The dog days of training camp are almost over now for Brett Favre. Still, the Green Bay Packers quarterback will do anything to keep things lively, so every day after practice, he and his fellow signal-callers stand at midfield and help the equipment guys by launching footballs 60 yards toward a corner of the end zone. They aim at several plastic trash cans, and of course, Favre comfortably leads the group in hitting the bottom of the barrel.
When he scores a direct hit, the hundreds of fans who come out every day to watch their favorite team cheer as if the Packers had just scored the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl. And Favre acts much the same way, pumping a fist and giddily celebrating with his teammates.
"I'm having a lot of fun right now," Favre said recently while sitting in the Packers' locker room. "I'd like to think it carries over to the other guys. If I can run around and laugh a little and put a smile on a guy's face, I've done something. Training camp is a grind. All I'm trying to do is be a leader and help the guys get through this. We're all in this together and if you can't have a little fun, you're in the wrong business."
Favre has come to camp in what many of his teammates and coaches say is the best shape of his life. He reported at about 215 pounds, down almost 20 pounds from his playing weight at the end of a disappointing 1998 season. The injury-riddled team failed to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in three seasons, and Favre threw 23 interceptions.
Not happy with that performance, despite 31 touchdown passes and a league-leading 4,212 yards passing, he decided to stop drinking alcohol once and for all in the offseason. He watched what he ate. He cut down on the number of personal appearances to spend more time with his family, including a new baby daughter.
And now, he says he's never felt better in his life, even though he looks so fragile that some wonder if he'll be able to continue his streak of 109 straight starts, seven short of the post-1970 quarterback record of 116 held by Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski.
"Every little edge you can have, you go for," Favre said. "It wasn't like I used to come in out of shape or anything. The weight never really affected my play. But I'm throwing the ball great, I feel a lot quicker moving around, and I feel great every morning when I wake up. I don't think it will make me any less durable. If they can't catch you, they can't hit you."
That is good news for Packers fans, many of whom despaired over the controversial loss to the 49ers on Terrell Owens's miracle 25-yard scoring reception on the final play of an NFC first-round game. Earlier in the 49ers' final scoring drive, Jerry Rice appeared to fumble and the Packers recovered, but officials ruled Rice had been down on the play, a bad call that ended Green Bay's season on a bitter note.
To make matters worse, Mike Holmgren, the popular head coach who had helped resurrect the franchise in the 1990s, left to become coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks. Holmgren wanted total control but Packers General Manager Ron Wolf, generally regarded by his peers as the best in the business, was not about to leave. Holmgren had an escape clause in his contract, and the Packers reluctantly allowed him to go.
Rhodes to Success?
Wolf replaced Holmgren with fired Philadelphia Eagles coach Ray Rhodes, a former Packers assistant on Holmgren's staff. After 6-9-1 and 3-13 seasons with the Eagles following his first two seasons in which the Eagles made the playoffs, Rhodes was not exactly what many Packer backers had in mind.
But Wolf believes he's got the right man for the job, and the fans have started warming to Rhodes, applauding his decision to retain Holmgren's high-powered offense as well as his increased emphasis on offseason conditioning and running a tough, physical training camp.
"I believe Ray is a heck of a coach, that's number one," Wolf said. "I also felt that number two, we had to have someone in here with previous head coaching experience. The shadow Holmgren cast here was very long, and I didn't think we could afford to bring someone in who was not used to the same kind of pressure you get in this league. We were not in a situation for on-the-job training. When Ray was available, I was ecstatic."
Rhodes had plenty of problems with his program in Philadelphia, notably among the worst training facilities in the league and with a meddling owner, Jeff Lurie, who was unwilling to spend big money to keep his own players or acquire top free agents. Rhodes has chosen to take the high road, saying in an interview recently he felt no bitterness about being fired in Philadelphia and that, "I try to leave Philly out of it. I was fortunate to get an opportunity there, and it's something I'll always appreciate.
"Coming here was a no-brainer," Rhodes said. "I have a Super Bowl contender the last four years and one of the top quarterbacks in the game. I know what's expected. I'm here to win football games, and that's all I care about. The standards were set here years ago when they started winning again. I like those kind of expectations. I have them for myself. And we have leaders on this team who have the same expectations. They have pride in what they've done, they know what it takes to get there, and they want to keep it going and pass the torch. As a coach, it's an ideal situation."
