Solving problems was what the Dolphins and the Giants had in mind when they traded Taylor and Shockey. Both were eager to move, and both quickly tried to blend in with their new teams; they didn't even try to buy or wangle for the uniform numbers (99 for Taylor, 80 for Shockey) they've worn throughout their careers. "The last thing I wanted to do was come in looking like some guy on a white horse," Taylor said last Friday. "They've got a playoff team. I just want to blend in. Buying the number would have sent a bad message."
On the Saints' practice field in Jackson, Miss., on Saturday, Shockey looked like a changed man—and a far more inconspicuous one. He had shorn his flowing locks and partially covered his heavily tattooed arms, and after plays he often quietly took a teammate aside and offered instructions. "Here's the attitude I have: I'm just here trying to make the team," Shockey said. "After being in New York, this is the first time I've ever felt like just one of the guys, not like an animal in a cage that everyone's come to see."
Taylor, Shockey and Favre, three stars with a combined 19 Pro Bowl selections, on the trading block in late July—that's something the NFL hasn't seen in the 16 years of unfettered free agency. In this new era, teams flush with cap money will pursue difference-makers harder than they ever did because of the year-to-year pressure to win—and because some teams have shown that this personnel strategy works. After trading for All-Pro wideout Randy Moss in 2007, the Patriots became the highest-scoring team in league history. Last season receiver Chris Chambers of the Chargers and running back Ryan Grant of the Packers made big contributions to their teams' playoff runs after being acquired for draft picks. The Cowboys think cornerback--return man Adam (formerly Pacman) Jones, picked up for a fourth-rounder, could make that kind of impact this year. Unlike some of their old-guard, build-through-the-draft predecessors, G.M.'s such as Thompson, Loomis and Savage aren't afraid to give up draft picks. New Orleans pulled the trigger on the Shockey trade 13 weeks after the initial proposal to the Giants "because it just made too much sense not to happen," Loomis says. "Plus, [coach Sean Payton] was on me every other day, telling me we had to have Shockey."
ON MONDAY morning, as the Packers went to their practice field across the street from Lambeau, Favre was 1,025 miles away, tending to his Mississippi property. After threatening to appear for the start of camp, he'd agreed with Thompson on Saturday to skip the first couple of days while the G.M. continued working to trade him.
The pressure was on Thompson to structure a deal that Favre, the Packers and the fans could live with. Last week he had given the Jets and the Bucs permission to talk to Favre's agent, James (Bus) Cook, but on Saturday the three-time NFL MVP said he had little interest in going to New York or Tampa Bay. More likely, he hoped to wear down Thompson with constant requests to be set free, so he could go to either of his preferred teams, the Vikings or the Bears. Last week Favre spoke twice with commissioner Roger Goodell, hoping he could influence Goodell to lean on Thompson to release him.
"As bad as Ted has it now," said one source close to the Green Bay front office, "it would be 10 times worse if he let Brett go and [Favre] signed with Minnesota. Brett's got to realize: He's either got to agree to a deal and go to a team that wouldn't threaten the Packers, or he's got to sit and wait until a good quarterback gets hurt so he could go to a contender that doesn't need a quarterback right now."
The question most often heard around town was, Why don't the Packers want Favre to come back and play for them if he clearly gives the team a better chance to win in 2008 than Aaron Rodgers does? Green Bay's 2005 first-round pick, Rodgers has never started an NFL game—largely because Favre hasn't missed a start since 1992. The answer is, Thompson and his handpicked coach, Mike McCarthy, are tired of riding the Favre retirement merry-go-round. In the two off-seasons before this one, they had to wait as long as five months before Favre told them he wanted to return to the team. This year, 17 weeks after he announced his retirement, Favre changed his mind. This time the Packers said they have moved on without him.
"I know the perception is I've waffled," Favre said on Saturday night. "But any veteran who's played in this league this long is going to have some doubts about playing a 16th or 17th year. And [the Packers] wanted an answer from me early in the off-season. If I waited, and I told them I was going to retire three days before training camp, that would have been pretty low-class."
Favre could make it ugly for the team by showing up, staying in camp and making it tough on Rodgers when the fans call for the new quarterback's head the first time he throws two straight incompletions. But Favre is nonconfrontational by nature and would dread inciting the fans against his old team. Perhaps this is the best solution: Favre makes a list of 10 teams outside the NFC North that he'd play for; Thompson agrees to trade Favre if, say, a Philadelphia or an Seattle suddenly finds itself in need of a passer before the Oct. 14 trading deadline; and Thompson makes the deal even if the compensation falls short of the second- or third-round pick he wants in return.
Favre and Goodell even discussed by phone over the weekend the idea of Favre's sitting tight, staying in shape and waiting for the right team to come along.