McGinn Files: The Rise of Brett Favre, Part I
Before he was a 3-time MVP and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Brett Favre was just a kid from Southern Miss who could throw a football over them mountains. (He might've been a tick hungover, too.)
The McGinn Files is a series looking back at selected players from NFL drafts since 1985. The foundation of the series is Bob McGinn’s transcripts of his annual pre-draft interviews with general managers, personnel directors and scouts over the past 37 years.
Thirty years ago, the scouting of college football players wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is today. That was never more apparent than at Southern Mississippi, which in the spring of 1991 had a rifle-armed, raw-boned quarterback of intrigue awaiting the NFL draft.
Brett Favre played without distinction in the Senior Bowl and then somewhat better the following week in the East-West Shrine Game. But, in Palo Alto, where he was forced to go the distance for the East team, he suffered a hip injury when an offensive tackle and a defensive end fell on him simultaneously. Favre jammed the socket in his right hip, and 10 days later at the NFL Scouting Combine, was excluded from running and jumping although he did participate in the throwing drills.
“I was staying with a couple guys in an apartment back in Hattiesburg working out and finishing my classes,” remembered Favre in an hour-plus chat with Go Long. “That was a different day and time then. You didn’t have cell phones. There was no social media. There was no email.”
Thamas Coleman, a veteran coach at Southern Miss, acted as the school’s liaison with the NFL people. “When I got a call, it was usually from Thamas saying such-and-such is here to work you out and if you’d come on over in the next hour,” said Favre. “Or somebody wants to interview you. I can’t tell you how many times guys, quarterback coaches or scouts, would come in.”
The one-stop-shop pro day was at least a decade away from taking place at Southern Miss.
One afternoon, a representative of the Pittsburgh Steelers was in town. Favre thinks it might have been Bob Schmitz, one of their area scouts, but he isn’t sure. Coleman said the visitor wanted to see him throw as well as run a couple 40-yard dashes.
“I said, ‘OK,’” recalled Favre. “Well, I had been out all night drinking and I was not feeling very well, but I was, like, ‘Hey, whatever, you know?’
“So I go out and meet with him. We sit on the field, talk a little bit. We hit it off right away. I bet he was saying, ‘This is my kind of guy.’”
The scene was 33,000-seat M.M. Roberts Stadium, which had a grass playing surface. They decided the 40’s would be first. Favre had done little running because of the sore hip, but he dutifully got down into a three-point stance and ran as fast as he could.
“Five flat,” Favre remembered the Steelers’ official calling out. “I said, ‘Dang, no way. Hell, I ran a 5-flat.’
“I said, ‘Hold on a second.’ I went over by the bleachers and I threw up. I came back over there and he said, ‘Either you haven’t been running very much or you stayed out late.’ I probably reeked of alcohol. I said, ‘How ‘bout both?’
“He said, ‘Hey, I feel you. I’ve been there before.’ He said, ‘Let’s get one more.’ I did like 4.95.
“Now my fastest 40 time officially was 4.7. In high school, they wanted an official time for me when recruiters would come in. I never got timed by a college coach or recruiter. In high school, I think we did. My dad probably was the one that timed us. But at least we had it on paper.”
On another day in Hattiesburg, Coleman had arranged a joint appointment for Ron Nay, an area scout for the New York Jets, and Ted Tollner, the quarterbacks coach for the San Diego Chargers. They were waiting on an auxiliary field not far from M.M. Roberts.
“I remember that workout like yesterday,” the 81-year-old Nay said last month. “We’re standing out there and he comes wandering across the field. He’s got on those deck shoes, like you wear on a boat, Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. Got his watch on.
“Ted says, ‘You want to get your cleats? You want to warm up and run?’ Normally, a quarterback as good as him would have wanted to warm up and have two or three receivers. He goes, ‘I’m ready. All I’m going to do is throw passes.’”
Attempting to set the record straight, Favre said his choice of footwear for throwing workouts that spring was “flip-flops, most likely.”
Nay continued: “He had a kid with him, like some kid from the dorm he asked if he wanted to catch a couple passes. He was a scrawny little kid. Then he throws to the guy. Never misses, of course, and looks good.
