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Packers should come back to their senses by retiring their fears

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- While it might seem contradictory, in truth, strong leadership often is exerted in subtle ways.

That also happened to be Bob Harlan's style during his 19 years as the Green Bay Packers' principal executive.

He rarely, if ever, overruled the people under him, but he influenced important decisions through his wisdom and guidance, especially in his areas of expertise -- public and community relations. And he did so in such a way that the Packers rarely were embroiled in bitter and enduring controversies during his reign.

Perhaps his lasting legacy will be that he was the best goodwill ambassador this storied, 90-year old franchise ever had.

That's why it's hard to imagine that the ongoing dispute between Brett Favre and the Packers would have dragged on this long or become this contentious if Harlan was still CEO. No matter how one slices it, the Packers likely will start training camp on Monday faced with a PR nightmare like none other in their history.

There was a time in this ongoing soap opera when playing the blame game was senseless.

There were no bad guys when Favre was waffling over his future -- theatrics and all -- and the Packers were deciding to move forward without him as their quarterback. It's still senseless to blame either side for anything that transpired from the time a choked-up Favre announced his retirement in early March until he asked for his release in a letter delivered July 12.

Favre changed his mind about retirement. Big deal. How many coaches and athletes in the pro ranks haven't? Is there anyone who goes through life without wavering or changing course on any number of important decisions?

At the same time, the Packers shouldn't be faulted for deciding to give Favre's job to Aaron Rodgers. Some might find that to be a rather curious decision, considering Favre was coming off a banner season, but it's not an unusual step in the National Football League. Teams are forever looking to replace older players, future Hall of Famers included. As the late George Young, general manager of the New York Giants' first two Super Bowl champions, was fond of saying: "It's a young man's game." The 38-year-old Favre, at least as a Packer, simply became a victim of that tenet.

There are also plenty of historical precedents to defend each side's position.

Favre isn't the first Packers star to retire and then want to unretire.

The late Reggie White announced his retirement before the 1998 season, changed his mind the next day, played another year and announced his retirement again. This time, he sat out a season, returned for one with the Carolina Panthers and finally retired for good on his third try. Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg retired five times -- after the 1965, '68, '69, '70 and '71 seasons -- but didn't follow through until after playing one final season in Dallas. The immortal Don Hutson announced his retirement before each of his last three seasons, only to change his mind each time. Before his last year, 1945, he didn't commit to playing until just 48 hours before the opener. Hutson also considered retiring before the 1939 season, but was coaxed back and reported to camp nine days late.

In fact, Vince Lombardi's retirement as coach of the Packers and Favre's as a player have followed parallel tracks. Lombardi announced his retirement in an emotional press conference soon after Super Bowl II and essentially cited burnout as the reason. And, by all accounts, he regretted his decision by the time training camp arrived five months later. When the 1968 season ended, he asked out of his contract as general manager of the Packers and bolted to Washington to coach again.

On the flip side, Favre also isn't the first Packers great to be pushed out the door. Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, team leader and most valuable player of the Packers' first two championship teams under Lombardi, was dumped in an expansion draft. The legendary Ray Nitschke was benched and essentially shamed into retirement. Hall of Fame tailback and Green Bay native Arnie Herber was waived at the age of 31 during the final week of training camp in 1941, when he was just a season removed from leading the Packers to an NFL title.

But where this latest story line turned ugly was after Favre declared that he wanted to play again and general manager Ted Thompson responded by saying he'd take Favre back, but only as a backup. That's what has given this story life and given the Packers a black eye. It's what has embittered the greatest player in the franchise's history, invited a barrage of criticism from the national media and disaffected many of the team's fans.

After all Favre has done for the franchise -- more than anyone, he rescued it from the misery of the 1970s and '80s that threatened its very existence -- the Packers are unwilling to offer him the same opportunity or courtesy they've extended to other older players whose services were no longer needed.

When White decided he wanted to play again in 2000, the Packers willingly released him from his contract. When 12-year veteran William Henderson had the itch to play again last year after being told he no longer fit in the Packers' plans, Thompson released him, announcing that he was doing so to give Henderson a chance to "pursue other opportunities" with no strings attached.

The hunch here is that there has been only one team for which Favre really wants to play, and that's the Minnesota Vikings. And the reason being is that's the only place where he'd have a legitimate shot at winning another Super Bowl.

The Vikings had the No. 1-ranked run defense in the league last year and have added the best pass rusher in the game in defensive end Jared Allen. In Adrian Peterson, they have the NFL's most explosive runner. And their offensive line is good enough so that Favre shouldn't be constantly running for his life.

All Minnesota needs to become the NFC's preseason favorite is a quarterback.

With any other potential contender -- Tampa Bay, Chicago, Baltimore, the Jets -- Favre would have to carry a full load on offense. And he has suggested in the recent past that such a role would have little appeal to him.


Brett Favre was supposed to be fishing or golfing by now -- oblivious to what day of the week it is -- like so many other retirees. But he got the itch to play football on Sundays. Take a look at how his tearful goodbye to the game he loves turned into a war of words with the Packers' front office ...

No doubt that also has been the Packers' greatest fear -- that Favre will sign with the Vikings. In all likelihood, it was the impetus for their cockamamie response to Favre's request to be released: That he could come back, but only to carry a clipboard.

In other words, they're playing scared.

If Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy truly believe the Packers are a better team with Rodgers at quarterback, they should have the courage of their convictions. If they have as much confidence in Rodgers and their team as they say they do, they shouldn't fear facing Favre in another uniform.

The Packers could have defused this controversy and made this a much less messy divorce if they had given Favre his release soon after he asked for it. Had they exercised the kind of PR savvy that marked the Harlan administration, they would have released Favre and simply announced that they were doing so only to honor his request.

They still could do that and eliminate what could be a major distraction throughout camp.

Or they also could think outside the box and reap a nice return.

Why not trade Favre to the Vikings? After all, that would be the team most likely to part with a high draft pick in return.

Sure, there would be tremendous risk involved. It would substantially improve the Vikings' chances of winning the Super Bowl this coming season. Then again, New England's loss last February served as yet another reminder that championships aren't won on paper. Moreover, many of the Vikings' best players are on the downside of their careers, and such a trade might even hurt them in the long run, especially if they lose another draft pick over the Packers' tampering charge.

Over the past three years, the Packers have said goodbye to two other key players, Darren Sharper and Ryan Longwell, knowing full well that both could sign with the Vikings, as both ultimately did. But rather than fret the consequences, the Packers responded by winning four of the six meetings between the two teams.

If Thompson should have learned anything from his mentor Ron Wolf, it was that when faced with a tough decision, be bold. But he has been anything but as of late.

The Packers have told Favre they don't want him back as a starting quarterback, yet they're acting as if they're terrified that he'll come back to haunt them.

It just doesn't compute.

Cliff Christl is an award-winning sports reporter and columnist who had covered the Green Bay Packers since 1970 before retiring last year.

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