With Favre, nothing's for certain

8/19/2009 - NFL Brett Favre Minnesota Vikings + more

Just minutes before he was to sign his 1973 contract with the San Diego Chargers, after a lengthy Hall of Fame stint in Baltimore, the great John Unitas paused, his pen dangling tantalizingly over the document, and turned slightly to then-Chargers owner Eugene Klein.

"Are you sure that you want to do this?" asked the man who defined the quarterback position, before officially signing the contract.

Observing the proceedings that day, legendary San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jerry Magee thought to himself: "This guy can't play anymore and he knows it, and he's questioning whether Klein should even spend his good money on him."

It's not likely that fans will question the sagacity of Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf in bringing Brett Favre aboard, but the Vikings' owner has 12 million reasons to consider whether the acquisition of the star quarterback is something he really wants to do. More importantly, Wilf and the rest of his ownership team needs to convince itself that coming out of his brief retirement to play again is what Favre desperately wants to do.

Indeed, the bigger question, even after a sometimes-painful season with the New York Jets, is not if Favre can still play, but whether he really wants to resume his NFL career. Favre has cried wolf so often the past two summers, and shed so many crocodile tears over his decision to leave the game, albeit temporarily, that it is a pretty appropriate question.

Despite the many words written about it, the fear that Favre will somehow tarnish his career or his image by playing for a third franchise in three seasons is essentially incidental. The second half of his 2008 season with the Jets aside, Favre still has physical skills superior to those of the previous two contenders for the Minnesota starting job, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels. But Favre has conceded in both of his emotional retirement speeches that he didn't think he could mentally go through the rigors of a training camp and a regular season again.

One has to wonder if Favre's state of mind has undergone such a dramatic transformation in so short a time.

Favre is hardly the first Hall of Fame-type quarterback to change teams. Fact is, people forget that the Green Bay Packers, with whom he earned most of his celebrity, were actually the second franchise to employ Favre, who began his career with the Atlanta Falcons. Still, it's not that unusual for a quarterback of such stature to switch teams, departing the franchise with which he is most associated late in his career.

There are 18 quarterbacks from the NFL's modern era currently in the Hall of Fame. Nine of them played for more than one franchise.

For every Troy Aikman or John Elway or Dan Marino, each of whom played with only one club during his career, there was a Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Sonny Jurgensen or Unitas. It's easy to forget, given his three Super Bowl triumphs in San Francisco, that Montana finished his career in Kansas City. That Namath, who orchestrated one of the greatest victories in NFL history, went from the Jets to the Los Angeles Rams to conclude his tenure in the league. Or that Unitas, who essentially set the gold standard for modern quarterback play, spent his final season in a San Diego uniform.

By ignoring his retirement for a second straight year, Favre will someday join Warren Moon as the only other Hall of Fame quarterback to have worked for four NFL teams. In the case of Favre, even three franchises was arguably one too many.

I attended the last NFL game Unitas started, at Three Rivers Stadium in 1973. For me, Unitas was an icon, not only because he was born and raised in Pittsburgh (my hometown), but because he played sandlot football for the Bloomfield Rams after the Steelers released him in his rookie year. Growing up in the Bloomfield neighborhood, the stories about Unitas were as much mythical as factual, but the kids who heard those tales often idolized Johnny U.

Watching Unitas that day in '73 was a brutal experience for anyone, particularly for someone who had grown up as such a big fan of his. Even a year before they claimed their first Super Bowl title, the Steelers had a voracious defense. In the first half of the game against the Chargers, the Steelers sacked Unitas six times and pummeled him mercilessly. In the first two quarters of a game in which the Chargers trailed 38-0 at halftime, Unitas, who couldn't even seem to get out of his own way, completed only 2 of 9 passes for 19 yards.

At the half, the Chargers yanked Unitas and replaced him with a relatively unknown rookie named Dan Fouts. Against the aggressive Pittsburgh defense, Fouts did what Unitas couldn't, moving the ball and tallying three touchdowns. The final score of the game was 38-21, and the Three Rivers Stadium crowd jeered loudly throughout the final quarter because the Steelers failed to cover the spread.

Unitas never started another game, and retired before the start of the 1974 season, before he could embarrass himself again.

The ugly '73 game in Pittsburgh was hardly the lasting impression most fans have of Unitas, but it was the last one. And the memory of that contest remains a pretty difficult one for anyone who witnessed the carnage that afternoon.

That's not to suggest that Favre will exit the game the way Unitas did. But before he takes his first snap in a Minnesota uniform, Favre might want to ask himself a question similar to the one Unitas posed to Eugene Klein in 1973.

Is he sure he really wants to do this?

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.