Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Bart Starr is Better Than Brett Favre, Ch. 2

I work for a place that insists everything can and should be measured in numbers. Happy? There’s a number for that. Successful? A number for that. Depressed, choleric, pregnant, bloated, fast, slow, hard-working, lazy, fond of beets? Numbers for all of those.

Kinda like Chapter One above. Everything measured in numbers.

But in this great process to numberize everything, things that can’t be measured in numbers are being measured in numbers. How sweet and bracing the first Diet Mountain Dew of the morning tastes, for instance. It’s part of our ongoing effort as a species to explain everything around us, even Jillian Michaels Yelling At Fat People, in stark contrast to Van Morrison’s First Universal Truth, which is: It ain’t why, it just is. And nothing beats a good saxophone break.

Who’s a better football player falls right in on that list of Sisyphean challenges. You can come up with numbers that show that Ruben Brown is better than Chad Clifton, but you can also come up with numbers that show Clifton is better than Brown, and numbers that show that neither one is as good as, oh, I don't know, Anthony Clement. And unless you run them up against each other in a big mud wallow you won’t know – and once that’s done, all you’ll really know is who’s better in a mud wallow.

So seeing as we can’t pit the real Bart Starr against the real Brett Favre in any meaningful fashion, and we don’t want to play the Misleading Numbers game, let’s talk about the way they go about quarterbacking.

First, let me say that I know Brett Favre personally a little, and I consider him the most competitive man I have ever met. When he signed autographs for my client, he wanted to sign them faster and better than Drew Bledsoe. When he had lines to speak, he wanted to speak them more clearly than Troy Aikman.

Being competitive is an admirable quality in a quarterback. It’s certainly better than not being competitive. Which is why Matt Flynn still has an NFL career and JaMarcus Russell doesn’t.

However, I have never known Brett Favre to be the most competitive person ever when it comes to contests of intelligence. In words, actions, choices, and family situations (he’s a bloody grandfather! I’m 10 years older than Favre and have an eight-year-old!) Favre has never shown any reason why the stereotype of the tractor-driving southern hick should not apply in his case. When he opens his mouth to speak you’re almost surprised to hear words and not .38 Special songs. If he would ever stop agonizing over retirement long enough to take on the kids in Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, I would pay hard money to watch. The apocryphal story is that Aaron Rodgers in his rookie season had digested more of the playbook than Favre had in year 13 – but they don’t give prizes for memorizing the playbook.

In so many ways Brett Favre ought to be every creative person’s wet dream of a QB – always willing to go off-script, to yield to the wildest flights of imagination, to extemporate, to do things his way – but to this creative person at least Favre’s freelancing comes off as wholly self-serving and doltish.

The reason for that is when Favre’s competitiveness mingles with Favre’s creativity the result is an overpowering belief in his ability to make something spectacular out of any situation. In other words, when life gives you lemons, make lobster Newburg. Or a nuclear-powered sub. Or the Crab Nebula.

As a result, Brett Favre does not so much run an offense as he allows certain plays to be called from the sidelines and run on the field until he decides it’s time for him to play his game, which involves high-risk passes often improvised in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. It’s the football equivalent of traveling to Africa for the expressed purpose of sleeping around. Yeah, you might be able to get away with it, but there are more prudent things, if you catch the drift.

Watching Favre is like watching Evel Knievel. You know it will end badly, but you’re not exactly sure when – and the greater the fan, the more they secretly hope for the largest mushroom cloud, the most pretzelized pileup, the longest fall off the highest cliff, with the deepest, most satisfying BOOM! at the end.

Contrast this with Bart Starr. It’s not hard. In a world of shadows Favre is starless and Bible-black, and Starr is the color of the moon on a cold night.

Favre will say whatever springs to mind. Granted, it’s not much content-wise, but it’s definitely off-the-cuff. Nobody who was that bad in There’s Something About Mary is a good enough actor to summon tears at will.

Starr always gives the impression of someone who carefully chews his thoughts 32 times before speaking. As a head coach, he enjoyed calling out someone in public as much as BP executives enjoy gulf shrimp packed in oil. His life outside of football has been devoted to his church, his charities, and an enlightened brand of capitalism. He has rarely scrawled an autograph.

That class extends to his family. When his wife, Cherry, shilled furniture, she was absolutely as classy a furniture-shiller as someone in a beehive hairdo and a bullet bra could be.

