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Brett Favre sat at the end of the Green Bay Packers' bench, stewing. It was the night of Oct. 20,1994, during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, and Favre seemed perilously close to losing his starting-quarterback job. He had been sidelined after the first quarter by a bruised left hip but the way he figured it, the injury gave Green Bay coaches what they wanted: a convenient excuse to begin the Mark Brunell era. Though Brunell, Favre's lefthanded understudy, played well the rest of the game, Minnesota won 13-10 in overtime, dropping the underachieving Packers to 3-4. "Good," Favre recalls thinking. "We lose the rest of the games this year, that's fine with me."
On the flight home, coach Mike Holmgren wouldn't make a decision on Favre's future. As is his custom, Holmgren first wanted to review the game tape and consult his coaching staff. But the statistics were telling. In 38 games directing Green Bay's passer-friendly West Coast offense, the talented Favre had thrown almost as many interceptions (44) as he had touchdown passes (46). Before the season Holmgren had told Favre, "I will not hesitate to pull you if we're losing games with the same mistakes we made last year." Now Holmgren was considering benching Favre.
The next few days were dicey around Packers headquarters. In quarterbacks coach Steve Mariucci's office, Favre threw a tantrum in frustration over trying to master the complex offense. "The lowest point of his Packers career," Mariucci says. Irvin Favre, Brett's father, called Mariucci, pleading with him to urge Holmgren to ease up on Brett. "I know my son," Irvin says, "and if Mike hadn't stopped butchering him after he made a mistake, Brett would have dwindled to nothing." One of Holmgren's confidants, longtime friend Bob LaMonte, was certain Favre would be benched. "I know Mike was livid with Brett," LaMonte says. "Mike told me at the time that it was just galling to see a player of this magnitude continue to self-destruct."
At a coaches meeting that week, Holmgren polled each member of his offensive staff on who should be the starting quarterback. Brunell, whom the coaches considered a better decision-maker than Favre, won the vote. So what did Holmgren do? Later, he called Favre into his office and told him, "Buddy, it's your job." Holmgren's decision was based largely on his belief that Favre was close to mastering the offense and that the only thing holding him back—a tendency to force situations—was correctable. "We're joined at the hip," Holmgren told Favre. "Either we're going to the Super Bowl together, or we're going down together."
In the 41 regular-season games since, the Packers are 30-11. Favre has thrown 101 touchdown passes and only 33 interceptions. He has twice been named league MVP, joining Joe Montana as the only back-to-back winners of the award. And Favre and Holmgren are going to the Super Bowl—together.
During a game the quarterback is the brain of any offense, and he must repeatedly make quick assessments and correct decisions. This is particularly true in the West Coast offense favored by Holmgren, who, with his expanded use of the tight end, has advanced the system created by San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman in the 1960s and perfected by San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh in the '80s. On pass plays the quarterback may have to read three or four options in a split-second progression and then have to improvise if every option is covered.
The complexity of the system helps explain why the marriage between Holmgren and Favre was so rocky for so long. The Super Bowl will be the thoughtful Holmgren's 90th game as Packers coach, and his game plans for the first 89 contained about 1,800 plays. Favre is an act-first, think-later gunslinger who, until he reached the NFL in 1991, hadn't run something as elementary as the seven-on-seven passing drill. While at Southern Miss, he wowed the pro scouts with his derring-do and his cannon arm. Upon returning from a scouting trip to see Favre in 1990, Buffalo Bills vice president and general manager Bill Polian was asked by owner Ralph Wilson if he had seen any good players. "I just saw the NFL's next great quarterback," Polian, who is now general manager of the Carolina Panthers, replied.
But Favre, a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, believed he would never supplant starter Chris Miller in Atlanta, and his propensity for partying got him on coach Jerry Glanville's bad side. When Favre arrived late for the team photo, Glanville fined him $1,500.
"I got trapped behind a car wreck," Favre claimed.
"You are a car wreck," Glanville shot back.