The Meaning of Brett Favre

Brett Favre is the new quarterback of the New York Jets.

By yesterday morning, the initial hype and speculation surrounding a potential Favre trade to the Jets had long since given way to shrugging resignation that he would be dealt elsewhere, most likely to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Perhaps, then, it was the sheer surprise of the midnight announcement that struck me most. Or perhaps it was my sudden appreciation that years of futility had rendered me so unwilling to believe in the first place. In either event, there was no mistaking the momentous thing that had just occurred: The Jets had engineered the biggest, most publicized trade in the history of New York football, acquiring Brett Favre from the Green Bay Packers in return for a conditional draft choice. So big was the story that, not one hour old, it occupied the first 21 minutes of ESPN’s 1 a.m. broadcast of Sportscenter. And then it was everywhere.

The current fervor notwithstanding, calmer hands will ultimately write the definitive history of this trade. Even now, still amid the hysteria, it’s easy to appreciate the many caveats that attach: Favre’s advanced age; his questionable commitment to football; his increasingly prominent ego; and a particularly maddening strain of indecision. Add the reality that Favre inherits a tattered, palpably desperate Jets team far removed from the young, highly talented Packer squad he left behind, and you quickly realize that this trade doesn’t guarantee the Jets so much as a winning record, let alone a playoff run of any note. But even at that, it promises something more sorely lacking than either of those things: relevance. By virtue of this trade, and for no other reason, the Jets are once again relevant on a national, league-wide level that they have not known since last they were treated to an impromptu recitation of Dale Wimbrow’s Guy in the Glass, in 1999.

No matter what else may be said of this trade, it is plain that, for at least one season, the Jets will make news of their own accord and not on account of any prepackaged, media-fueled feud over half-hearted midfield handshakes or the contents of a camcorder. Doubtless, this will prove a great relief not only to the beleaguered tandem of Eric Mangini and GM Mike Tannenbaum but also to the players and fans, both of whom could do with a morale boost after last year’s debacle, which, exacerbated by the Patriots’ perfect regular season and the Giants’ miraculous run to the Super Bowl, ranked as the most embarrassing and demoralizing season of the post-Kotite era.

The flip side of the trade is the apparent end of Chad Pennington’s star-crossed career in New York.

Predictably, Tannenbaum confirmed as much early this morning, announcing that Pennington will likely be traded or released. And although it may not be initially obvious, the Favre trade effectively closes the door on Kellen Clemens’s Jet career to the same extent as it does Pennington’s. Clemens, 25, may well remain on the team as a backup until such time as Favre decides to retire again (week 12?), but the likelihood that he will recapture his previous status as heir apparent to the starting job is negligible. Clearly, the Favre acquisition was as much a comment on Clemens’s lack of development as it was on Pennington’s scalpel-ravaged shoulder. After all, if a third-year quarterback can’t crack the starting lineup of a 4-12 team that has no other viable options at the position, it’s decidedly unlikely that he ever will. This reality, coupled with Favre’s chronically impending retirement, makes it a fair bet that the Jets’ “quarterback of the future” is not yet on the roster and will have to be acquired through the draft, free agency, or another trade–and relatively soon.

This truth, perhaps more than anything else, crystallizes the desperate state of the Jets. They have effectively cast both Pennington and Clemens aside for what is likely a one-year run at the Super Bowl with a 38-year-old quarterback who is entirely unfamiliar with the Jets and will have but four short weeks to knock off the rust, learn the nuances of the offense, develop a rapport with his teammates, use his collection of skills to rescue a moribund team from the depths of 4-12, save the imperiled jobs of the head coach and general manager and afford the owner the appearance of actually doing something to help this team. This tall order–and the Jets’ obvious haste to take it on in lieu of the quarterback situation that existed a scant 24 hours ago—bespeaks a foundering organization whose best-laid plans have rarely yielded acceptable results. If the abject desperation of this team wasn’t clear in the wake of the Jets’ wild offseason spending spree on players who were, by turn, overage, inconsistent and inexperienced, then it is clear now.

Ultimately, as with every personnel move, the Favre trade will be judged by what he does for the Jets. And as Favre goes, so will follow the fortunes of Mangini and Tannenbaum. If Favre should fail here, the move will be remembered as an admission of failure–a concession that the blueprint drawn by Mangini and Tannenbaum in 2006 was so ill-conceived or poorly executed as to necessitate a knee-jerk trade aimed at curing their misfeasance in one fell swoop. If Favre wins here, the trade will be hailed as the point at which Mangini and Tannenbaum courageously departed form orthodoxy and graduated from fair-haired novices to big-boy statue in the NFL.

Now the die has been cast, and it’s time to play football again, this time with Brett Favre.

The 2008 Jets’ preseason schedule begins tonight in Cleveland. The Meaning of Brett Favre