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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Double Coverage: Favre vs. Ripken

By Kevin Seifert and Gene Wojciechowski

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre is as close as he has ever been to ending the longest streak of consecutive starts by a position player in NFL history, courtesy of a pair of small fractures in his left foot. Favre hasn't missed a game since assuming the job for the Green Bay Packers in 1992, a stretch of 291 games over 19 seasons.

If it ends this week, where will "291" land in the pantheon of professional American sports? More specifically, how would it stand up against the only comparable mark: Cal Ripken's streak of 2,632 consecutive games played for the Baltimore Orioles?

The question bridges two disparate games that generate their own pace, level of contact and frequency of competition. Which is more impressive? Today, senior national columnist Gene Wojciechowski and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert will settle the debate once and for all.

Kevin Seifert: When we last met, Gene, I was persuading you that current Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers would one day eclipse Favre in Packers history. So I'd like to think I'm on a roll with these things. I mean, sure, Rodgers has thrown a couple or nine interceptions already, but everything is going according to plan.

Brett Favre
Brett Favre has started 291 consecutive regular-season games, a streak that could be in jeopardy. Favre has two fractures in his left ankle.
Gene Wojciechowski: Two quick things on that and then we'll get to Double Coverage: 1) The more I watch the Chicago Bears and all the weekly drama that is Velcro'd to their hip pads (an offensive line that couldn't block you coming off the edge. . . Jay Cutler's quest for the interception record. . . Mike Martz's running-the-ball allergy. . . nagging injuries to Lance Briggs. . . a fan base that is becoming increasingly impatient and negative, etc.), the more convinced I am Rodgers and the Packers are going to win the NFC North. And the Vikings will finish second, with or without Favre; 2) Did you see the postgame moment between Rodgers and Favre? I don't know what they said, but Rodgers showed me something there. It seemed like a genuine, respectful, heartfelt hug between two guys who know what it's like to play the position at its highest level, and what it's like to play in Green Bay. Pretty touching scene.

KS: OK, we better get to the topic at hand. We can't hold back on the second coming of Lincoln-Douglas any longer.

I'm in something of a unique position here. I was an Orioles beat writer on that fateful 1998 night when public relations man John Maroon grabbed the press box microphone moments before the first pitch and said, "The Orioles have a change in the lineup." (Actually, I have a hard time remembering many of the details after banging my head on the table 2,632 times while trying to write that momentous story on deadline.)

Seriously, I got a chance to watch the final three years of Ripken's streak up close and then for a year or so afterward. On the whole, it stands out as the most remarkable accomplishment I have ever seen in the sports arena. After covering Favre for a few years, I haven't changed my mind.

GW: Uh, oh. Here we go. ...

KS: I'm just getting started, buddy. I have no illusions about the differences between football and baseball. I realize that, by definition, Favre has faced far more danger on a play-to-play basis. I've seen the condition of players after a baseball game and after a football game. There is no comparison, and that's why baseball can schedule 10 times the number of games annually.

But the mental discipline it takes to play every baseball game for 16 years is, to me, unparalleled.

GW: First of all -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- you're right. Favre has been exposed to -- and suffered from -- far more physical danger than Cal The Magnificent. That's why Ripken can still play basketball with his buddies and Favre will have trouble walking up a flight of stairs when he retires (come to think of it, he's probably had trouble doing that for years). He'll move so slow that the guys in the Wrangler ad will be able to sack him.

I covered the Angels, the Dodgers and later, the Cubs as a beat writer. So you're singing to the baseball choir about the mental discipline it requires to play the game. Check that -- the discipline to play the game at the level that Ripken played it. You'll never, ever hear me questioning Ripken's achievement. It's mind-boggingly amazing. And it is unparalleled -- if we're not comparing it to what Favre has done in the NFL.

But part of what makes Favre's streak even more amazing is the mental strength it takes to prepare for an NFL game, to play in the game, and to play the game with debilitating injuries. I'm not saying Ripken wasn't tough, but I don't recall him playing with two broken bones in his ankle while Clay Matthews was making a beeline for his sternum.

KS: Understood. But like Favre, Ripken fought through some significant injuries -- most notably a sprained knee suffered during a bench-clearing brawl in 1993. (See? Baseball is a rough sport, too.) But unlike Favre, Ripken didn't have recovery time between games. Nor did he have a seven-month offseason to clear his head.

