Brett Favre has been the Falstaff of football this year.
To his critics who didn't like his coming out of retirement to play for the Minnesota Vikings, he embodied everything odious about the Shakespearean character – old, selfish, vainglorious. But others have appreciated the traits that made Falstaff likable: his humor, his joviality, his childish enthusiasm, his free spiritedness.
And, yes, Favre can still be as deft with the football as Falstaff with words. "The world's my oyster," the portly prince famously said. Modern translation: Favre hurling a 32-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left on the clock to give the Vikings a dramatic win over the San Francisco 49ers last week. (Watch it here.)
All this is relevant because the Vikings' matchup against the Green Bay Packers tonight on national TV is more than a sporting event. It has become pure theater.
This is an epic clash between two ancient football rivals. It pits two teams on the rise in the NFC North division. It features undeniable stars, like Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, a human cruise missile. (This video is not a fake.) And it is being played out on a stage that is the modern equivalent of Shakespeare's Globe Theater: Monday Night Football.
Yet the undeniable tension in this narrative surrounds Favre, the gray-stubbled former Packer who eight weeks ago was sitting on his tractor in Mississippi and is now at the center of the seemingly most hyped sporting event since Ali-Frasier (at least for this week). And why not?
It was Favre who played for 16 years in Green Bay, becoming one of the biggest icons since Vince Lombardi. It was Favre who left the Packers two years ago for retirement, only to decide he didn't want to retire, only to be rebuffed by Green Bay management. After one inglorious year with the New York Jets, Favre retired again (for good, this time) before coming back to play for the Vikings, a team he routinely frustrated and foiled during his years in green and gold.
The real psychic fascination in this drama surrounds why he came back at all, which presumably is really known only by Favre himself and Dr. Phil. Detractors have their conspiracy theories: He did it for pure ego. He did it for money ($12 million this year). And most relevant to the story at hand, he did it for revenge – the chance to pinprick the Packers.
At a briefing last week – and the media are congregating like a smelt run in Lake Superior – the issue came up with the first question: Was it revenge? No, Favre said. He just wanted another chance to win a Super Bowl. The quarterback who turns 40 this week and presumably will get his first AARP card, even though he still bounds into the huddle as if it were Gymboree, has insisted all along that another championship was his only motive.
Whether true or not, this is not just another case of a famous athlete coming out of retirement to play another year of ball – think Joe Montana and his post-49er year in Kansas City. This a famous athlete coming out of retirement to play for a team that is the archrival of the team that he feels spurned him. Favre admitted to some complicated motivations by the end of his press conference. He said it's only human nature to want to show that you can still compete.
In theory, the two teams will actually play some football tonight. When they do, many national analysts give the Vikings (3-0) a slight edge. They have Peterson, the league's most explosive and punishing runner. They have rookie receiver Percy Harvin, who has shown flashes of brilliance, including returning a kickoff for 101 yards last week. (He is rather fast.) And now they have Favre, who brings leadership to the huddle and the ability to mount a come-from-behind drive or drives if need be – which in the first three games the Vikings have needed.
That, in fact, is one of the their Achilles' cleats. They've started off slow offensively each week, behind a game plan that was conservative enough to be crafted by Sean Hannity. True, turning Favre into Peterson's personal handoff man rather than the gunslinger he used to be, has limited the quarterback to only one interception this year.
But the Vikings won't be able to keep handing out leads early if they want to win. Green Bay (2-1) has put up strong offensive numbers under young quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They have upgraded their defense behind new coordinator Dom Capers. One area of vulnerability is their offensive line, which has given up a league-leading 12 sacks.
Follow us on Twitter.