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The difference between winning and not losing

8/18/2009

 Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The scene was surreal. Six years ago, I watched a Minnesota defensive lineman wrap a Green Bay jersey (No. 4, of course) around a blocking dummy and start pummeling it during practice. Brett Favre on Tuesday walked on that same practice field and -- according to the video I watched at Detroit's Wayne County Airport -- squeezed a Vikings helmet over his gray hair.

A few hours later, Favre stood behind the same podium I've seen countless Vikings coaches and players use to discuss their plans for and failures against him. Favre spoke for some 20 minutes about his decision to come out of retirement, the condition of his right shoulder and his personal security with his legacy.

On the NFC Favre -- I mean, the NFC North -- blog, we've hashed through those issues pretty thoroughly. So for me, the most interesting part of the scene came when someone asked Favre about the limited role the Vikings seem to have in mind for him. Here's how the NFL's all-time leading passer responded:

"You know what? I think as a quarterback you kind of go as the team goes and do what you're asked to do. [But] you never know. I've heard this whole offseason: You won't have to do as much, we have a great running game. We all know that. But there is always going to be a time when you've got to make plays and have to do things that maybe you need done on a consistent basis."

In a nutshell, that is what the Vikings are hoping Favre can bring them. That's what will make this dramatic acquisition worthwhile.

If we didn't know before, the last two years in Minnesota have proved how critical the quarterback position is in this league. Over that period, the Vikings tried to win with a strong defense, a powerful running game and a quarterback they hoped wouldn't lose games for them. Quite frankly, that approach doesn't work.

You might be able to win a division title in a down year, as the Vikings did last season. But you won't win a playoff game -- and you won't be in the conversation to win the Super Bowl -- with such low expectations for the most important position in sports. At some point in every season, and weekly in the playoffs, there comes a time when the quarterback must take control and win a game.

For the first time in at least five years, the Vikings have a quarterback with that capacity. Imagine, for example, how Favre might have helped the Vikings during their divisional playoff loss to Philadelphia in January.

In that game, the Vikings trailed by nine points with 6 minutes, 37 seconds remaining. It was a deep deficit, but it was hardly insurmountable for an offense that includes tailback Adrian Peterson and receiver Bernard Berrian. In that stretch, however, Jackson threw six consecutive incompletions. In other words, when it came time for the quarterback to make positive plays in a pressure situation, the Vikings came up empty.

That's where I see Favre helping the Vikings more than anywhere else. He will throw interceptions and his final numbers might turn out to be those of a caretaker. If all goes well, I bet the Vikings would love for him to average less than 25 passes per game. But he won't be a simple placeholder, or at least he shouldn't be.

Favre's job is to transcend the Vikings' long-term mediocrity at the position, to play an active role in winning games rather than simply hold them back from losing. It's an important distinction, and for the Vikings it could be the difference between a division title and a Super Bowl appearance.

That's probably going to wrap it up for this evening's coverage. I'll be back Wednesday with a number of different angles, including how I now see the NFC North race. And I promise to get you my thoughts from my brief but fruitful time with Detroit earlier Tuesday.