“Basically he said, ‘Hey, come here and hand it off to Adrian [Peterson],” Favre recounted Sunday. “He said, ‘You’ll throw it 15-20 times per game, maybe.’ I thought, ‘That sounds pretty good.’ But I didn’t really believe it.”
So it was with some sarcasm that Hutchinson sidled up to Favre late Sunday afternoon and said, according to Favre: “I told you that you wouldn’t have to do too much.” Hutchinson’s timing was perfect, as Sunday marked the full evolution in Favre’s arrival in Minnesota. In a span of 11 games, Favre has gone from caretaker to carrying the team.
“I’m no fool,” Favre said. “I figured we would have to throw it some. I didn’t come here just to hand off.”
For the first time this season, the Vikings came out throwing and never stopped in a 36-10 victory over Chicago. Facing a Bears defense that stubbornly stacked itself to stop Peterson, Favre threw on 46 of the Vikings’ first 65 plays. He finished with 392 yards, 10 short of his career high.
The Bears quieted Peterson, who gained 85 yards on 25 carries, but the Vikings still gashed them for 537 total yards.
It was the first time in 15 years that Chicago’s once-feared defense had given up 500 yards. I attribute that to inflexible play calling and an injury-depleted lineup. The Vikings’ explosion? It was a true watershed moment.
“We come in with the idea that we want to run the ball,” coach Brad Childress said. “But we’re still not going to put the round peg into a square hole. … You can’t be belligerent. You can’t smash your head against the wall. It’s just how they deployed. It’s just how they elected to take something away, and we have the ability to [capitalize] now in the pass game.”
Said Favre: “I think that’s what this team has talked about doing since Adrian emerged: Being able to counter what he’s able to do.”
Favre had thrown 40-plus passes on two other occasions this season, but in both cases -- against San Francisco and Pittsburgh -- the Vikings were in catch-up mode. Sunday, players and coaches insisted they veered away from an otherwise balanced game plan when the Bears employed most known tactics to stop the run.
“They just had everybody in there in the box,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “They were slamming everything against the formation, slanting their front, putting the safety on the backside coming. They were just doing everything they could to stop the run game. … [But] that’s where we’ve gotten to at this point, where you can flip it over and say, ‘Hey, just start throwing it.’”
I don’t think I can exaggerate how foreign that concept would have been during Childress’ first three years with the Vikings. As they navigated quarterback deficiencies, Childress’ West Coast offense looked more like the run-based attack he once used at the University of Wisconsin (1991-98).
In one particularly dark moment of the 2006 season, television cameras caught several Vikings fans holding mock playcards of Childress’ offense. The title of one play was “Chester Taylor right.” The other was “Chester Taylor right.”
Sunday, however, Childress turned to Bevell and said: “Look, the best way to move the ball right here is for us to throw it and us throw it again.”
I suppose the Vikings might have re-centered if the Bears had adjusted. But Chicago continued running the same scheme -- “For the most part, they played their defense,” Favre said -- and so the Vikings kept throwing.
Favre spread it all over the field, completing at least five passes to five different receivers. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, that’s been done only twice in the NFL this season. (The other was Seattle against Detroit on Nov. 8.) With the Bears playing their standard cover-2, Vikings receivers simply found the open holes in the zone.
Favre, in fact, completed nine passes between 16 and 33 yards. Those plays added up to the Vikings’ biggest passing day since Daunte Culpepper threw for 404 yards at New Orleans on Dec. 19, 2004.
“We basically took what they gave us,’ said tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who caught his team-leading eighth touchdown of the season. “We saw some holes on their defense, some things we thought we could exploit. This offense is the most explosive I’ve ever seen in my life. The players are playing at a high level. Favre is making terrific throws, great reads. It seems like everyone is getting open, eating up a piece of this pie. We’re just taking advantage of all the mismatches they give us.”
This was the paradigm of the “pick-your-poison” offense the Vikings had hoped to achieve by signing Favre. Many of us, Hutchinson included, assumed opponents would back off their run defense out of respect for Favre’s skills. When and if that happened, we figured Childress and Bevell would revert to their power running approach. Hence, 15-20 throws per game.
But incredibly, the Bears took no special precautions Sunday to defend the NFL’s top-rated quarterback, one who now has a 24-3 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. I can’t say I thought that, at age 40, Favre could respond to that challenge with a 392-yard day. But for one game, at least, the Bears picked the wrong poison.
“I don’t want to say I didn’t think we could do it,” Favre said. “I don’t know if I thought we would have to.”