NFL Nation: Cal Ripken

Drew Brees' streak defines him

October, 7, 2012
10/07/12
9:20
PM ET
Since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006, Drew Brees has been piling up huge numbers.

He’s set records and won a lot of games -- and a Super Bowl. But I don’t think those records or even the Super Bowl are what define Brees.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Chuck Cook/US PresswireDrew Brees celebrates his record-breaking touchdown pass in the first quarter Sunday night.
I think the record he set Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers will be what defines Brees down the road. Brees threw a touchdown pass to Devery Henderson with 2:58 remaining in the first quarter.

That score gave Brees a touchdown pass in 48 consecutive games, dating back to 2009. He entered the game tied with Johnny Unitas, who established the previous record (47) from 1956 to 1960.

Breaking any record set by Unitas is monumental, but this one is particularly big.

If you’re throwing a touchdown pass in 48 straight games, you’re consistently excellent. That’s why I’m more impressed with this streak than anything else Brees has done. He broke a record that lasted for 52 years.

What he’s showing is sustained greatness. When he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day, people will look at Brees’ streak, which could end up going on much longer, as his trademark.

I compare Brees’ streak a little to Cal Ripken’s string of consecutive games played. Fans may not know his career batting average, but even the most casual fan knows that Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record.

Break a record held by a Unitas or a Gehrig and that’s going to be one of the things people will remember most about you.

The record also brought some joy to what, up until this point, has been a joyless season for the Saints. It came with suspended coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis in attendance. Although they're not supposed to have contact with the Saints during their suspensions, the NFL gave the trio permission to attend after Brees requested.

For at least a brief moment, all was well with the Saints again.

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, ESPN.com 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.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Morry GashBrett 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.

[+] EnlargeCal Ripken Jr.
AP Photo/Ted MathiasCal 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...
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Here's an interesting question now that Brett Favre has overtly connected his recent inaccuracy to the onset of elbow tendinitis: Who would make the decision to pull him from the lineup if it continues to impact his performance?

With most players, the issue wouldn't be relevant. NFL coaches routinely make lineup and personnel changes, usually with an iron fist and with little or no input from players. But Favre's streak of 289 consecutive games played, as well as the subjective nature of this injury, puts the Vikings in a potentially awkward situation.

Let's backtrack a bit. Favre said Monday night that he wouldn't use tendinitis as an excuse after completing only 14 of 34 passes in a 29-20 loss to the New York Jets. By Wednesday, however, he was willing to state the obvious: "You're not going to make every throw," he said, "but I would have made some of those throws [if the elbow was healthy]." He said he began feeling pain in the arm during the fourth quarter of the game.

Rest is the only cure for the condition, and Favre did not practice Wednesday. Asked if he would consider taking a game off, Favre said: "Sure." But let's be real for a moment. Would a player who hasn't missed a game since 1992 actually volunteer to step aside? More importantly: Should it his call? Or will it be left to coach Brad Childress, who came under heavy scrutiny late last season for considering an in-game change, to make that decision?

Many moons ago, I covered the Baltimore Orioles at the end of Cal Ripken's streak of consecutive games played. None of his managers, even the notoriously strong-willed Davey Johnson, was willing to halt history. Ultimately, the streak ended on the final day of the 1998 season, when Ripken told then-manager Ray Miller that he was ready.

Wednesday, I asked Favre how he thought the question should be managed. Should he instigate a change?

"That would probably see maybe a little more logical," he said, "that [after] 20 years and having played through a lot of things. ... Unless you can't even throw a spiral, and they say, 'Alright Brett, I know you want to play, [but] I want to do right for the team.'

"I don't know for sure in answering that question, but I would think Brad and [offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell] would trust in me if I felt like [I could still play]. ... [If it's] one or two throws a game, you can say OK. But if I felt like there is more than that on a consistent basis where, 'Boy, he [usually] makes that throw,' I should be able to address that with them. And I believe I would."

At this point, it's a non-issue. In fact, Childress has consistently refused to blame the condition for any poor throws. He noted that Favre grabbed his elbow several times during Monday night's game, but called it a "tick" rather than a sign of discomfort.

"I didn't see a funny motion," Childress said. "I didn't see any kind of clutching motion or anything like that. I know he may have repositioned his brace on his elbow and went to it a couple times. We used to think that Donovan [McNabb] had something wrong [when he played for the Philadelphia Eagles]. He used to bend over like his stomach hurt, like he was being poked. It was just kind of a tick, if you will, that different people have."

Childress said that he is "always taking in information and taking in what's best for the greater good." Will the greater good ever be reached by giving Favre time off to rest his elbow? The better question is this: Will Favre ever let that happen?
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky and Mike Sando

Is more better?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is confident the answer is yes. At the recent owners' meeting, he talked about expanding the regular season from 16 to 17 or 18 game, while cutting back the preseason, which he acknowledged doesn't meet the league's standards for its product with its fans.

Owners could vote on the issue this year, but such a change would then have to be bargained for as part of a new agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

 
  Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
  Commissioner Roger Goodell is in favor of expanding the NFL's regular season.

Would it be the right move? AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky backs the bigger regular season, while NFC West blogger Mike Sando is against it.

They do their best to hash it out in this week's edition of Double Coverage.

