The difficult parting of Favre and the Packers

The saga continues Sunday at Lambeau Field. The storylines are drawn for this drama that’s been building for 16 months: The signature player for one team for a decade and a half returns in the uniform of its rival. Made for television, guaranteed to garner the strongest rating of the 2009 NFL season. High drama indeed.

Having spent nine years in Green Bay, I’ve commented often about both sides of the decision by the Packers to move on without quarterback Brett Favre. I’ll leave out the truly confidential parts of the story, but here’s a look behind the green and gold on some matters.

“We’ve moved on”

As we know, when Brett decided to un-retire last year to reclaim his throne in Green Bay, coach Mike McCarthy informed him, “We’ve moved on,” signaling the end of an era. All events from that point forward were the result of those three words.

In early 2008, there was radio silence between Favre and the Packers. In previous years, McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson had stopped by the Favre compound in Mississippi for a visit when they were at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Faced with indifference from his coach and general manager in the months following the 2008 NFC championship game, Brett took the hint. And coincidentally, on the same day Randy Moss re-signed with the Patriots after the Packers had attempted to sign him two years in a row (after much urging from their quarterback), Brett decided to retire.

Even though he cried at his press conference -- and Packer Nation cried with him -- announcing that he had “nothing left to give,” those of us who knew Brett understood this was not a decision he wanted to make (he cried following other seasons, but he wasn’t going anywhere). He was retiring from the Packers because the Packers were indifferent to his decision about playing, something he dearly wanted to continue.

The man behind the curtain

When I started with the Packers in February 1999, Ron Wolf greeted me and placed me in an office with a white-haired personnel director named Ted Thompson. I got to know Ted a bit that year. We shared an office and then worked closely for three years when he returned as general manager of the Packers. There were a few times when I was able to get Ted to open up and actually talk about things other than football players. I was pleasantly surprised to learn there was more to the person than anyone knew.

Ted is a fundamentally good person with exceptional loyalty to a few close friends. He cares about his staff and players and about the history and tradition of the Packers. He is obsessed with the task of looking under every rock to find the best football players for the team.

Like many people, though, Ted is uncomfortable being open with people when the situation may require it. Difficult conversations are just that -- difficult -- yet necessary to clear up ambiguities. Dealing with conflict is part of leadership and management of elite athletes with fragile egos and insecurities. Avoidance is a dangerous option when handling the raw emotion of player-management relations.

I never had a difficult conversation with Ted until our last one, when it became clear we were not going to be able to continue working together. Even in that conversation, Ted acted as if he had a plane to catch. It hurt, but I agreed with him: Although I felt, and still feel, that the Packers are a national treasure, life is short. After a nine-year run through three head coaches, three general managers and countless players, it was time to move on.

It was also time for Brett to go soon after. Ted and Brett never had a cross word with each other; they just had little to no words at all. Brett was used to a certain warm response from the general manager’s office -- through the years of Ron Wolf and Mike Sherman -- and he and his family recoiled at the quiet chill from Thompson’s leadership. Rather than talking about it, both sides just stayed silent rather than face the inevitable conversation.

The successor

A major reason, of course, why the Packers moved on from Brett was Aaron Rodgers. Aaron was special from the day he arrived, exuding high intelligence, natural leadership skills and a wry sense of self and humor. We were friends despite our alma mater rivalry (Cal vs. Stanford).

Brett, as I have often said, has the Wally Pipp syndrome, knowing how he got his job -- replacing the starting quarterback and never giving it back. I saw it first as an agent for Matt Hasselbeck and then with Aaron. I understood Brett’s insecurity about a new potential team leader. Aaron was someone he could not embrace, but I was glad to finally see Brett warm to him in 2007.

On the field, Rodgers displayed in practice and preparation the skills he’s now showing as a starter. And in the 2006 and 2007 offseasons, with Brett at home making his decisions and sitting out the majority of the offseason, Aaron was preparing as if he was the starting quarterback. Ted and Mike certainly liked what they saw. Aaron was going to be fine.

The bitter end

Even upon his retirement, the Packers knew -- or should have known -- that Brett would not stay retired. They knew Brett and knew when the calendar moved closer to training camp, that he would want to play again. At the time of his retirement, as hard a conversation as it would have been, the Packers could have had an open and honest communication that they were moving on with Aaron, someone they had been grooming for three years, and any un-retirement would not be welcome. That conversation, however difficult, would have headed off the enmity to come.

Instead, there was growing distance between the parties, even with an awkward attempt to have Brett stay retired with a marketing deal with the team. Favre and the Packers retreated to their media sources to spin their stories. The Packers even uncharacteristically detailed the sequence of events that showed Brett’s vacillations, incensing Favre and his family.

Mutual mistrust ensued again with Brett’s desire to play for the Vikings and, in the view of the Packers, having extensive communication about doing so. The Packers obviously were not going to let that happen and were exasperated when the NFL dismissed tampering charges despite what they felt was strong evidence against their rival. That episode further enhanced the existing rivalry that continues Sunday.

Once set free from the Jets last winter, Brett was finally was able achieve the result he and the Vikings had pursued for more than a year. Brett now is linked at the hip to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, a member of Mike Sherman’s staff in Green Bay that treated Brett and his family the way felt they should be treated given his accomplishments with the team.

Handling the decision

Let me say this: I agree with the decision by my former team to move to the future with Rodgers. It was not like the Packers were moving forward with a stopgap veteran quarterback. I also believe that whatever communication Brett had with the Vikings a year ago complicated matters for all sides and that Brett could have handled himself better at the end of the relationship as well.

The Packers didn’t “owe” Brett Favre anything. He had retired, was paid over $100 million by the team, and he would be a living legend free to return any time with great fanfare. At the end of the story, though, Brett deserved more from the Packers as a person, not as a player. Brett had played through personal tragedy; he had raised the profile, the profit and the asset value of the franchise; he had made the Packers a national, and international, attraction.

How could they have treated Brett better at the end? Simple, open and honest communication, and perhaps a touch of bedside manner a nd humanity to go along with it. As easy as it sounds, it was very hard to do but needed to be done. That may have gone a long way to making sure the parting of the most famous player on one of the most storied franchises in sports was amicable.

The next chapter – but certainly not the final one -- comes Sunday.

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