GREEN BAY The question will be asked, the issue debated, the comparison analyzed over and over and over again.
In the never-ending search for explanations for their fall from last year's 13-3 regular-season record and berth in the NFC Championship Game to this year's 5-9 mark and outside-looking-in view of the playoffs entering the final two weeks of the season, everyone will wonder:
Where would the Green Bay Packers have been in 2008 if Brett Favre had been their quarterback?
We know where they are today, with Aaron Rodgers under center and Favre with the New York Jets following the Aug. 6 trade that will bring the Packers a second-round pick if the Jets make the AFC playoffs and a third-rounder if they don't: Playing out the string on just their second losing season in the last 17 years a timeline that roughly coincides with the late-1991/early-1992 arrival of general manager Ron Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren and Favre.
But why are the Packers where they are?
Is it because of Rodgers, who has come up empty in seven games in which he had the ball in his hand with less than 5 minutes left and a chance to tie or take the lead?
Is it because of a defense that ranks 24th in the 32-team NFL and has faltered at critical times?
Is it because of a lack of killer instinct that has seen them lose six of seven games decided by a touchdown or less?
Is it because of injuries, whether it be season-enders to linebacker Nick Barnett, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, right tackle Mark Tauscher and safety Atari Bigby, or nagging ones that caused running back Ryan Grant, No. 3 receiver James Jones and Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris to miss time or be unproductive?
Or is it a result of the residual effects of the training-camp distraction created by Favre's controversial unretirement and the void he left when general manager Ted Thompson dealt him to the Jets?
"By no means do I think we're where we are today because of what has left here not at all. That's no disrespect to Brett Favre or (veteran long-snapper) Rob Davis (who retired after the season and is now the player programs director)," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Those are two veteran guys who had a ton of NFL experience and brought a ton to the locker room. (But) I don't feel leadership is missing from Brett leaving here."
The Packers aren't the first team to reach the NFC title game, then falter the following year. Of the eight teams to reach the NFC Championship the past four years, only two the New York Giants this year, and the Seattle Seahawks in 2006 made the playoffs the following year.
"There's so much parity in the league (that) there's not a big difference from team to team and breaks just go certain ways," said Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose 2006 team reached Super Bowl XLI but missed the playoffs last year. "It's hard to pinpoint exactly the reasons why. I know every team that's coming off of a good year, they're on guard for a letdown the following year. You talk about it and you do everything that you possibly can. And we still ended up going 7-9 last year."
But with the Packers, and the hullabaloo created by the Favre saga, there seems to be greater scrutiny as to why they have failed.
Beyond the numbers?
[ul]Statistically, Rodgers enters Monday night's game against the Bears having completed 296 of 466 passes (63.5 percent) for 3,470 yards, with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 91.8. Through 14 games, he ranked 11th in the NFL in completion percentage, seventh in yardage, tied for sixth in touchdown passes and ninth in passer rating.
More mobile than his predecessor, Rodgers has added a scrambling element that wasn't present with Favre under center, but with 30 sacks, he's also on pace to be taken down more this season as Favre was in the previous two (34).
Favre, by comparison, has completed 305 of 451 passes (67.6 percent) for 3,052 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions for a 86.5 rating for the Jets. He ranked second in completion percentage, 12th in yardage, tied for eighth in touchdown passes, leads the league in interceptions and is 15th in passer rating. His Jets (9-5) are in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East after going 4-12 last season.
"I don't think we're very far off offensively from where we were last year," McCarthy said. "I don't believe that in terms of performance, we've taken a step back at the quarterback position at all."
Critics of the quarterback change argue that the Packers miss Favre in a way that goes beyond numbers, that there's an intangible that's missing without the three-time MVP on the roster. They also argue a leadership void was created when Favre took his 17 years of NFL experience east to the Big Apple.
"He was much different in my second time with him than he was my first time," said McCarthy, who was Favre's quarterbacks coach in 1999, when Favre was in his eighth year in Green Bay and turned 30 at midseason. "He was older, he was at a different place in his life. Those are all differences between him and his teammates. As far as how he connected and how close he was with certain guys, those are questions for the players."
Certainly Favre's ex-teammates respected him and what he'd accomplished in his sure-fire Hall of Fame career. But based on interviews with more than a dozen players last week, most didn't connect with him on a personal level, which is understandable given the age gap. Favre turned 38 during the 2007 season, when 28 of the 53 players on roster at the end of the season were age 25 or younger, and only eight players besides Favre had seen their 30th birthday.
"With Brett, outside of football, there really was no relationship with him," said wide receiver Greg Jennings, who caught several of Favre's landmark touchdown passes last season. "He's a great guy, don't get me wrong, and you viewed him as a heck of a player, a guy that you had a tremendous amount of respect for, a guy that you knew you were going to get his best every week, but as far as anything outside of football, I didn't really expect anything.
"Aaron and I have a great relationship and I think where it becomes different is the age. We kind of think alike, as far as the way we go about our business. I think we have developed a rapport with one another both on the field and now off the field. That's a little different, the fact that we have a relationship off the field. I think that's the biggest thing."
