Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Balls to the wall with Nall

The Who?

Stop the presses. Break in to American Idol. Update the podcast. Brett Favre is said to be considering retirement. Again. Though it seems like we've been down this road thousands of times, let's play along and suppose that Favre really is done. Where do the Packers go from here? In the first round of last year's draft, Green Bay picked Aaron Rodgers to be their presumptive quarterback of the future -- or, at least, their Chris Weinke of the present -- but there's a big question about whether Rodgers is suited for the role. Not the role of an NFL starting quarterback. Some guys can do the job, some can't, and there's no way to know for sure until they're out there being pile-driven into the carpet. No, the role in question is that of THE GUY WHO REPLACED BRETT FAVRE. In all-caps like that, too.

Regardless of when Favre hangs it up, the next guy to start at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers is probably screwed. NFL history is littered with the corpses of QB careers that could have been something but were beaten to death by the expectations that come with following a legend behind center. Brian Griese is still trying to recover from the trauma of post-Elway Denver. One thing that all of Pittsburgh could agree on about Cliff Stoudt in 1983 was that he was no Terry Bradshaw. For every Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana, there's a Steve Bono taking over for Joe Montana. And has anyone heard from Jim Druckenmiller lately?

Assuming Favre retires, it's pretty clear what the Pack should do: Put in Craig Nall. Nall is the latest in a long, distinguished (if not always distinguishable) line of quarterbacks who collected paychecks on the Green Bay bench but didn't get a sniff of real game action. Some of Favre's backups went on to great things (Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck). Others (Ty Detmer, Jim McMahon) were long past their glory days. Still others (T.J. Rubley, J.T. O'Sullivan) left behind nothing but a few football cards and a jaunty pair of initials. And Doug Pederson redefined anonymity. But what they all have in common is that none ever wrested the starting job -- or even one measly start -- from Favre. None was ever designated his successor. And thus none had to endure the soul-crushing pressure of being the future of the franchise while the past was still very much alive. Now, with Favre hypothetically gone, everyone will be watching Rodgers, waiting to see what he can do -- or can't do. The Rodgers-was-a-wasted-pick talk has been simmering ever since Draft Day, and the Cheeseheads are just itching to turn it up to full boil. Which is why it makes so much sense to give the ball to Nall.

Nall has never been The Chosen One, the anointed successor. He's just the loyal backup -- the guy who shows up on Sunday, puts on a baseball cap and an earphone and doesn't expect to get dirty (except on his knee, when he's called in to run out the clock). If the Packers give him the starting job, no one's going to accuse him of complicity in a conspiracy to run Favre out of Wisconsin. He can go out and play to the best of his ability. And it's a no-lose proposition for Green Bay. If Nall turns out to be a decent quarterback after all, then hot diggity. The Packers can pencil him in for the next few years and see what they can get for Rodgers in trade. But if Nall turns out to be terrible, what will the crowds at Lambeau Field be doing? Demanding that the team play Aaron Rodgers. Suddenly he's not THE GUY WHO REPLACED BRETT FAVRE. He's the guy who replaced the ineffective Craig Nall. Lowercase all the way.

Would the Packers do something like that? Well, first they have to wait -- as they do every year -- for Favre to decide where his head is at. They've made clear they aren't going to force the issue, and they've hired Favre's former valet to coach the team in case he does come back. (If they were determined to force him into retirement, they could have hired Jimmy Johnson, who'd be more than happy to make the decision for him. Instead, they went with what appears to have been the Mornhinweggiest guy available on the open market.)

The advantages of the Nall Option are clear. Are there disadvantages? I suppose there's the chance that any confusion over the quarterback situation could keep Green Bay from competing for a playoff spot next year.

Oh. Oh. Man, do I crack myself up sometimes.

SIDEBAR: When the Pro Football Hall of Fame builds its backup quarterbacks wing, Doug Pederson is a lock to make it in on the first ballot. Over the course of three years, 1996-98, Pederson worked his way from the Packers' third string all the way up to the second string before leaving Green Bay with sugar-plum dreams. In two seasons with Philadelphia and Cleveland, he finally got an opportunity to start, and he made the least of it: 236-of-437 for 2,323 yards, nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions (passer rating: 59.9). But unlike the Jonathan Quinns of the world, who toil in obscurity for years, choke on their big chance and then drop out of the league, Pederson didn't let failure get him down. He capitalized on his strengths and returned to Green Bay for another four years of clipboard duty.

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