Brett Favre had an excellent season in 2007 and there seems to be an assumption that if he plays in 2008 then he will pick up right where he left off but that is not necessarily the case. Favre turned 38 early last season and, as Don Pierson noted in a December 29, 2006 Chicago Tribune article (a free abstract is available at ChicagoTribune.com or you can read the entire piece by paying a small fee), "As peculiar and arbitrary as it may seem, age 38 represents a wall for so many quarterbacks it's impossible to ignore." Pierson notes the obvious--that many NFL quarterbacks don't even make it to 38 in the first place--but he lists a number of quarterbacks whose health and/or effectiveness declined markedly at or around that age. Here is a summary of what happened to several Hall of Fame quarterbacks who found out that 38 is not so special:
1) Dan Marino turned 38 during his last season (1999). He missed five games and posted the lowest passer rating of his 17 year career (67.4, 12.6 points worse than his 1998 rating).
2) During the 1999 season, Steve Young sustained a career-ending concussion two weeks before his 38th birthday. In the three games he played in that year, Young compiled a 60.9 rating, his worst since his second year in the league and a whopping 40.2 point decline from his 1998 rating.
3) John Elway retired after the season in which he turned 38 (1998), though to be fair he did not seem to be on his last legs at the time. He missed three games due to injury but was healthy enough to lead the Broncos to their second Super Bowl title in a row.
4) Johnny Unitas hung around until he was 40 but in his last three seasons he registered just three, four and three touchdown passes.
5) Similarly, Len Dawson played until he was 40 but was not an effective full time starter after he turned 38.
6) Sammy Baugh attempted just 33 passes in the 1952 season before retiring at the age of 38.
7) Even the legendary ageless wonder George Blanda was not immune to the effects of turning 38. He reached that milestone in 1965, the last year that he was a full-time starting quarterback. He played for 10 more seasons but primarily served as a kicker.
Pierson also mentions a couple exceptions, most notably Warren Moon, who had Pro Bowl seasons at 39 and 41. Still, there is no denying that health and productivity tend to rapidly decline for NFL quarterbacks at or around 38, even for players who had been healthy and productive right up to that age. Just because Favre turned back the clock last season does not mean that he can do so again this year.
Perhaps the most dramatic cautionary tale for Favre is what happened to Y.A. Tittle. In 1963, the 37 year old Tittle led the NFL in touchdowns (36), completion percentage (60.2) and yards per attempt (8.6) while directing the New York Giants to an 11-3 record and a 14-10 Championship Game loss to the Chicago Bears. Those individual numbers--and the close loss to the eventual NFL Champion--eerily mirror what Favre and the Packers did in 2007. However, in 1964, Tittle's numbers dropped dramatically (10 touchdowns, 52.3 completion percentage, 6.4 yards per attempt average) and the Giants fell to 2-10-2. Tittle retired after that campaign.
While some people may think that it is foolhardy for the Packers to not welcome Favre back so that they can replace him with the untested Aaron Rodgers, there is a sizable amount of historical evidence that suggests that Favre is hardly a sure bet to be successful in a season during which he will turn 39. Last year was a fairy tale for Favre and the Packers but the clock could very well strike midnight if he plays in 2008.
Above and beyond the numbers, the problem that I have with what Favre has done is the complete selfishness that he is displaying. No one begrudges him the right to leave the game on his own terms, whether that consists of retiring after a storybook season or continuing to play--with another team if necessary--until his wheels fall off. However, Favre is holding an entire team and its fans hostage with his vacillating. If he wanted to play, then he should have said so during the spring. After Favre made his tearful retirement announcement, the Packers quite naturally devoted their offseason planning to getting Rodgers ready to take the helm. Favre recently said that he understood that the Packers have moved on, as if he is making a big concession. Did he think that the Packers would just put their plans on hold after Favre made it quite clear that he had no intentions of playing again? If Favre had originally said that he wanted to keep playing then the Packers surely would have welcomed him back with open arms but now he has placed the team in an untenable situation: if they bring him back then they have wasted their whole offseason but if they grant Favre his release then he may go to a division rival and hurt them. The Packers are under no obligation to do something that could damage them competitively just to satisfy the whims of a diva who suddenly decided that he wants to be in the spotlight a little while longer. Is there anything more pathetic than a future Hall of Famer whining to a gushing Greta Van Susteren about how unfair life is?
None of this tarnishes Favre's legacy as a quarterback. Whether he stays retired, comes back and plays well or comes back and plays poorly, he will remain one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. After all, no one dwells on Unitas' last days as a Charger or Joe Namath's brief run as a Ram. However, the selfish, petulant and classless way that Favre is handling himself does tarnish his legacy as a person. Just imagine for one second that Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Kobe Bryant or any other athlete who is a lightning rod for criticism did what Favre is doing. How do you think the media would portray the situation? How would fans react? Favre has received some criticism--and deservedly so--but he has been given a free pass compared to the treatment that those guys would get if they were involved in a similar scenario.