The number sat there all off-season—in the pit of Brett Favre's stomach, like a day-old doughnut. Everywhere the Green Bay quarterback went and in every Packer story he read, there it was.
Last season Favre threw an NFL-high 24 interceptions. This year everybody threw that number back at him, wondering whether the 25-year-old third-year starter was going to be too mistake-prone to be a winning NFL quarterback. How was the wild-eyed, wild-armed Favre ever going to fit in under coach Mike Holmgren, the reigning master of the precision passing game?
"There's no question it bothered me," Favre said last week of the doubt about his ability. "I couldn't understand why a young quarterback was catching so much blame. Young quarterbacks make lots of mistakes. But this season I was determined to play well. I was going to do whatever it took."
In 6� windchill at Lambeau Field Sunday, Favre showed the result of that work, proving that he has become one of the top-10 quarterbacks in the league. His relatively safe 19-of-31 game led the Pack to its best offensive show in more than a decade. Green Bay beat Chicago 40-3, and the Packers' 516 net yards were their most in a game since 1983. The Packers, 7-7 with two winnable games left, are shooting for their third straight 9-7 season.
In '93 Favre threw for 3.303 yards, with 19 touchdown passes and those 24 interceptions. This year he has thrown for 3,270 yards, with 28 TD passes and only 12 interceptions. Holmgren attributes the improvement to playing time. "In the past we'd give good young quarterbacks five years to mature before we handed a team to them. Now, with free agency, we cant. We have to find out if a guy can play before his contract is up. And so quarterbacks play early. I said all along that this would be Brett's takeoff year. We talked in the off-season about game management, and we're seeing better results."
Favre hasn't arrived. He still makes kid mistakes. He piloted the Pack to a 24-0 second-quarter deficit at Buffalo three weeks ago, coming within a charitable I Holmgren decision of getting pulled at the end of the first half. He still opens games with an arm full of adrenaline: Against Chicago he overthrew two piddling screens in the first quarter. "He's not going to be the most accurate quarterback I ever coached," says Holmgren, "but I've coached Joe Montana and Steve Young. Brett's making good decisions, and he's shown he'll be accurate."
He's surely becoming a smarter player. Last Sunday, Green Bay led 17-3 and had the ball at its own 18 with 1:47 left in the first half. It was third-and-four. Holmgren called for a screen pass. "It wasn't there," Favre said. "Last year I probably would have forced the pass in there, and who knows what would have happened."
Perhaps Favre would have been picked off, and the Bears would have had new life, cutting the margin to 17-10 at the half. But Favre saw a hole around the right end. He scrambled for 26 yards. Seven plays later he threw a bullet to Sterling Sharpe for a 13-yard TD, and the Pack led 24-3 at the half. This one was over.