Favre, like Mays, just didn't know how to quit

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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Jerry Rice stuck around a little too long, but he didn't embarrass himself. Michael Jordan's third go-round in the NBA, as the taskmaster grandpa of the Washington Wizards, hasn't tainted his legacy, as many commentators predicted it would. For some reason, Willie Mays' final year in the majors, when he hit .211 and fell down in the Mets' outfield, remains a singularly memorable example of a pro athlete who clung to his career for too long.

He's got company on the way, though. Brett Favre's GPS is set in that direction.

If this is Brett Favre's final season, he's not leaving on a high note. (AP)  
If this is Brett Favre's final season, he's not leaving on a high note. (AP)  
In the almost three years that have passed since his tearful retirement announcement in Green Bay, the ongoing melodrama over his un-retirement and annual indecision about returning made him slightly vulnerable to the Mays syndrome. Ditching the Jets after one season to engineer a return with the Vikings, a ready-made Super Bowl contender and a perfect vehicle for vengeance against the Packers, did not look good.

But his play held up more than well enough in 2008 and '09 to justify his staying in the game. His performance suggested that he had retired precipitously because the Packers wanted to clear the path for Aaron Rodgers.

This year, though, Favre is falling in the outfield. He has been awful. His passer rating of 69.8 ranks him 32nd among the 33 quarterbacks who have averaged 14 passes per game this year. He has thrown 17 interceptions and only 10 touchdown passes. His team is 3-7. His head coach has been fired, a reminder that the Jets also fired their head coach after he brought Favre aboard (and gave his baby son the middle name of "Brett").

In fact, Favre's wretched 2010 season is bringing a lot of other flaws into focus: The incomprehensibly reckless interception that ended the Vikings' season in the NFC title game and sent the Saints along to last year's Super Bowl. The horrendous interception in the NFC title game three years ago, allowing the Giants to beat the Packers in Lambeau Field and advance to the Super Bowl.

The enormous risk-taking was always going to be a footnote to his legacy. Now that two different teams lost a chance to reach the Super Bowl, it's really going to leave a mark.

It won't wipe out who he was, or the three MVP awards or all the thrills he brought to the NFL. After all, Willie Mays isn't defined by 1973. The costly interceptions certainly won't erase his reputation for toughness. He only enhanced that by staying in the game against the Saints after a battering that would have relegated 90 percent of the NFL's quarterbacks to the sideline.

But the miscalculations that led him to this dreadful season will not be forgotten. They're too numerous and, in aggregate, too big. The reports that he was aloof with the Jets and that he didn't always go along with Brad Childress' play-calling in Minnesota gnawed at his reputation. The details may fade from consciousness, but the chips they carved out will survive, as will Favre's playing hard-to-get through training camp the last two years.

Three years ago, he exited to hosannas. Unlike Mays, he wasn't the greatest of all time at his position. He wasn't even necessarily the best of his generation, or even the third best if his overlapping years with Joe Montana, John Elway, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady count as a generational connection.

But he quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers, leading the NFL's Norman Rockwell franchise back to glory. His teammates talked of him with reverence, even the guys on defense. He had an aura that surpassed mere statistics, or a tally of Super Bowl rings. He has just one of them, even though he has played on a few teams good enough to reel in more.

Because it wasn't entirely his fault that he couldn't finish in Green Bay, Packers fans will eventually forgive him for defecting to the Vikings, apparently to spite their team's management, and salute the retirement of his number at Lambeau Field. But the need for forgiveness will be part of the story line, and it will remain in his Packer portfolio forever.

The biggest difference between him and Mays is that Favre's legacy won't be undermined strictly by a need to stay in the game into his 40s. Back in the '70s, Mays kept playing what was largely a young man's game. Now, all athletes can hang on a lot longer. The medical technology makes it possible. The salaries make longevity even more desirable.

More to the point, the Mets kept Mays around because they couldn't say no to a legend. The Vikings implored Favre to stick with them. In a lot of ways, that made sense, and as with any football player, blaming him alone for a team's failures would be absurd.

But Favre should have retired after last year. He didn't do anything terribly wrong by coming back. The temptation would have been irresistible to anyone. But he will pay for the decision in the long run. He will be cited as a cautionary tale, an example of not recognizing his own limitations. It could have been avoided, but Favre clearly didn't mind the risk. After all, no matter how it happens, there are worse things than being linked to Willie Mays in sports history.

Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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