Gunslinger mentality defined Favre

Says Mike Holmgren of Brett Favre: "He can do things other guys can't do physically from that position." Todd Rosenberg/US Presswire

Brett Favre played so long and with such flair that he developed dual legacies.

Those who have coached and evaluated quarterbacks at the highest level tend to admire Favre despite the gunslinger mentality that produced interceptions and touchdowns alike.

Others loved him because of it.

Favre's retirement after 17 NFL seasons, the final 16 as Green Bay's iconic quarterback, begins the five-year countdown to his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Best Ever Debate

In his 17 seasons, Brett Favre set numerous NFL records, including most yards passing (61,655) and touchdowns (442).

But do those numbers, combined with Favre's three MVP awards and one Super Bowl victory, put him among the top 10 quarterbacks of all time?

Recently, ESPN.com's Mike Sando examined this debate. While seven seasoned evaluators placed Tom Brady solidly in the top 10 quarterbacks of all time, Johnny Unitas consistently ranked higher than any other QB. Favre ranked eighth.

The most prolific passer in league history, with 61,655 yards and 442 touchdowns, Favre led the Packers to 13 winning seasons and only a single losing one. His teams finished among the NFL's top 10 in scoring a dozen times, including a No. 1 finish in 1996 -- the season Favre won his lone Super Bowl.

"Brett's a wonderful player, and the beauty of when he plays -- and the hard thing for the team he is playing against -- is that he can do things other guys can't do physically from that position," former Packers coach Mike Holmgren once said.

The seven seasons Favre spent under Holmgren revived a dormant franchise while cementing Favre's identity as a player people had to watch, just in case something spectacular happened, good or bad.

Favre finished eighth in ESPN.com's recent project evaluating the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw finished ahead of him. Otto Graham and Dan Fouts rounded out the top 10.

The rankings drew from the insights of seven panelists with a combined 321 years of experience watching and evaluating quarterbacks. One of them, Zeke Bratkowski, backed up Hall of Famer Bart Starr in Green Bay before coaching in the NFL.

"The one thing that jumps out about Brett Favre is his leadership," Bratkowski said in a phone interview Tuesday. "People rallied around him because of his demeanor."

A panelist who requested anonymity singled out Favre's longevity, leadership, competitiveness and playmaking ability as enough to place him among the 10 greatest quarterbacks.

"But I've seen way too many really bad throws that cost them games," the panelist said. "He's too hard-headed. [Coach] Mike McCarthy has done a really good job of reining him in."

The resolve and humanity Favre showed off the field, whether conquering addiction or playing through personal tragedy, brought another dimension to his legend. His 399-yard, four-touchdown performance in a December 2003 Monday night game against Oakland came one day after Favre's father, Irv, passed away unexpectedly.

"It was unbelievable," former teammate Matt Hasselbeck said at the time. "It was just so great to see the way his teammates rallied around him. It showed how much he means to every one of his teammates and coaches, [and also] what kind of person he is.

"I know Irv, and I know Brett, and I know that whole family. They're a football family, and I don't think there was ever a doubt that if he was going to play in the game that he was going to play well."

The panelists agreed few quarterbacks had stronger throwing arms, but Favre's ability to start every game since Sept. 27, 1992, might be what separates him from all others. Playoffs included, Favre started 275 consecutive games.

"When do you get guys that can play as long and as hard and as good?" said former NFL player and longtime scout Dick Haley, who ranked Favre among his top 10 for the ESPN.com project. "I think it has to be the inbred toughness of a Favre or [Peyton] Manning that just gets them out there every day.

"The game is so hard, and for guys that just don't miss time -- they don't miss practice, they don't miss games -- I'm amazed because you've got 300-pound guys hitting you from every angle."

Favre rushed for 1,503 yards in his first nine seasons, and his ability to improvise remained strong to the end. His underhanded flip pass to tight end Donald Lee in the Packers' divisional-round victory over Seattle in January stands among many signature plays.

But even Favre couldn't be sure when such moments would materialize. That's part of what made him fun to watch.

"From the outside looking in, it may appear that it's almost that, 'He looks for those type of plays,' and that's not the case," Favre said a few years ago. "It just happens.

"And a lot of those plays from earlier in my career, it was from not knowing what the hell was going on. I'm sure Mike Holmgren can attest to that."

During Favre's formative years, cameras routinely caught Holmgren lecturing his quarterback with a zeal that would seem to threaten human blood-pressure limits. But Holmgren later said such highly public moments created false impressions about their relationship, and about Favre as a player.

"He freelanced early, and then he became a very disciplined quarterback, but he could on occasion pull a rabbit out of a hat because physically, he could make an unusual throw," Holmgren said. "Not many quarterbacks can do that.

"Brett, I tease people about him, but he was really usually disciplined in most things he did on the football field. Every once in a while, he would do something. If it worked, I liked it. If it didn't, we'd have a meeting."

Favre could throw with tremendous accuracy when his mechanics were right, and sometimes even when they wavered, experts said.

"By having a strong arm, he would get rid of the ball quicker than a lot of people could," Bratkowski said. "He could be sliding away and get rid of the ball. He had great confidence in his arm. Even though they were getting close to him, he could get rid of it. He took his share of hits and he played tough and he played hurt.

"If I had one word to define him, I would say he is a gladiator. And he didn't lose a lot of bouts. He was able to show up in the arena every time, so he was popular. It is a great streak. He's a warrior."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.