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ONE YEAR after leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in his 19th season, Brett Favre surprised almost no one in returning for a 20th. It did take all manner of pomp and circumstance to finally get him to the Vikings' facility—a clandestine meeting with three teammates in Hattiesburg, Miss., a private jet, a slow-speed car chase—but the Vikings ultimately got their man.
"The leadership he brings elevates the entire building," says Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who joined guard Steve Hutchinson and kicker Ryan Longwell on what might be called Operation Arm Twist, the mission to Hattiesburg on Aug. 17. "He excites everybody that has anything to do with football. He's back, and let's go try and win a championship."
Brad Childress, the Vikings' coach, put the unique pursuit of the quarterback icon this way: "It wasn't me wanting him back. We wanted him back."
Like last year, the courting of Favre was flashy but messy, with quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels once again booted to the sideline weeks before the season opener while Favre missed another training camp. A 6--0 start smoothed over bruised feelings in the locker room a year ago, and another quick start this season would likely do the same.
But the Vikings' road to the Super Bowl already looks more difficult, and not just because of what could be a killer October (at Jets, Dallas, at Green Bay, at New England). As Favre was riding into town, his receiving corps was taking two huge hits. Sidney Rice, who last season caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns, underwent hip surgery in August and could miss the first half of the season. And during Favre's first practice, second-year speedster Percy Harvin, who has been battling migraine headaches, was taken away in an ambulance after collapsing on the field. (While Harvin returned to practice the following week, the Vikings quickly signed Favre's former Green Bay teammate, receiver Javon Walker, for much-needed depth.) The Vikings also lost versatile third-down back Chester Taylor, who took his pass-catching ability and penchant for blitz pickup to Chicago as a free agent.
Beyond the hoopla of Favre's return, the question the Vikings will have to answer is, Can a 40-year-old quarterback who's coming off ankle surgery lead Minnesota to its first Super Bowl title? "People are going to break it down and say this is wrong, this is right, this is inspirational, this is whatever," Favre said. "Everyone is going to have their take on it."
Said Childress, "As [Favre] told the team, he's here for one reason and one reason only. You can say we're pushing it all into the middle of the table, but we do that every year. We feel like we have a good football team. We've got to be able to back it up."
Minnesota's defense should help. To the best front four in the NFL—Allen, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, Ray Edwards—the Vikings added depth at defensive end in fourth-round pick Everson Griffen, who should find himself in the pass-rushing rotation as a rookie. The Vikes also brought in cornerback help, drafting Chris Cook in the second round and signing free-agent Lito Sheppard because of uncertainty about starter Cedric Griffin, who tore his ACL in the conference championship game.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, for one, isn't putting Minnesota's success or failure entirely on Favre. "If our defense improves, it should put us another step closer to winning a championship," he said of the unit that finished sixth in total defense last year. "Red zone defense, third-down defense, run defense, sacks—we want to improve on what we did a year ago. If we do, with the guys we have returning, we have a chance to have a special season."
Inside the noisy Metrodome in 2009, it was clear how much the Vikings' defense and offense fed off each other, an Allen sack leading to a Favre touchdown on the next series, and back again. Minnesota wants to recapture those moments and carry them into a new year, and Favre will be the catalyst. But in the encore that everybody saw coming, the outcome is anybody's guess. —D.H.