Life Without Mike
Many Packers say there is a somewhat different atmosphere without Holmgren around. Instead of the constant pressure Holmgren placed on them to perform -- particularly the offense he micro-managed -- that pressure is now self-induced.
"Mike was a heck of a coach," said wide receiver Antonio Freeman, the Baltimore native and Virginia Tech player who last week signed a six-year, $42 million contract with a $10 million signing bonus. "But I think guys are a little more relaxed now. Ray's a player's type coach. With Mike, you always felt his eyes were staring right through you. If you messed up, everyone knew you messed up because everyone heard Mike tell you that you messed up. With him not here, it's like a sigh of relief. Not that he wasn't a great coach. It's just a little different."
Favre disagreed, insisting that the pressure on a player, no matter who's coaching, is always the same. He also knows Holmgren's departure was inevitable considering he wanted total control of football operations, something the Packers were not willing to give him.
"I'm going to miss Mike, but life goes on, and I'm happy for him, I really am," Favre said. "You lose your friends to other teams, that's just the nature of this business. I've had four different coaches now since I've been here, and they're all friends. That doesn't change. I've said many times that Mike meant more to my career than anyone. Not only did he give me a chance, he stuck with me in tough times. He was a brilliant play caller, but he's gone, and you have to accept that."
Rhodes spends most of his time with the defense, leaving the offense to Sherman Lewis, Holmgren's offensive coordinator hired by Rhodes to fill the same position. Lewis never called the plays on game day, one reason many owners were reluctant to hire him and add to the scant number of black head coaches, now at three. Lewis has total control of the offense, and he also says he thinks he'll be a touch more daring than Holmgren in trying the occasional razzle-dazzle plays.
"We always had one or two in the game plan during the week," Lewis said. "But Mike never called 'em. I'd like to think I will every now and then. But it's August. We'll see once it counts. Who knows? I may chicken out, too."
Packers Get Defensive
With a leaner, more mobile Favre pulling the trigger, spectacular things can happen almost any time he touches the football. Wolf, and many others, believe Favre is clearly the best quarterback in the game, and as Wolf likes to joke, the Packers' mantra may well be "as he goes, we goes."
One man who has gone is Reggie White, the physical, emotional and spiritual leader of the defense and, along with Favre, the entire football team. Rhodes tried to persuade White, who still has a house in Green Bay, to give him one more year. But White has shown no indication of changing his mind, and the Packers are moving on with younger, less dominant players being tried in various combinations to produce a pass rush.
"A player like that comes along once every 20 years," Wolf said. "When he decides to hang them up, there is no way to replace him. But you can't stop playing. You put people in that spot and hope they'll rise to the occasion. But you never expect anyone to rise to that level. He was one of a kind."
Rhodes and defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas have installed a more attacking style of play. Burned badly by the Vikings and Randy Moss a year ago, Wolf also tried to beef up the secondary, adding more depth in the offseason than the unit had a year ago when Moss mauled them for 13 receptions, 343 yards and three touchdowns in the teams' two games, both Vikings victories.
"Last year was an aberration because we tried to play with two corners, and that was impossible," Wolf said. "It was really and truly my fault. They spread us out and we couldn't play them. Now we've drafted and we'll see whether we're right or not."
Wolf's first three draft picks were cornerbacks, including first-round choice Antuan Edwards of Clemson and second-round pick Fred Binson of Vanderbilt. Both are still back-ups to starters Craig Newsome and Tyrone Williams, but are certain to see considerable action as nickel and dime defenders all season and could challenge for starting spots, as well.
Super Bowl Goal
Favre faces the improved secondary every day in practice, and Wolf said his quarterback has never looked so good, so focused, so confident in his ability to lift the Packers back into a Super Bowl. Favre believes it, too, despite the departure of Holmgren, his coach, his friend and often his most stern critic.
"We don't have Mike in the huddle on every play any more," Favre said. "But that doesn't mean we still can't do what we've always done. You won't get chewed out now for every little mistake, but you're seeing veteran players taking more initiative. In the past, if you made a mistake, Mike made the correction. Now, you see the older guys helping the younger guys.
"I still believe if that San Francisco game goes our way, we have a good shot at the Super Bowl. It's funny, everyone always jumps on the new team. Minnesota was the hot team last year, and they should have been. They had a great season, they deserved everything they got. Now, people are overlooking us a little bit. We're not getting a lot of attention, and that may be a good thing. But we know we're good. I hope people do take us lightly. If they do, they're gonna have a problem. This is a very good football team. That hasn't changed."