GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They used to run the Green Bay sweep here until the cows came home. Now, the Packers strike with the sonic boom of a prolific passing game.
Whenever Bart Starr passed in the old days, it was always from the protection of his pocket, and only after the opposing defense had been softened by the Packers' running game.
Now, Brett Favre is liable to launch a pass at any time, from any place on the field. Why, he's even talked about winging one left-handed. A short one, of course.
Favre is the titillating link that bridges the gap between the Green Bay sweep and the new-age West Coast offense that coach Mike Holmgren brought to the Packers four years ago. Favre is the reason the Packers talk of winning their first Super Bowl in 29 years.
He is clearly the most exciting quarterback in the game today, a 27-year-old who has ascended to heights no one could have imagined when he was taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 1991 draft.
Those heights included the NFL's MVP award last season at age 26, earned after Favre passed for 38 touchdowns and 4,412 yards.
This season, having endured treatment for an addiction to painkillers and a family tragedy, he is even more focused on football.
"He's real driven this year, more so than years past," said tight end Mark Chmura, one of Favre's best friends on the team. "He said at his press conference in July he wants to bring this team all the way. We wouldn't be going there without him."
That was shortly after Favre emerged from a 45-day stay at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., where he confronted his addiction to Vicodin.
A month later, Favre was dealing with another crisis. A close friend from Waveland, Miss., was killed in an accident, and Favre's 29-year-old brother Scott was arrested on a felony charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.
A month after that, Favre's 19-year-old sister, Brandi, was
arrested in connection with a drive-by shooting, although no one was injured in the incident.
It was, at best, a difficult start to a season that how holds so much promise.
"He got a lot of encouragement from people here and in his family," Packers offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis said. "I think the thing that bothered him most was the death of his best friend.
"His family is very close, and his wife has been great for him. He found out the people who'll be there for him in times of trouble."
Chmura says Favre has calmed considerably from the brash young man who arrived in Green Bay in 1992 with a predilection for wild parties and locker room pranks.
"He was crazy, just like the stories you hear," Chmura said. "Now, we just find different things to amuse ourselves. Five years ago, we would go downtown and tear up the town. His priorities have changed now."
The third quarterback taken in the 1991 draft behind first-rounders Dan McGwire and Todd Marinovich, Favre had a celebrated reputation for toughness.
In July 1990, before his senior year at Southern Mississippi, he suffered internal injuries in a serious car accident. Subsequently, on Aug. 7, he had 30 inches of his intestines surgically removed. Yet, on Sept. 8, he returned to the starting lineup and delivered an upset victory over Alabama.
In the NFL, Favre has forged a reputation for his strong arm, quick feet and attacking style of play.
"Everybody has a finesse quarterback," Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler said, "but Brett wants to have his own [style]. That's very aggressive. You know a lot of finesse quarterbacks, but not many aggressive ones.
"When Brett sees a blitz coming, he won't just check off to a slant or a hot read like normal. He's looking for the big one."
Of Favre's aggressive mentality, Lewis said, "Brett could be a linebacker."
Favre is not without his rough edges. His coaches are sometimes disenchanted with the risks he'll take trying to force the ball into a receiver, but they marvel at his ability to make a high percentage of those plays.
Holmgren, for instance, was less than pleased after Favre twice was intercepted by Denver last week on cross-the-body, off-balance passes.
"But he thinks he can make every play in the world," Holmgren said. "That's the last step. When he can conquer that on a consistent basis, then I'll say he really has done everything he can possibly do to become a good quarterback."
There are some molds, however, that Favre won't fit.
"He's not fluid and smooth," Lewis said. "He doesn't throw the ball like you like. His mechanics aren't what you want and we work like heck on it. But he's never going to be a fluid, smooth, pro-type quarterback, the type you tell a young kid, 'This is the way to set up, the way to balance your stance.'
"All those things, he's not going to do. He's going to be a gunslinger. He's going to come out and be innovative, creative. Sometimes he doesn't look real good doing it, but the results are good. The thing you grade him on is getting the ball in the end zone. And he's doing that better than anyone in the league right now."
Favre has followed up his 38-touchdown MVP season with 35 more this year (and 3,457 yards). Since coming to the Packers in a 1992 trade, he has thrown 143 TD passes, most in the league during that five-year period. He needs nine more to tie Starr, the Packers' all-time leader, who had 152 in 16 seasons.
"He's not there yet," Lewis said. "But I think he'll be there. The big thing in the NFL that players and coaches respect is consistency over the long haul. You've got to do it for a while. There are a lot of guys who come in and do it one year.
"The fact is, he's doing it two years in a row. But I still don't think you put in in Elway's and Marino's class yet."
Butler agreed -- to a point. Put Favre up there with Elway and Marino?
"Not until he wins a championship," Butler said. "At the same time, I don't think when they were at his stage, they could have done as much as he's done now."
Favre appears well on the way to a championship. The Packers have the best record in the NFC at 11-3 and can wrap up home-field advantage by winning their final two games against Detroit and Minnesota.
Home-field advantage in Green Bay is significant because of the arctic weather conditions -- and Favre's ability to play well in them. He is 48-27 as a starter with the Packers, including 15-0 when the temperatures are 35 or below.
"That's mental toughness," Lewis said. "He doesn't let the weather bother him.
"He's just a great competitor. If it takes running over a guy to get the first down, that's what he'll do -- whatever it takes to get the team in the end zone."
Quarterbacks with most touchdown passes the past five seasons:
Player, team TDs
Brett Favre, Packers 143
Steve Young, 49ers 118
Dan Marino, Dolphins 99
Jim Kelly, Bills 97
Warren Moon, Vikings 97
Pub Date: 12/13/96