Sunday, July 06, 2008

Lions Created A Monster When Favre Found Sharpe

As long as Brett Favre got to play the Lions twice every season, I’d have thought he would never retire. So it’s not surprising, to me, that his announcement earlier in the year that he was hanging up his spikes and putting his golden arm in storage is now appearing to be premature.

I think it’s rather amusing, actually, that Favre – the Green Bay Packers quarterback since 1992 without interruption – is making news by talking about coming out of “retirement”.
First of all, it’s not really retirement until you’ve actually, you know, MISSED some games. How can Favre be coming out of retirement when there haven’t been any games to be played since his announcement?

But I digress.

The National Football League’s own TV network occasionally airs what are, in their minds anyway, some of the greatest games in league history. At least the ones to which they have access to the game footage.

I was watching one of these airings the other night, and the soup du jour involved our very own Detroit Lions.

It was the 1993 season’s Wild Card game, played in early January, 1994 in the Pontiac Silverdome. Or, as it’s known around these parts, “The Sterling Bleeping Sharpe Game.”
But it was really Brett Favre’s game. Those who should know said so, time and again for the NFL Network’s cameras.

I was impressed, really, that that game – a 28-24 Packers win – should be considered among the best in recent times. And I was even more impressed that so many key participants could recall so much about it, some 14 years later.

Here’s Chris Spielman, the Lions middle linebacker at the time.

“I think that game was Brett’s launching pad game. And I’m glad to have been a part of launching him into stardom,” Spielman said with a chuckle.

Spielman can chuckle now. But there wasn’t any of that at the time. I know I didn’t chuckle one bit.

Favre himself had crystal clear recollection of the game, as did Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, and Lions quarterback Erik Kramer. Everyone pretty much agreed: that game – the Packers’ first playoff win in years – was Favre’s first real defining moment in the NFL. The first of many, of course. Leave it to the Lions to have created that monster.

The Lions had the jitterbug running back Barry Sanders, and Kramer – who wasn’t brilliant but who was capable – and some nifty receivers like Brett Perriman and Herman Moore. What they didn’t have, however, was the same level of talent on the defensive side of the ball – and certainly not in the backfield, which Favre exposed quite nicely, thank you.

But it was a Packers defender who triggered the change of momentum that would eventually lead to Favre’s coming out party.

The Lions were leading, 17-14, and driving late in the third quarter. Sanders was running around, through, and past the Packers. Kramer was finding Perriman, especially, in the underbelly of the Packers’ defense. The famed, frenetic Run-n-Shoot offense – with one running back and four receivers splayed across the field – was giving the Packers fits. A ten-point lead looked inevitable as Kramer and Perriman and Sanders picked the Green Bay defense apart.

Then came one of those signature plays – the kind the Lions are famous for being involved in, and always on the wrong side.

Inside the five yard line, Kramer eschewed the wizardry of Sanders and opted for another pass. But despite having a receiver open (tight end Ty Hallock), Kramer’s toss was on the wrong side of Hallock, and rookie George Teague intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown – 101 yards away. Instead of leading 24-14, the Lions were suddenly down 21-17. It was a change that they’d never truly recover from.

But they did go back in front, and that’s where they were in the closing minutes of the game – leading the Pack, 24-21. Time for another signature play – a dagger that Lions fans to this day talk about. I imagine it’s much like when the Lions blew a game in Green Bay back in 1962 – a game that may have eventually cost them the division championship – and folks talked about it for years. Some say the ’62 debacle sent the franchise spinning into an irreversible nosedive.

So Favre got the Packers to the Lions 40, thanks to a strong kickoff return. The time was whittled away, to about one minute remaining. The Silverdome crowd was roaring. A date in San Francisco one week later in the conference semi-final for their team was oh, so close. Then Favre went back to pass.

He ran around in the backfield – and by his own admission it wasn’t really necessary that he scrambled, but he did so anyway. He ran to his left, drawing lots of attention. Then, in an instant, Favre stopped, looked to his right, saw something he liked, and heaved the ball. And I mean, heaved.

Floating beneath the heave was Sterling Bleeping Sharpe – who had already caught two touchdown passes in the game. And he was as open as a 24-hour diner.

Kevin Scott was the rookie cornerback assigned to Sharpe on the play, and replays show that, once Favre engaged in his needless scrambling, young Scott stopped covering and started watching. And that’s what caught Favre’s eye when he stopped for that moment and looked to his right.

The ball came to rest in Sharpe’s belly toward the back of the end zone, and 75,000 fans in the Silverdome wheezed, the air knocked out of them. There were but 55 seconds left. There would be no trip to San Francisco after all. Packers 28, Lions 24.

The Packers lost the next week in Dallas, but that game in Detroit gave them confidence and affirmed Brett Favre as a QB who could rally a team in the late stages. And they rode that confidence, built on it, and three years later, Green Bay was league champion. Favre never did stop beating the Lions, either, when you really think about it. He’s perfect against them at home, and does OK in Detroit nowadays, too.

So it doesn’t surprise me that Favre is re-considering his short-lived “retirement” – not when you have the Lions twice on your schedule every year. They helped create him, after all.

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