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THERE ARE only so many quiet moments in the life of a quarterback—an active quarterback—when the heart isn't pounding and the feet aren't moving and the mind isn't juggling X's and O's in the face of an all-out blitz. The night before taking the field for the first time with the New York Jets, Brett Favre sat in his room at the Westin Fort Lauderdale writing down formations from a playbook that he still hadn't mastered. After scrawling a play, Favre repeated the call over and over again, a soliloquy on the eve of his return to the National Football League. � When Favre arrived at Dolphin Stadium on Sunday morning and walked onto the field for warmups, his new teammates and coaches approached him in small clusters, wondering why he was so quiet.
"I'm just trying to conserve energy," the 38-year-old Favre told them, and the explanation seemed sufficient, especially once he began to race around the field, leading New York to a 20--14 victory. After that, any memory of his brief retirement gave way to the image of a quarterback reborn.
Favre moved gingerly across the visitors' locker room when the game was over, first to an interview area and then to the showers. He dressed slowly, slung a computer bag over his shoulder and grabbed two small boxes of pizza before heading to the team buses, which by then were surrounded by hundreds of fans.
At the edge of the tunnel, however, Favre decided to buy some extra time. He took a seat on a golf cart and, as several of his family members formed a makeshift offensive line, scarfed down his pizza and recharged his batteries. After 15 minutes he stood up, leaned over to his wife, Deanna, and kissed her goodbye. When he resumed his walk toward the buses, the fans erupted in cheers for Favre's successful start—a soundtrack that has been a part of his life for nearly two decades now.
IT'S THE competition," Tony Sparano, the first-year Dolphins coach, was saying last week about the motivation that drives NFL players to squeeze every snap out of their bodies, and why teams are eager to open their doors to anyone who can help them win—from running backs Warrick Dunn in Tampa Bay and Julius Jones in Seattle to cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones in Dallas. The Dolphins' roster is filled with men claiming third, fourth and even fifth chances. Executive vice president Bill Parcells molds a new team while evidence of his previous work is visible in both conferences, in New York and New England and Dallas. Parcells has been on the job in Miami for only nine months, but Jets coach Eric Mangini can already see his influence up and down the Dolphins' roster.
"One thing that stands out, and this is typical of Bill's fingerprints on any team he's been with, is that it is a physical team, a big team and a tough team," says Mangini, who was a defensive assistant under Parcells with the Jets in the '90s. "That's very consistent."
Among the new parts is quarterback Chad Pennington, trying to find a home for his twice-surgically-repaired right shoulder, and running back Ricky Williams, who at age 31 is attempting to salvage a spotty career. Each of them, in his own way, embodies renewal—and provides a happier counterweight to the grim image of league MVP Tom Brady hobbling off the field in New England on Sunday, his season lost to a knee injury. If baseball's Opening Day represents freshness and the onset of spring, in the NFL, it's battered parts assembled for a punishing five-month slog to the Super Bowl. The league's creed is stark and utilitarian: If you have talent you can play, regardless of your past.
Few exemplify that creed better than Williams, who rushed for 3,225 yards over the 2002 and '03 seasons before he failed drug tests and abruptly retired in '04. After traveling to Australia, India and northern California, where he studied the Indian medical system called Ayurveda, Williams returned to Miami in '05, only to violate the league's drug policy the following year. He spent the '06 season with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated him last year. Six carries into his '07 comeback, he tore a pectoral muscle that sidelined him for the rest of the season. Now, starting and sharing carries with Ronnie Brown, Williams reflects on his younger self—a person he has come to see as emotionally unprepared for the rigors of the NFL.
"There is no way to have experience and wisdom unless you go through things," Williams says. "I know it's easy to say that everything happens for a reason, but you can't really embrace that until you've gone down to a lower plane and you climb back up to the upper plane. I have a contract extension [through 2009], and things are going well. I think I had to go through what I went through to have this appreciation."
Even if some fans pin Miami's recent struggles on Williams's long absences, he believes he can be part of the solution. "One of the things I'm learning about myself and the reason I love playing this game is that I'm good at it," says Williams. "Part of it is the relationship I've developed with Bill Parcells and the coaching staff. They are very big on details. I've never been coached on details the way I am now. I think the success I had before was all talent and luck."