Inside Slant: The Packers, Brett Favre and the limitations of loyalty

In 2008 Brett Favre thought the Packers would welcome him back with open arms while Green Bay never thought he would return. AP Photo/Matt Ludtke

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The private plane taxied down the runway and parked at Austin Straubel International Airport. The door opened. Out stepped Deanna Favre. A local television anchor, broadcasting live from Green Bay, detailed every move with rising emotion until finally, finally: Here is Brett Favre! He's back! Brett Favre is back as the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers!

On Aug. 3, 2008, at that most surreal moment in a wholly unexpected turn of events, Brett Favre was anything but the Packers' starting quarterback. The franchise had already moved on, anointing Aaron Rodgers its starter, and was digging in for a standoff that underscored the true values coursing through professional sports.

This weekend, the Packers and Favre will formalize their reconciliation with his induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. Such events rarely are news in themselves, but this one attracts national interest because of a dramatic divorce seven summers ago. Looking back, it's clear that both sides held to a quaint, long-dismissed notion of their relationship.

The Packers, as coach Mike McCarthy has since admitted, never thought Favre would follow through on a plan to reverse his retirement. When faced with disrupting the franchise and team he professed to love, as well as stirring the emotions of fans whose feelings he was uniquely sensitive to, Favre would surely go home, the Packers thought. Key decision-makers were certain Favre was experiencing the final throes of sentimentality before accepting retirement. At one point, in fact, team president/CEO Mark Murphy offered him a $25 million contract to be a public ambassador for the franchise.

"I never thought he truly was going to play," McCarthy said in a long-forgotten 2008 admission. "I thought he was emotionally driven for other reasons."

For his part, Favre couldn't imagine the Packers turning their back on him. He believed his skill and stature within the community would trump any business decision the Packers had made. At the very least, Favre thought, it would grant him total freedom to find a new team for the 2008 season.

None of that happened, of course. Favre motored from the airport to Lambeau Field for two days of meetings that culminated in several emotional hours in McCarthy's office. Only then did the Packers realize Favre not only regretted his retirement decision, but also was determined to get back on the field. Favre, meanwhile, finally understood it not only wasn't going to happen in Green Bay, but it would only be after the Packers banished him to a wasteland (the New York Jets, as it turned out) that would prevent him from impacting the fortunes in Green Bay.

"I felt like I wasn't good enough to play there," Favre told ESPN's Rob Demovsky this month, "but was good enough to not play against them, and that bothered me."

Welcome to professional sports in the 21st century, where senses of loyalty and trust are in fact props for the ultimate task of branding. Teams create a feel of community, devotion and allegiance to attract and retain fans/customers, but that doesn't -- and shouldn't -- infiltrate their football operations. The Packers got caught up in their mystique in 2008, ultimately trusting Favre not to cross them even as they were making their own cold-blooded decision. And Favre figured he would be an exception even after watching prominent NFL players be discarded routinely throughout his career.

Had the Packers thought more clearly from the start, they would have traded Favre's rights long before a training camp disruption that unquestionably contributed to their 6-10 season. And if Favre had understood his subordinate role as a player, he would never have assumed he could waltz back into his old job. Those lessons now are understood, accepted and moved past. Get this: The Packers' on-site pro shop recently released an exclusive line of Favre-themed merchandise. This weekend, undisturbed branding will resume.