Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
DETROIT -- I’ve sat in the press box for Brett Favre’s first two regular-season games with Minnesota. I’ve listened to the postgame chatter, asked some questions and reviewed the numbers. And I’m convinced the guy is just flat-out winging it, a conclusion that shouldn’t be construed as an insult or even a sign that this experiment is doomed to fail.
The Vikings are 2-0 with a quarterback who quite clearly doesn’t have a firm grasp of the nuances of their offense. Favre is tossing to his checkdown receivers and making other high-efficiency throws at a historic rate relative to his career, essentially using the Vikings’ soft early schedule to catch up on a nonexistent offseason.
“Really for us … [it’s about] trying to find a comfort level from a play-calling standpoint and more so my standpoint,” Favre said Sunday after Minnesota’s 27-13 victory over Detroit. “Who am I throwing to? [Are they running] slants? Go routes? Screens? Things like that. Being able to audible and change plays, I’m still not there yet.”
I hope it’s not overstating the obvious to note how fortunate the Vikings should consider themselves to have won their first two games under these circumstances. They fell behind both Detroit and Cleveland at halftime before outscoring those opponents by a combined 44-10 in the second half.
Along the way, tailback Adrian Peterson has rushed for more yards (272) than Favre has thrown for (265). Favre has completed 37 of 48 throws, but his 5.5-yard average per attempt is almost a full yard less than any season total in his 18-year career. Favre on Sunday completed only one pass that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His receivers accounted for 113 of his 155 total yards by running after the catch.
“I feel like the full playbook is not being implemented,” tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. “But that’s to be expected. He’s trying to get down this offense and get everybody on the same page. The downfield pass is the last thing to come. We have to protect the quarterback a little better. Right now, we’re doing a lot of play-action, a lot of short passing and stuff like that.”
Indeed, the Lions routinely had eight or nine men near the line of scrimmage, and receiver Bernard Berrian joked that Detroit was trying to capitalize on the “Old-Man Syndrome.” But those defenders were aligned to stop Peterson more than they were to pressure Favre. He took three sacks, but only one of them -- Jason Hunter’s speed rush around right tackle Phil Loadholt -- was unavoidable. The other two, at least from my vantage point, resulted from Favre looking downfield too long.
Was he unsure where to throw? Was he surprised by an adjustment made by a receiver? Quite frankly, the answer is all of the above and more -- a fact Favre hardly seems to disagree with.
“The biggest thing for us is not so much what we’re going to get [from defenses],” Favre said. “It’s how, from a chemistry standpoint, [we come together]. There were several throws last week, several throws today, where I thought we were going to do something else than we did. We’re talking about it. We’re cramming it in to a small amount of time. … But the good thing is we’re winning. Or, we have won these two games.”
Favre’s only “go route” Sunday came in the third quarter, when he sent receiver Sidney Rice down the right sideline against a Lions blitz. The ball landed several yards past and a couple yards inside of Rice. But I didn’t consider that an inaccurate throw. If anything, it was an inaccurate read of the type of route Rice typically runs. If he didn’t already, Favre now knows that Rice typically fades toward the sideline rather than curls inside. And at 6-foot-4, Rice can reach over cornerbacks to make the catch. No need to lead him inside.
“I feel like we will stretch the field coming pretty soon,” Rice said. “It’s just the teams we play and the defenses they run. So as we keep going along, you’ll see some deep passes down the sideline and things like that. Keep watching.”
Of course, chemistry and familiarity with receivers is only part of Favre’s crash course. He’s also still gaining a comfort level with the play calling of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who made a notable adjustment at halftime Sunday. Even as the game got out of reach in the second half, the Vikings threw more after halftime (16 times) than they ran (14 times).
“I think if anything, Darrell may have called it a bit differently,” Favre said. “I’m just guessing at that. I don’t want to say he totally shifted gears. It was more or less what they were giving us. I know it was not a lot of yards. But it was a lot of completions. And that’s the thing I said when I first came in. It’s about getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands. A 70-yard touchdown pass is exciting and it’s fun and all that stuff, but it’s about moving the chains.”
Left unsaid is that a 70-yard touchdown pass requires a degree of coordination the Vikings simply haven’t achieved yet. That they’ve decisively won both of their games is a testament to Favre’s instincts, not to mention their well-rounded roster.
Sunday’s game, in fact, began to turn when Favre improvised to find Shiancoe for a 1-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. The surge continued when the Vikings sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford twice on the first three plays of the second half. Placekicker Ryan Longwell tied the score on the ensuing possession with a 26-yard field goal, and the Vikings never looked back.
You might think I’m mastering the obvious here, but I find the Vikings’ in-season makeover utterly compelling. This isn’t, say, a rebuilding Lions team starting a rookie quarterback to maximize his development time. This is a team with Super Bowl aspirations giving a future Hall of Famer latitude to craft the parameters of his job in a regular-season atmosphere.
The whole dynamic is the brainchild of coach Brad Childress, who I thought put it all in appropriate perspective Sunday.
“I see him doing the things he needs to do,” Childress said. “It’s not like we put a chip in his head or anything like that. He’s still slinging it.”
And, more to the point, winging it.