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However Favre is remembered, reckless abandon paved way

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It's over. Brett Favre is done (we think). Finally... thankfully... regrettably?

How we feel about his retirement, and his legacy, depends on the prism in which one views his career. Is he the NFL's greatest quarterback? Will he be remembered as the holder of all the significant passing records? A guy who didn't know when to quit? A prima donna who loved the attention that surrounded his indecision regarding when to walk away? Is he the ultimate "gunslinger"?

How much do fans factor in the Jenn Sterger controversy, or other less-than-desirable career epitaphs, like the talk of him sharing Packers secrets with the Lions while he was a quarterback with the Jets? Maybe the incredible starts streak will be foremost in the collective sports consciousness.

For me, it's the reckless abandon in which he both played and ended his career with.

There's so much to sift through on a 20-year résumé that spanned four teams (don't forget the Falcons), three or so retirements, and many accomplishments -- good and bad, and much of it emblematic of his helter-skelter style. Here's a guy that's thrown for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in history. But his carelessness at times led to a staggering NFL-record 336 interceptions -- more than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning combined. To that end, no Packers fan will ever forget the interception that handed the Giants the 2007 NFC championship, or even the one he lobbed up for grabs in the 2003 divisional round in Philadelphia.

That same risk-taking also led to some great comebacks. How about the heave Favre made to Greg Jennings to beat Denver on Monday Night Football three years ago -- 50-plus yards in the air from a 38-year old arm? His touchdown pass to Andre Rison in Super Bowl XXXI was equally sick, partially because it came off an audible... and ultimately led to a Packers victory. It's worth noting that, love him or hate him, Favre will always be a winner, and he has a Lombardi Trophy to prove it.

So how will you remember Favre?

My first notion of his reckless abandon came in November 1994, well before tossing 15-yard outs to high school kids, pre relevancy of the streak.

Favre's first 11 games in 1994 vs. his last five
Games Comp Pct. TD/INT 250+ yd games Rating
First 11 60.6 18-9 4 84.1
*Last five 66.0 15-5 5 104.0
*Includes Thanksgiving game

Favre took a 6-5 Packers team into Dallas on Thanksgiving, a game Green Bay needed to win in order stay in a very tight NFC Central race. Favre always tended to start games too hyped up, and this one was no different, as he began the game 1 of 3 and scrambling out of the pocket on the Pack's first four pass plays. On third-and-8, Favre completed a pass and got viciously high-lowed by Tony Tolbert and Charles Haley. So bad, that it appeared Favre was looking for a tooth, a retainer, or something that belonged to his body on the Texas Stadium carpet, where one probably shouldn't employ the 5-second rule with so much as an errant Cheeto.

It was the first time I can remember Favre playing so loose after taking a big hit. He probably should have gotten the ball off earlier, but he didn't, instead trying to make a play. When a lot of quarterbacks would lay on the ground after a hit like the forearm delivered by Tolbert, or at least get the ball off faster, Favre continued to take risks, holding the ball and playing lights out.

Favre would throw four touchdowns (three to Sterling Sharpe) and compile a 118.4 passer rating in a contest made more famous by Cowboys third-string quarterback Jason Garrett bombing the Packers into submission. But burned in my mind was Favre's toughness, unwillingness to change his style of play, and his synergy with the linebackers and fullbacks of the world who feel one needs to get popped hard before really getting into the rhythm of a game.

Immediately after that Thanksgiving in Dallas, Favre went on a tear. He played recklessly -- recklessly well -- almost like a young Roger Staubach, with the efficiency of Joe Montana. There wasn't a lot of shying away from contact in his game, much like Staubach and Steve Young. Yet he could complete the short and vertical throws like Montana and Dan Fouts. He wouldn't cool off.

The next season he tossed 38 touchdowns and took the MVP award. In '96 he won the Super Bowl and nabbed another MVP. He fell off a bit in 1997: He had to share an MVP (with Barry Sanders) rather than winning it outright.

Favre's Hall of Fame bust was cemented in those seasons, as was the coaching legacies and futures of Mike Holmgren, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid, and, ultimately, Jon Gruden. To me, it started with that loss in Dallas 16 years ago. It also started with courage, and to some degree, being reckless -- perhaps the same trait that's led to off-field issues and a nasty concussion this season.

So what is your memory? If a player is remembered for his last season, then Favre's legacy is in more trouble than Sal Alosi. That said, many a Hall of Fame player probably should've hung 'em up a season earlier -- Johnny Unitas, Jerry Rice and Reggie White, to name a few. Maybe legacy is for the birds, because I'm not sure those guys gave a crap about theirs -- at least not as much as they enjoyed playing.

One wonders if Favre cares about the L-word. After all, it belongs to him, not us. If it did concern him, maybe he wouldn't have taken all those hits that potentially could've shortened a great career, or toyed with Warren Sapp, or slapped every teammate's butt from Robert Brooks to Greg Lewis. In that weird way, his legacy is no different from that of Unitas, Rice and White. They all just loved football, period.

Maybe that's what Favre should most be known for, warts and all.

Toxic differential update

The final tally is in for the regular season, and results for the one stat NFL Network analysts Brian Billick and Jim Mora most believe in are startling. One team blew the field away.

Highest toxic differential this season
Team Turnover diff. Big-play diff. Toxic diff.
1. Steelers +17 +42 +59
T2. Chargers -6 +36 +30
T2. Patriots +28 +2 +30
3. Eagles +9 +17 +26
4. Bucs +9 +14 +23
5. Giants -3 +24 +21
6. Packers +10 +6 +16
7. Texans 0 +13 +13
T8. Chiefs +9 +1 +10
T8. Falcons -4 +14 +10
9. Jets +9 -1 +8

How did Pittsburgh do it? How could this team finish plus-59? He might not be the only reason, but Troy Polamalu sure is a big one. With Polamalu being out much of last season, as well as playing hurt, the Steelers allowed 52 big plays (20-plus yards) in 2009. He also contributed eight turnovers by himself this season.

Meanwhile, the offense created big plays without giving the ball away. Some of that is a credit to backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, who didn't throw tons of picks in Ben Roethlisberger's absence early in the season.

As Billick says, there are always "outliers," teams that don't do well in toxic differential that still make the playoffs. But other than the Chargers and Texans, all of the clubs at the top had solid seasons.

News and notes

» Two under-the-radar reasons for Jeff Fisher's shaky status: The Titans finished with an average time of possession of 26:01, especially bad for a team that prides itself on its ability to run the football. Secondly, Fisher's group was penalized 128 times, fourth most in the League.

» It will be interesting to see who starts Saturday in Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck or Charlie Whitehurst. I'd like to see the Passion of the 'Hurst get a shot.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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