Kuharsky: The NFL will never trim the preseason without converting some of it to real games, and the preseason is unquestionably the biggest rip off for ticket buyers in sports. Goodell clearly realizes that fans are fed up with meaningless exhibition games decided by fourth stringers that cost full price and are a mandatory purchase for season-ticket holders. Yes, a lot of things will have to be adjusted to accommodate an 18-game NFL regular season -- pay, the size of rosters, TV deals, etc. But more professional football that counts is a good thing, and taking the schedule further into February, the worst month on the sports calendar, is fine with me. I think it needs to be 18 -- not 17 -- games in order to keep balanced home and road schedules. If it's 17 and you talk about neutral sites, we're talking about leaving all these palaces built for football unused for actual games.

Sando: We can all agree there's a problem. Look, I know what it's like to fork over full price for preseason tickets, all while watching a horrible product on the field. That was my fate as a Raiders season-ticket holder years ago. I could barely afford my upper-level seats for the regular-season games and it was maddening to pay for games that didn't count. But I also think the NFL needs to think hard before further diluting its product. We already have too many teams. The league clearly doesn't have enough quarterbacks to make it through the current 256-game schedule. Adding two games per team would add 64 starts for quarterbacks.

Kuharsky: Funny, I never pictured you wearing a silver-and-black dog collar, Mike. As for 64 more quarterback starts, I'm fine with that too. The team that picks Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf and the team smart enough to have Byron Leftwich as its backup instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick should reap the benefits of choosing correctly as often as it can. A team like the Bears that constantly fails to address the position effectively should suffer the consequences. If it's a side effect to a longer season that the teams that scout and groom quarterbacks the best have an advantage in a longer season, so be it. It's the most important position in the game. If the resources you have for finding and developing a player or players are insufficient or ineffective, here are a few more games where the people who are good at it get a chance to show you why you should be better at it.

Sando: Quarterback injuries are the real problem here. We can talk about the league putting skirts on quarterbacks and legislating contact out of the game, but quarterbacks will keep getting hurt. It's the nature of the position. Fifty-three quarterbacks started games in 2008. The number was 64 in 2007 and 50 in 2006. The Browns had four starters last season. The Chiefs, Lions and Seahawks each had three.

 
  AP Photo/Michael Conroy
  An expanded regular season schedule would force teams to groom a backup QB, like the Colts' Jim Sorgi, in case injuries occur.

The more games the NFL adds, the harder time quarterbacks will have staying healthy. Don't know about you, Paul, but I'd rather watch the third-stringer play in August than January. Think about it. If you're a Colts fan, would you rather endure a couple of meaningless games in August or would you rather endure Jim Sorgi starting a playoff game after Manning's body finally gives out in Week 19?

I don't think people understand what a 16-game schedule does to these players' bodies. The NFLPA understands, and that's why I think the 18-game schedule could be a tough sell.

Now that we've settled that issue, what about the record books? The jump from 14 to 16 games three decades ago already diminished the 1,000-yard season. If the league goes to 18 games, players would have to average only 55.6 yards per game to reach 1,000 yards. I realize the AFC South had only two 1,000-yard receivers last season -- the Cardinals had three, by the way -- but that seems ridiculous.

Kuharsky: A tough sell until players negotiate themselves two or three more in-season paychecks. And you want more quarterback development? There it is -- teams better get or groom themselves a quality backup because he will play. Wear and tear is definitely the biggest issue, and to make this schedule boost happen the league will have to give in on pay as well as on issues of jobs, service time connected to pensions and benefits. I would be in favor of a second bye week as well, which would help with recovery times and work just fine if the regular season started earlier because of a shortened preseason and ended later with a Valentine's Day Super Bowl.

I completely disagree with the record-book argument as a factor. A 1,000-yard rushing season hasn't meant much for a running back since the league went from 14- to 16-game regular seasons in 1978. A recalibration there is long overdue already. Fans and media can handle it if the benchmarks don't come in nice round numbers. That's hardly a reason not to play more.

This isn't baseball, where we know the numbers automatically, where 56 and 2,632 evoke images of Joe DiMaggio and Cal Ripken. What's the all-time rushing mark? I admit I've got to run to pro-football-reference.com to get Emmitt Smith's 18,355 yards. In 2008, Drew Brees was in range of Dan Marino's season record for pass
ing yardage (5,084), but it's not like a high percentage of fans or media know Marino's mark by heart. When Brees or someone else breaks it with two extra games, we'll understand the framework of it.

 
  Luc Leclerc/US Presswire
  Brady Quinn (10) was one of four Browns quarterbacks to start a game in 2008.

There is nothing that can happen in an 18-game season that I can't count on you to put in context, and a spreadsheet, to help me comprehend. You and I and all our colleagues can evaluate production in an 18-game season in the context of league history and the old 16-game paradigm.

Sando: Any discussion of extending the season should indeed pull baseball and basketball into the fold. Both sports play more games than most busy people are willing to follow. The NFL enjoys a tremendous advantage by playing fewer games than those other sports.

If not for the physical demands of football, short-sighted owners would trade the long-term good of the game for profits associated with seasons running 82 or 162 games. Jumping to 18 games isn't going to kill the NFL, but it's certainly going to dilute the regular season while putting more players at risk for injuries. Is that progress?

Kuharsky: It is to me if the primary argument against it is that it dilutes the regular season.

Eighteen games is still a reasonably small season, every game is still going to have a big bearing on the final standings and, again, we're talking about trimming half the pitiful preseason sham. I don't feel like it will put the NFL in the neighborhood of baseball, basketball or hockey in terms of over-saturating the sports landscape. A lot of taxpayer money went into building these stadiums. Let's put them to meaningful use more often.

ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd always talks about the NFL's willingness to evolve. I think an expanded regular season qualifies as just that.

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