Fine. So Bart Starr does not encourage 14-year-olds to marry or advocate deer hunting off the back of an International Harvester. That alone doesn’t make him even as good a quarterback as Steve Walsh (who for sheer inability to perform every significant task required of a modern professional QB had no peer). What made Starr great?

First, his ability to completely subsume personal goals for the good of the team. Starr was not a great quarterback as far as physical tools go; he wasn’t a 17th-round draft pick, either, but football teams in the 1950s had absolutely no clue when it came to drafting QBs . You may as well have been asking them to choose BlackBerry or iPhone. (Consider the QBs drafted ahead of Starr in 1956: Earl Morrall, John Roach, Fred Wyant, Em Lindbeck, John Polzer, Tom Spiers, George Herring, and George Welsh. Only Morrall was a legitimate NFL starter. And no, I have no idea what an “Em Lindbeck” is.)

Starr often expressed his disregard for personal accomplishments, and the sport took that to heart. He was first-team All-NFL once and a Pro Bowler four times. Randall Cunningham has done as much.

Starr’s willingness to do whatever was asked of him made the players around him better. That’s not to say Jim Taylor would not have been a HOFer with a different QB. Jim Taylor was enough of a Marine that he would have been a HOFer if John Tesh had been the QB. On the other hand, without Bart Starr Paul Hornung would have been a drunk French soccer player taking a dive after having been breathed on by another player. And as he stands up, grimacing more profoundly than a gutshot Samuel L. Jackson, there’s … Bob Lilly. Sort of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

Right along with that, Starr was smart enough to know that not doing it his way does not make him any less of a leader. Think about the QB position for a minute. Even the most ornery, bull-headed, independent Texan cuss of a QB is the tool of a head coach. If he doesn’t do enough of what the coach wants he’s more gone than Blind Melon. This is immutable; even Brett Favre is bound to follow the offense to an extent, under threat of a trade to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the rights to Don Trull (who, experts agree, is a fine backup who will one day be the number-one quarterback, and one of the top-notch passers in the league). However, the test of a QB is whether he can make his teammates in the huddle believe that a 47 Cross Trap on third-and-34 is his idea, and absolutely the play that needs to be run to its utmost in this particular situation.

The trouble starts when the willing suspension of disbelief breaks down, when the QB starts thinking he’s a better coach than the coach, that instead of a 47 Cross Trap what needs to be run is a skinny post, to a slow receiver with poor hands, against an All-Pro corner. Convincing a bunch of football players in a huddle that this is the thing to do is not like winning over the Supreme Court; there’s a lot of gullibility amidst the avoirdupois. Besides, at $3.72 million a season going for broke is relative.

Starr escaped all that by running the offense persuasively and authoritatively. He didn’t do just what Lombardi asked; sometimes he did things that out-Lombardied Lombardi. It would just have been ineptitude in synergy if the coach had been Rich Kotite, but with Starr and Lombardi it was gorgeous. Even so, there was never any question in the huddle of who was in charge and who was going to make this play work. It was going to start with Bart Starr and everyone was going to do their job, and if not, they were going to hear about it from Starr and Lombardi – and some players genuinely feared Starr’s wrath, gentle and Christian as it was, more than Lombardi’s.

In the end Starr proved out a winner, which is different than performing acts that win games. In the 2009 season Brett Favre performed at least three acts that you could definitively say won games for the Vikings – oh, but he also performed an act that definitively lost the NFC Championship and cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl. The 2010 NFC Championship (and for that matter, the 2008 NFC Championship) will be remembered long after the pass that beat the ‘Niners has been forgotten.

In Bart Starr’s career only one dumb play and one truly bad game come to mind: the ball he fumbled away to George Andrie that was returned for a touchdown in the 1967 Ice Bowl, and a 1962 Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions where Starr was sacked what seems like 31 times. The Packers won the Ice Bowl, and the Turkey Day game? The only game the Packers lost all year. And the wins are games that will never die.

Quarterbacking is way more like advertising than either the quarterbacks or the ad guys would like to admit. Brett Favre is the hyperproduced ad that leaves the world breathless but doesn’t sell a crumb more cake. Bart Starr is the simple ad that simply sells and sells and sells.

Selling is winning. Winning is selling. Bart Starr sold, the Packers bought, and together they created a dynasty.

No comments:

Post a Comment