Redskins Park.
Favre's season has become embarrassing to watch, not because of his age or physical failings, but because of his naked self-pity. It's not that Favre's body has broken down; his character has. Last season his un-retirement paid off with an appearance in the NFC championship, but things haven't gone according to his Super Bowl plan this season, and that seems to have struck at his vanity. There is a needy undertone, a begging for adulation, as each week after another loss, Favre publicly weeps for himself.
"If the arm comes off, it comes off," he told ESPN. "If I can't throw anymore, I can't throw anymore. I've got nothing to save myself for now."
In the fourth quarter of Sunday's 31-3 beating by the Green Bay Packers, Favre's teammates, Ryan Longwell and Steve Hutchinson, tried to comfort him. Afterward, Favre's self-absorption reached its zenith. He actually insinuated that they helped get him into this mess, by visiting Mississippi and talking him into playing again against his better judgment.
"They just came over and said, 'Keep your head up. I know it's not what we envisioned when we were at your place,' " Favre said. "But I'm not going to say, 'I told you guys,' or 'I shouldn't have come back.' I'm here. We're in this thing together."
Except Favre's definition of "together" doesn't include Childress. Ultimately, Childress paid the heaviest price for Favre's decision to come back, yet skip training camp and preseason. But then, that's what happens when the head coach turns into a luggage handler.
Childress was obviously unpopular, and his method of calling out Favre publicly for interceptions wasn't politic, but he also coached the Vikings to two division titles. His real mistake was flying to Mississippi to pay court to Favre's swollen self-image and then picking him up at the airport.
Favre repaid him with tension and demands for latitude on the field, which can't have helped matters inside the locker room. Nor could his insistence on playing hurt, so he can pursue his goal of a record 300 starts.
New interim head coach Leslie Frazier was nothing if not politic in his introductory news conference Monday, but it was interesting that his firmest remarks were about whether he would accommodate Favre.
"If you ask Brett that question, I'm sure he would say, 'Give me all the latitude in the world,' " Frazier said. "We do have a system in place. There may be some tweaks to the system. We're going to talk about that. But Brett, like all of our players, has to play within the scheme of our defense, our offense, our special teams. One of the things that we talked to our players about at the 1 o'clock meeting is that no one individual, regardless of name or accolades, is bigger than our team."
Favre has six games to go before he walks away for good, and his retirement doesn't have to be this ugly. There can be enormous dignity in great athletes who reach the end of their abilities. There's nothing wrong with playing until they're past it; it's the price for Hall of Fame longevity, and often they reward us with epic third acts.
But Favre has moved into a fourth act, and behind it seems a reluctance to grow up and accept life after football, to surrender his specialness and to slip into the more ordinary world. Pretty much all of Favre's statements can be boiled down to this: I don't know what to do without fame and football.
And that's indeed pitiable.