WHAT BETTER way for one of the biggest records in America's favorite game to fall than for Brett Favre to improvise a play at the line and execute it with the flair that has made him America's favorite quarterback? It helped to see the action unfold live on Sunday in Minneapolis because the clip aired later on the highlight shows did not do justice to Favre's 421st career touchdown pass, the one that moved him past Dan Marino atop the alltime list. The replay had Favre lasering a 16-yard touchdown pass to wideout Greg Jennings, the first points in a 23--16 Packers win over the Vikings that lifted Green Bay to 4--0. But that brief clip started eight seconds late and didn't reveal the full story of the play—nor why it exemplified Favre's unflagging mastery of his position.
So let's start with eight seconds left on the play clock, the Packers with third-and-seven at the Minnesota 16-yard line late in the first quarter and the noise in the Metrodome sounding like the takeoff runway at O'Hare on a Friday at 5 p.m.
:08 ... As Favre, in the shotgun, prepared to take the snap from center Scott Wells, he looked up and saw two reasons to worry: To Favre's left, linebacker E.J. Henderson was fixing to blitz; and to the quarterback's right, about 10 yards up the field, free safety Dwight Smith was positioned directly in the line of Jennings's pass route. Favre realized he had to call an audible. But that noise....
"Today was as loud as I've heard a stadium in recent memory," Favre said afterward. "I think we went on silent snap count on all but two plays [all game]." The audible was Y Dragon: Instead of tight end Donald Lee's running 12 yards upfield, which would encourage Smith to clog the middle, Favre wanted Lee to run a shallow flat route toward the sideline. This would give Jennings, who was split right, single coverage on a quick slant to the post. And the defender covering Jennings would be a rookie nickelback, Marcus McCauley. "I needed a quick-strike play because we probably weren't going to be able to block all they were bringing," Favre said. "Y Dragon was perfect."
:07 ... :06 ... :05 ... As Favre tried to get his teammates' attention and made the hand signal for Y Dragon, he realized that Lee, tight to the formation next to the right tackle, wasn't acknowledging the audible. So Favre scurried over, slapped the tight end on the butt and signaled the play. "He sees everything," Lee would later say of Favre, "so every decision he makes we know is the right one." Jennings felt a thrill of anticipation: "I'm thinking touchdown."
:04 ... :03 ... :02 ... Favre dropped back into the shotgun and, still unsure whether the play would come off, thought for a millisecond about calling a timeout. "But if I do," he said, "not only would we probably have changed our personnel group, [but the Vikings] would have changed to match up with us." Favre's eyes darted left to see Henderson edge closer to the line, to a gap that Favre knew he would quickly get through. "I looked up at the clock," Favre said, "but by then I knew it'd be a big play if we could get it off on time." He stomped his foot, signaling Wells to snap the ball.
:01 ... At the snap Henderson barreled in from Favre's left. "I knew I only had a second or two," the quarterback recalled. Lee, as directed, darted to the right flat, taking Smith with him and opening the hole in the coverage that Favre needed. Jennings sprinted four yards upfield and pivoted toward the post. "As I got into the route," Jennings said, "I realized how perfect the play was. There was nobody there."
Moments after the play clock hit :00, Favre, as he'd done so often in his career, threw a tight spiral that led his receiver perfectly. The ball hit Jennings between the 8 and the 5 on his white Packers jersey. McCauley trailed him helplessly. "I think I got hit on the play," Favre said. "But I didn't feel anything." Henderson did pop Favre a split second after the pass was released, bouncing the quarterback to the turf.
"I was happy," Favre said. "We got the play off, everybody did what they were supposed to do, there were no flags, and I just thought to myself, This is what an efficient offense is supposed to be—it's supposed to make the plays that are there. Then it took me a few seconds to realize that was the record."
Favre ran to Jennings and lifted him onto his shoulders. He missed Marino's taped tribute on the video screen as he hugged his teammates and handed the ball to Pro Football Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan. (There won't be any asterisk branded on this ball.) Then he embraced his wife, Deanna, who was in the front row, and his thoughts moved past the record. "We've got to win this game now," he said to Deanna. As the Packers kicked off, Favre sat on the bench, flipping through a binder of Polaroids showing Minnesota's defensive formations during the game's first 10 minutes.