- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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In January, as Kyle Orton's neck beard was luxuriant in its winter fullness, and Jay Cutler was thinking of new and exciting ways to put down teammates ("The Jerk Store called and they're running out of you!!"), the Las Vegas Hilton Sports Book listed its early Super Bowl XLIV odds.
The Bears' odds eventually shot up to 50-1 before they landed Cutler in that franchise-changing move in April. Since then, that number has fallen all the way to 15-1.
Why? Because Chicago has the second-most wagers placed on it for the upcoming NFL season, behind only the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Jay Kornegay, director of race and sports at the Hilton Sports Book.
I talked to Kornegay for a couple of hours after it was announced that Brett Favre was signing a one-year deal with the Vikings, ending the prolonged courtship of the former Green Bay Packers legend, who has overtaken Michael Jordan as sports' premier un-retirer.
You might think the addition of Favre would make the Vikings the favorite to the win the NFC North, but you'd be wrong. Well, wrong at the Hilton anyway.
Kornegay said the Hilton Sports Book hadn't adjusted the futures for the Vikings, and still is listing the Bears and Vikings as co-favorites to the win the NFC North at 8-5. The Packers are listed at 2-1 and the "other team in that division," as he called the Detroit Lions, is 15-1. While the Vikings are likely to get a lot more money in the coming weeks, Kornegay said the consensus right now is that Favre's addition is mostly a lateral move, while Cutler's acquisition was a game-changer.
"We look at [the Vikings' signing of Favre] as it's a slight upgrade, but not enough to change the odds," he said. "We still think Favre is obviously not what he used to be. I'm not sure how many [interceptions] he threw last year. Was it 19 picks? [Actually, 22] I still think his shoulder is an issue, durability is an issue, and chemistry is an issue, with him coming in this late."
(Kornegay, a 1987 Colorado State graduate, is a Broncos fan, so you can imagine his feelings about Cutler.)
While Favre's return hasn't moved the all-important betting line, it does two important things: It ends the continuing and universally annoying speculation about his future until the next offseason, and it adds another subplot into a Bears season currently defined by the semantics of Cutler's postgame critique of a bad preseason pass to Devin Hester.
Favre's return to the NFL also allows sports fans, Bears fans in particular, to tap into that primordial wellspring of hate that drives us to boo, cheer and fulminate over a bunch of strangers in polyester and foam padding.
We love to hate. I'm a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I hate the Browns and Bengals, and most of all, the Baltimore Ravens.
Ohio State fans hate Michigan and watching the Buckeyes play in BCS games. Every other fan hates Ohio State and Michigan, and the Dallas Cowboys, for good measure.
Bears fans hate the Green Bay Packers, Favre and the schedule makers who let Chicago play the Lions only twice a season.
Packers fans, the only sports victims in this story, hate the Bears, Vikings, "city folk" and those voices inside Favre's head that won't let him retire as a Packer.
And on and on it goes.
I think what the Favre haters are missing out on is the countless opportunities he gives you to indulge in this perfectly natural feeling.
In many people's eyes, the Vikings have been a quarterback shy of being a Super Bowl favorite. But they're not a hateable team.
After all, Bears fans can't really hate Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, as much as they fear him. You can't hate Rosenfels and Jackson. They're too unimportant, too pedestrian to loathe. You can hate Bernard Berrian for leaving, until you remember he was trying to flee the Bears' messy quarterback situation.
But Brett Favre? Bears fans know how to hate Favre. Sure, at one point or another you've admired him, wished he was your quarterback over studs like Henry Burris and Chad Hutchinson, but generally, you despised the guy because he wore Packers colors and was more overhyped than a Wisconsin brat. He's been the over-dog his entire career. For football fans outside of the NFC North, he was your second-favorite quarterback until he started this media-driven two-step with retirement. No one likes a media hog.
So that's Favre's real value now: To be a vessel for our hate. He used to be the No. 1 cause of fawning aphorisms during an NFL broadcast -- how many times was he called a "gunslinger" in his career? 5,000? 10,000? -- but in the past few years, his tap dance toward retirement has driven sports fans over the edge. Now his waffling seems worse than the health care crisis, the Iraq war and Chicago parking meters combined.
After the Packers all but changed the locks on the locker room, Favre's move to the Jets ended up being a dud. He threw for 3,472 yards with 22 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions, and was sacked 30 times. His completion percentage was 65.7 percent, 4 percent higher than his career average, so he wasn't entirely a lost cause. Watching him play down the stretch was painful, and reminiscent of Jordan's final days as a Washington Wizard, or if you're more historical, Joe Namath as a Los Angeles Ram and Willie Mays with the Mets.
Favre threw two touchdowns to nine interceptions in his final five games, assuring his departure from New York would be welcome on both sides. How many Jets fans burned their Favre jerseys in January?
But enough about the fans -- what does Favre's return mean to the Bears? Well, for one, they don't hate it.
Second, get those interception celebrations ready.
Instead of trying to pick off journeyman Rosenfels, they'll have to put their hands into harm's way as the oldest Viking this side of Eric the Red throws bullet pass after bullet pass over, under and around receivers. It's not as if the Bears don't have enough film on the guy. They know his tendencies, his strengths and his weaknesses. Two of his top receivers, Berrian and Bobby Wade, are ex-Bears. Percy Harvin is a rookie. Sure, Favre will make them respect the pass now, but I'm betting that the vets on the Bears' defense are licking their collective chops at the thought of Favre in purple. All those picks, all those sacks.
The best part is the Bears don't face Favre until late in the season, on Nov. 29 and Dec. 28.
In June, Lance Briggs told the NFL Network he'd enjoy Favre's return, and I've heard him echo those comments on the radio. Briggs, the confident All-Pro linebacker, has caught the Favre Express before, and he has a long memory.
"We know he's going to throw us a few," Briggs said in June. "He's thrown me a few, but I've also dropped several that I should have caught. We'd love to see Favre go [to Minnesota] to play. We'd welcome it."
Brian Urlacher didn't exactly faint with surprise at practice Tuesday.
"Was there any doubt that he was going to do that? I don't think anybody was too shocked about that," Urlacher said in a Chicago Tribune online story.
Adewale Ogunleye told ESPN Radio he's happy Favre is back, and he's not sweating those late-season games just yet.
"We know Favre," he said. "We've played him a lot. He's a competitor. We're up for it."
The Bears obviously aren't scared of Favre. No competitor in the NFL is ever scared of a peer, and rarely will admit to being intimidated. But the Bears might be singing a different tune if Favre is able to fill that hole at quarterback for a very strong team with a staunch defense. If the Vikings are clinching the division against the Bears in late December, they might find themselves wishing Favre had stayed retired. That is, if Favre's still standing upright by then.
I wonder what the odds are of that late December game deciding the NFC North. Pretty good, I imagine.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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