EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Bernard Berrian was lamenting about how close the Minnesota Vikings were to achieving their ultimate goal, how it should have been them and not the New Orleans Saints hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy last February.
As the Vikings' wide receiver addressed the continued frustration from the 31-28 overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, he pointed to an action photo of Brett Favre hanging on a wall on the other side of the room.
|Bill Haber / Associated Press|
|Brett Favre's last pass with the Vikings was a costly fourth-quarter interception in the NFC title game.|
"We know we should have won the Super Bowl, we should be champs right now," Berrian said. "That's where we're leaving off, and I think that's where he's leaving off, too. I think that's lingering around his head, too -- that there are still plays to be made out there. I'm hoping that's what he's thinking."
Still pointing to Favre's picture, Berrian acknowledged something else for which he was hopeful.
"I hope that's not as close as it gets," he said of the picture of Favre in a Vikings' uniform. "I want to see him live."
Berrian had plenty of company with that sentiment as the Vikings wrapped up their final minicamp over the weekend. Favre, who has spent the bulk of the offseason at his home in Mississippi, didn't participate in the mandatory minicamp or in any of the Vikings' organized team activity sessions last month. His teammates, coaches and pretty much everyone else in the organization have between now and the next time the team gathers -- for the start of training camp on July 30 -- to wonder if the 40-year-old Favre is going to come back for his 20th season.
The majority of players, coaches and other team officials expect Favre to return, although even the most optimistic among them realizes that anticipating what he'll do is like trying to predict the weather.
"Nothing would surprise me," coach Brad Childress said. "It would not surprise me if he's in, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's out."
Speculating on what Favre will do and all of the accompanying debate (from making the Vikings twist in the wind to whether he still can perform at a high level) is, as Childress sarcastically put it, "the gift that keeps on giving."
Of course, no one here expects Favre to show up on the first day the Vikings report to training camp in Mankato, Minn. The widely held expectation is that if he arrives, it would be in mid-August, either just before or after the Aug. 14 preseason-opener at St. Louis.
Childress and several players maintain regular contact with Favre through text messaging and occasional phone calls. They talk about family and any number of other topics unrelated to football. They make an effort to avoid the obvious question.
Defensive tackle Pat Williams admits he's tempted to ask. "But I stay away from it," he said. "I just know if he's going to come back, he's going to come back."
Last February, right after the NFL Scouting Combine, Childress visited with Favre in Mississippi.
"He said, 'When are you going to need to know?'" Childress recalled. "I said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, that's not why I'm here. I wanted to see where you live, how you go about your business.' I just tried to talk about the environment, and we kind of went back through a history lesson of where we've been and what we just went through. I knew he wasn't going to jump over any line, and I didn't expect him to. I don't have any illusions about that.
"It's not about pressure or putting his head in a vise. What he has to do is come to grips with, when he steps over that (white) line, it's not just about getting paid what he's going to get paid or showing up and saying, 'I'm ready.' It is that he knows what it is, mentally and physically, to grind through an NFL season."
Managing Favre's uncertain future presents a significant challenge to Childress. He went through the same thing a year ago after Favre, having spent the 2008 season with the New York Jets, came out of retirement last August to join the Vikings.
When your career is as accomplished as Favre's and you are your team's best option at quarterback, you can treat "mandatory" as "voluntary" and your absence is forgiven. Childress might have called out running back Adrian Peterson for skipping minicamp to attend the fourth annual "Adrian Peterson Day" in his hometown of Palestine, Texas, but he sees him as a running back who needs all of the practice he can get to fix a serious fumbling problem. He sees Favre as someone who can remain in a figurative glass case until it is absolutely necessary for him to come out.
"Would I like everybody here? I absolutely would," Childress said. "I'm a football coach. I'm a mother hen. I want all of them in the nest all the time, and they know that. But I don't have any illusions about him being here at the beginning of camp."
Neither do Favre's teammates.
They saw how exceptionally well Favre performed last season, throwing for 4,202 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions, despite his late arrival in the preseason. They know that he has a thorough understanding of the scheme employed by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who was Favre's quarterbacks coach in Green Bay. They witnessed him, between working out and studying videotape, spend more time at the team's training facility than the coaches.
They also realize that, at Favre's age and with him recovering from offseason ankle surgery, it makes perfect sense to minimize his exposure to practices -- even non-contact drills and even if quarterbacks are off limits to defenders when pads are popping in training camp -- and preseason games.
Childress wanted to be sure that there was no animosity toward him or Favre over the quarterback's special treatment, so he recently asked Williams if veteran players on the team were concerned about Favre's absence from offseason workouts, or whether or when he'll show up at training camp. Williams told Childress they weren't.
"Everybody knows what Brett can do, so we're not worried," Williams said. "We're not mad, we're not worried as long as he comes shortly after we break camp (at the latest). We've got our heads on straight here. Everybody's working hard. Our locker room's like a family. We don't complain, we don't point fingers at each other. Everybody's together."
Said Berrian: "There's never going to be a doubt in my mind. He's been here, he knows what he needs to do to get ready, he knows how to prepare his body. He is an older guy, so, yeah, he's going to need a little bit more time off. But I know that he's going to come in prepared and be ready to go."
"As well as he played on the field last year, statistically speaking, I think he did more from a leadership role to show how a team can play so well together -- having fun, trusting each other," guard Steve Hutchinson said. "For example, he showed the young receivers that when you step up, maybe exceed expectations, good things can happen. And I think our receiving corps was one of the best in the league last year."
Added cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Of course you want everyone at training camp. But the things that he did last year, just the leadership he brought to the team, the fun, the enthusiasm... You know he's going to prepare, so although he's not working with us, we're sure, if he does decide to come back and play, he's working hard down there in Mississippi."
Placekicker Ryan Longwell is closer to Favre than anyone on the Vikings. They've been friends for 13 years and teammates for 10, the first nine with Green Bay.
Longwell and Favre communicate often. Although he insists he steers clear of the topic of the quarterback's return in their conversations, he did cause a few eyebrows to raise when he placed the chances of Favre being with the team this season at "50-50."
"I think you can see both sides of the argument," Longwell said. "He played so well and at a level so high last year, and he and (wife) Deanna both seemed at such peace in December and January about how the whole thing had gone down, how he had played, how the season had gone, how he'd molded with the team and the community, especially the locker room. No matter what happened from that point on, they were good with it. How can you top that? Which is the argument to not come back.
"Then the other side is he did mold so well with the locker room and did play so well and is in such a good system and a good fit, you can see that he still has it and still has it left. You don't want to walk away before your skills erode, and he's certainly got skills that no one else has."
Linebacker Ben Leber, for one, is 100-percent certain that Favre will return. Having a locker next to Favre's during the 2009 season gave Leber an up-close perspective of the quarterback's "intensity and love for the game, even after all these years."
He can't imagine Favre calling it quits now.
"The way we ended last season, being so close, I think that's still on his mind and he understands the capabilities of this team and what we have," Leber said. "I just think his competitive spirit is going to bring him back."