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On Family Night at Lambeau, Aug. 5, more than 60,000 fans turn out to sizzle the brats and watch an intrasquad scrimmage. The Packers look good. But then, they're only playing the Packers. Against his teammates, firing left, right and center, long and short, Brett Favre looks like himself. But is he? Against other teams, ominously, he goes 1--3 in the preseason.
First game of the regular season, home at Lambeau against the Bears, and the stadium is ringed with the tailgating faithful. Inside, as part of the pregame ceremony, Reggie White's name is unveiled, to great cheers, on the stadium's upper deck. To lesser cheering are then introduced some members of the Packers' 1996 Super Bowl--winning team. Don Beebe receives a polite round of applause. Mark Chmura is politely, but roundly, booed.
Across the field, standing with his arms folded, as if waiting for a bus, is Brett Favre. He played with these guys. But rather than standing with them now in Dockers and sport shirts, 10 or 15 or 50 pounds overweight and looking forward to a Leinenkugel in the stands, he's trying to calculate the likelihood 20 minutes hence of Brian Urlacher's snapping his spine. The Bears are introduced to a chorus of well-mannered Lutheran booing.
Nobody knows yet how good Chicago is, but before the jet exhaust from the F-18 flyover has cleared, the Bears score an easy touchdown on a 49-yard pass. Now they know. The hallmark moment for the Packers comes when Favre's center steps on Favre's foot and flattens him. Things get no better. Final, 26--0 Bears. The Packers' first home shutout in more than 15 years.
At the postgame press conference, rookie Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy is asked if at any point he thought about pulling Favre for young Aaron Rodgers, the backup. "I didn't consider Rodgers," says McCarthy, his face sour, his answer final. Favre isn't even out of the shower yet, and the columnists are agitating for a coup.
Ten minutes later, Favre arrives. His hands on the podium are as raw and red as a fishmonger's. "I was optimistic," he says. "I thought we might surprise a lot of people." He looks to the back of the room, and beyond it. "We can do better than that," he says. But his eyes say he isn't sure.
The next week at Lambeau, the Saints roll in. Again, no one is sure how good they might be. For the game's first 15 minutes they are awful, and the Packers take a 13--0 lead. Thereafter, however, the Packers ease themselves, mistake by mistake, out of the game.
Later, in a sullen locker room, Favre says, "We've got to find ways not to lose."
On Internet message boards, posts like this begin to appear: Jury's in. Favre's out.
But the truth, as ever, is more complicated. Favre, still mobile, smart and strong, is playing well enough to rank mid-pack among big-name quarterbacks. Surrounded by inexperience and playing behind an offensive line that starts three rookies most weeks, he is, by the hard evidence of the numbers, outplaying press box favorites like Vick, Roethlisberger, McNair, Plummer and Manning the Younger.