There are also those who believe that Favre's star power allowed him to absorb most of the external pressure and alleviate that pressure from his teammates, and that his larger-than-life persona cut such an imposing figure that his teammates were afraid to let him down by making a mistake, thus creating additional motivation to succeed.
"I don't buy that. Not at all," said Jones, who caught 47 passes as a rookie third-round pick last season. "I think my motivation is more like that now with Aaron. I don't want to disappoint Aaron. I don't want to drop any passes and let Aaron down. I'm way closer to Aaron than I was to Brett. Brett was already set. If I had a bad game, that wasn't letting him down that was letting myself down. I think more of my focus now is trying to make Aaron look good making a play for him."[/ul]
[ul]One of the great untold stories of the locker room in recent years until it drew attention during the acrimonious split between the club and its iconic quarterback was that Favre dressed and showered in an adjoining staff locker room since the Lambeau Field redevelopment project was completed in 2003 under then-coach Mike Sherman. With his primary locker at the mouth of the team locker room, Favre was able to run a short hook route into the staff locker room, where he had his own bathroom and shower.
Of the players asked about Favre's private area, most said they didn't care either way. Three said they thought it was "odd" or "weird," and the fact that Favre dressed in there might have been more of a symbol of his isolation than an actual issue with his teammates.
Nonetheless, Rodgers' locker is across the entryway of the main locker room from Favre's former locker (now inhabited by long snapper Brett Goode), and Rodgers does not use the staff room. And according to some of his teammates, that's more symbolic of Rodgers' all-in-this-together ethos.
"He's is not isolated. He's connected with everybody here, this community we have. He interacts with everybody," cornerback/returner Will Blackmon said. "He's not that quarterback who's off in his own world. He reaches out."
Asked whether he tried to end Favre's practice of using the private locker room after being hired in 2006, McCarthy would only say, "There were some different things that occurred over the years. ... Some of those decisions, they were talked about. I didn't feel it was a threat to the locker room (chemistry)."
But was Favre the great leader in his last few seasons that one would assume he was, given all his accomplishments? Asked what kind of leadership Favre provided, McCarthy pointed to the ironman quarterback's record 275 consecutive starts (including playoffs) as the main way he led by example.
"Leadership comes in different forms and fashions," McCarthy said. "The positive Brett Favre gave this football team in the past was the fact that he lined up and played every week and played with a certain style, a passion, and at a certain level. That was something you could always count on, and that's important in the innerworkings of the locker room.
"I think it's important when you evaluate individuals in the locker room, that you ask, 'Does he bring a positive presence or energy to the locker room, or does he bring a negative?' And obviously, if it's negative, what is it? That's what you need to manage and try to eliminate. I didn't think (Favre) had an overly negative approach to the locker room.
"It all goes back to this, something I learned in college: There's positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and zero reinforcement. Positive is the best, negative is the second-best because it does have short-term solutions, and zero reinforcement is the worst because nothing happens. I didn't feel (Favre) had a negative effect to the locker room at all. He had a lot of things to give to the team, and he was a big asset to our team."
Veteran wide receiver Donald Driver, one of Favre's closest friends on the team, said most of Favre's leadership was by example, and that most of his vocal leadership came out when he was angry with a teammate.
"Brett, he really didn't say much. He was never one of those guys who was verbal. He just played. That's how he led," said Driver, who played nine seasons with Favre. "Now, he fussed at the linemen, he fussed at the receivers, he fussed at the running backs when somebody didn't make a block or whatever. He would chew 'em out. But that as far as he went (verbally). In the huddle, he was the meanest person you could probably play for."[/ul]
To serve and protect
[ul]It's up to Daryn Colledge to protect Rodgers. And to the third-year left guard, that job description doesn't end with blocking behemoth defensive tackles and blitzing linebackers.
When asked in the locker room late last week about Rodgers' and Favre's leadership styles and whether the team missed Favre's leadership, the tattooed 6-foot-4, 308-pound Colledge became visibly irritated. His muscles tensed, his voice boomed.
"Not a chance. We're all more emotionally involved with Aaron than we were with Brett," Colledge said, volume increasing. "The fact is, Aaron's a friend. I think I'm more emotionally invested in our relationship than I ever was with Brett. There was always a fear factor of getting Brett hit, but that's because you're young and you don't want to lose your job. With Aaron, I want to play well because I want us to have success together.
"Brett was a lot older than us. We didn't have a lot in common, we didn't spend a lot of time with each other off the field. I mean, what was he going to talk to guys about when he wasn't talking football? So I guess he needed more time with the coaches to talk things over because he could have more of a conversation with those guys. With us, it was a lot harder for him.
"I don't think the pressure ever changes no matter who's back there. Everybody's trying to be successful, everybody's trying to win games, everybody's trying to get their next contract, everybody's trying to do their best. I don't think the pressure ever gets any different, no matter who's the quarterback.
"This whole thing (Favre vs. Rodgers) has just been one of those things we've been fighting against all year. Everybody's trying to find excuses for what's gone on, and I just don't think that's where the answers are at. We've done a lot of things wrong, we've made a lot of mistakes. Maybe last year we didn't make them.
"But I don't think it's about who's at quarterback."