If football legends are going to be born, there's no better place than Lambeau Field in Green Bay on a cloudless autumn afternoon. And there's no better time than now. The premier quarterbacks of this era, the Montanas and the Moons, are going gracefully into their golden years, and the NFL needs some new talent with fresh charisma to put on the season-ticket brochures. Quarterbacks sell, baby. That's why Sunday's Pittsburgh Steeler-Green Bay Packer game was a match made for NFL Properties. On one side of Lambeau Field stood 6'3", 228-pound Neil O'Donnell, 26, trying to resuscitate the dormant Steeler empire. On the other was baby-faced 6'2", 220-pound Brett Favre, 22, trying to be the next Bart Starr.
For the second time in eight days, Favre (rhymes with carve) stole the show by leading the Packers to victory and, in the process, evened their record at 2-2. On Sept. 20, trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 23-17, Green Bay had the ball at its eight, with 1:07 to play and no timeouts. Favre drove the Packers the 92 yards for the winning score, throwing a picture-perfect 35-yard touchdown pass to wideout Kitrick Taylor with 13 seconds left.
On Sunday, Favre lofted another perfect pass, this time to wideout Sterling Sharpe to complete a 76-yard touchdown bomb for a 10-3 halftime lead. Then, early in the fourth quarter, with Green Bay at the Steeler eight, Favre struck again. The Packers called a play in which rookie wideout Robert Brooks would fake a slant-in and then fade toward the right corner of the end zone. "Remember," Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren told Favre on the sideline, "you've really got to like it to throw it. It has to be there."
Later Holmgren would say, "I had to tell him that because Brett has a wild hair. Last week, after the euphoria of our win, I congratulated him and then told him he'd made mistakes on 25 plays. I told him if we had lost, the quarterback would have been the reason." Suitably warned, Favre took the snap, pump-faked to Brooks on the slant-in and then rainbowed the pass to Brooks in the end zone. Ball game. Packers win 17-3.
Favre's showing comes not a moment too soon for a league in which the question of who will make up the next generation of stellar quarterbacks has been a troubling one. The average age of the NFL's megastar passers—Randall Cunningham, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Warren Moon—is 32.5, and many teams are worried that they could suffer the same fate as, say, the Steelers, whose Hall of Fame signal-caller, Terry Bradshaw, was followed by a succession of pretenders: Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister.
This season, though, a handful of teams have shoved inexperienced quarterbacks to the forefront, giving them a shot at becoming the big guns of the future. Pittsburgh, Green Bay, the New York Jets with Browning Nagle and the Los Angeles Raiders with Todd Marinovich have replaced ineffective or banged-up veterans with strapping, young prospects. If this foursome pans out, and if the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman, the Phoenix Cardinals' Timm Rosenbach and the Indianapolis Colts' Jeff George, all under 26 and injury-prone, can stay healthy and prosper, the NFL need not be concerned about its overall strength at quarterback.
Favre is the rawest talent and maybe the most promising. Surely he is the most dogged. In July 1990, before his senior year at Southern Mississippi, he flipped his car near his Kiln, Miss., home and smashed into a tree. He cracked a bone in his back and had to have a 30-inch section of his intestine removed. He recovered in time to play his entire senior season, but pro scouts' interest in him had cooled.
However, when Holmgren, who was then the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, and Ron Wolf, who was scouting for the Jets, watched Favre work out after the season, they both loved his arm strength and his self-confidence. So when Wolf and Holmgren came together as, respectively, the new general manager and coach of the Packers last January, one of the first things they did was work a trade with the Atlanta Falcons, who had picked Favre in the second round of the '91 draft. The Packers needed a potential starter because Don Majkowski had missed 14 games and parts of five others with injuries in '90 and '91, and they weren't sure he could be their long-term quarterback. In February, Green Bay gave up a '92 first-round pick for Favre, who immediately began a crash course in the 49er offense Holmgren was installing.
In the Packers' third game Majkowski went down again, this time with strained ankle ligaments. He would miss at least two weeks, maybe four, so Holmgren subjected Favre to even more intensive study. "It's been a very long week," Holmgren said on Sunday night. "But I think when I look at the film, I'm going to be happy with Brett's play because I think he played better than last week. We're working him like a dog, and he's taking it very well."
Soon Holmgren will have a quarterback decision to make. Favre is 2-0 as the starter. Majkowski is 0-2. The fans in Green Bay are all over Majkowski. They love the new kid. By the early look of things, Holmgren's decision has pretty much been made for him. It's just a matter of when he wants to commit to his quarterback of the future.