Ripken dealt with the ebb and flow of his job within the parameters of doing it every day. His time for reflection, study, conditioning and rehabilitation came on game day, not in the six days between football games. I'm not much of a seamhead, so I'll compare it to building a brick wall every day for eight months. You have to have some serious concentration skills to keep yourself engaged.

GW: True. Ripken's injured knee was a big deal. And aside from catcher, he played the most physically demanding position (shortstop for the bulk of his career) in the game. Again, I'm not questioning the majesty of his accomplishment. But there's a reason why no other quarterback is listed in the top 10 of career consecutive starts. There's a reason why the closest QB to him is Peyton Manning's 198 consecutive starts. That's because it's nearly impossible to stay healthy in the NFL. And Favre, who was rarely completely healthy, has done this while playing with injuries that have forced other quarterbacks to the sideline or inactive list.

Cal Ripken Jr.
Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games before telling his manager -- just 45 minutes before the first pitch on Sept. 20, 1998 -- he was taking the day off.
KS: That's true, Gene, but the fact of the matter is that Peyton is at least on pace with Favre at the same age. No one in Ripken's era came anywhere close to what he did. The closest anyone in his era came was Steve Garvey (1,207). And the kids these days? Shoot. Ripken has a 2,428-game lead over the player with the longest active streak (Matt Kemp).

Watching Ripken work would make anyone feel lazy. He wore a watch at all times, even during batting practice, to maintain a daily routine he religiously followed but constantly revised. If you wanted to interview him after games, usually you had to wait until he was done running on the treadmill. (Sometimes at speeds up to 14 miles per hour for short periods of time. No lie.) He thought through every challenge and always had a plan.

And he brought it to a climax on Sept. 20, 1998, when -- importantly -- Ripken ended the streak on his own terms. He walked into manger Ray Miller's office about 45 minutes before first pitch and said he was ready to take the night off. There was no injury like the one Favre was facing now. From a physical standpoint, Ripken could have continued on.

GW: And that's one of the many reasons why I respect Ripken. He respected the game so much that he didn't want to play because of a record. He wanted to play to a higher standard. I don't think Favre has played simply because of his record. I think he's played hurt because that's what you're expected to do in that league -- play with injuries, be there for your teammates.

KS: The bottom line is Ripken and Favre are both physical and genetic freaks. But knowing how much disdain Favre has expressed for the time in between games and seasons, I wonder if he has the concentration and methodical work ethic to have matched Ripken's feat in baseball.

GW: No way. But I'd say the same thing about Ripken matching Favre's endurance record in the NFL. Their strengths and skill sets fit perfectly in the sports they played.

KS: Obviously we'll never know how Ripken would have handled a 300-pound defensive lineman falling on top of him after an off-balance throw. (Although at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Ripken actually had a bigger frame than Favre.) And I won't pretend that all of the times I saw Ripken pin Pete Incaviglia during clubhouse wrestling matches should have any bearing on this argument.

I guess my impression after covering both players is that Ripken had a much more difficult daily grind. There is no comparison between a single football and baseball game. But seven baseball games per week compared to one football game? Then it gets more difficult. I can attribute Favre's endurance to toughness, genetics and competitiveness. Ripken's discipline? It was so off the charts that I can't begin to understand how he did it. He did the same thing for two-thirds of the calendar year for 16 years. It was incomprehensible even to those of us with normal attention spans.

I guess that's where I land.

GW: Yeah, but that one NFL game is equal to a series or two against the Royals and the Mariners. And it's not like it doesn't take mental discipline to prepare for an NFL game. Favre threw some unholy horrible interceptions in the game at Lambeau Sunday night, but he also made some unholy great pre-snap reads of the Packers' defense -- and took advantage of those reads. That doesn't happen by accident.

Baseball is an incredible grind. But so is the NFL -- because of the physicality of the sport. And it takes an incredible amount of discipline to drag your battered bones to practice each day and then get pummeled in a game each week. So let's just say that both Ripken and Favre get to share the top step of the Tough Guy podium. Deal?

As for the Incaviglia Gambit, well played, sir. Well played.

KS: Wait! Doesn't one of us get to be Lincoln, and the other have to be Douglas? Isn't that how debates work? Well, the voters decided that one. I'm guessing our readers will elect a winner this time as well. The floor is open...