“When he got done throwing he said, ‘Do you want me to run a 40?’ I said, ‘If you want to you can.’ But who cared? A guy who could throw like he could throw and as tough as he was, that wouldn’t have meant a thing to me.”
Favre concedes that his workout routine and attire at the time were “a little unorthodox.” Then again, everything about him was and would be unconventional until his 20-year NFL career would conclude with his enshrinement alongside other immortals in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nay rated Favre as the No. 1 player that he scouted that year.
Tollner, according to Nay, wasn’t sold on him.
It was that type of mixed opinion that caused Favre to drop out of the 27-man first round and all the way to the sixth pick of the second round. That’s where the Atlanta Falcons stepped in and made him the No. 33 overall selection.
Making Favre’s swoon all the more mystifying, at least in hindsight, is the fact that the 1991 draft, the second with juniors declaring en masse, was one of the weakest in NFL history.
In 1990, eight juniors, including linebacker Junior Seau and running back Emmitt Smith, were taken in the first round. In 1991, just three juniors were first-round choices. Defensive tackle Russell Maryland was the unexciting No. 1 selection. The best player in the top 10 probably was wide receiver Herman Moore, the 10th pick. Only four of the 334 draftees made more than four Pro Bowls: Favre and running back Ricky Watters in the second round, cornerback Aeneas Williams in the third round and tight end Ben Coates in the fifth round. Favre and Williams are the only players from the 1991 draft with a bust in Canton.
The consensus of the 15 executives in personnel that I interviewed before the draft was that none of the quarterbacks were rated franchise prospects. At the time, that generally meant Vinny Testaverde (No. 1, 1987), Troy Aikman (No. 1, 1989) and Jeff George (No. 1, 1990).
Tony Razzano, the director of college scouting for the San Francisco 49ers, liked Miami’s Craig Erickson, San Diego State’s Dan McGwire, Southern Cal’s Todd Marinovich and Louisville’s Browning Nagle. As for Favre, Razzano said he liked him “a little less than the others. He’ll play.”
Some of the interviewees declared Favre as the top quarterback prospect. That group included Joe Woolley, director of player personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles; Reed Johnson, the Denver Broncos’ director of player personnel; Jon Kingdon, a personnel executive for the Los Angeles Raiders, and Dick Corrick, director of college scouting for the Houston Oilers.
Among others who expressed their preference at the position, Tom Boisture, the New York Giants’ director of player personnel, and Michael Lombardi, the pro personnel director for the Cleveland Browns, rated McGwire No. 1. Charley Casserly, the Washington Redskins’ general manager, had Marinovich No. 1.
Tom Heckert, the Miami Dolphins’ director of college scouting, said it was too close to call between Favre and McGwire.
Other than Favre, it was an atrocious draft for quarterbacks. McGwire, who went No. 16 to Seattle, made five starts in five years. Marinovich, the No. 24 selection by the Raiders, started eight games in a two-year career. Nagle, who went one pick after Favre to the Jets at No. 34, had 14 starts in five seasons. Erickson, a fifth-round pick by Philadelphia, had the second-most starts (36) behind Favre. Northeast Louisiana’s Doug Pederson, who wasn’t drafted, was third in starts with 17.
“It’s sort of like when I came out of high school when only one team offered me,” said Favre. “That was at the final hour, and that was Southern Miss. I started four years (in college) but had modest statistics. I think I threw for 52 touchdowns in my career. Guys do that in a season now.
“Then I think there was a lot of uncertainty. Mike Holmgren came and worked me out. When we parted ways and headed back to San Francisco he had to be thinking, ‘This kid is very raw. He has arm strength like no other, but can someone rein him in? Can he conform to specifics that a team wants?’ That was a big question.”
Corrick, whose NFL scouting career had begun with the Packers in 1971, saw Favre at the East-West. In his report for the Oilers, he wrote: “Fine pure arm strength. Has velocity. Lacked consistency. Sprayed the ball all over the place. Appeared to be overthrowing. May have been trying to impress too much. Big windup on deep ball. May throw a heavy ball. Has lots of tight revolutions. Appeared to need lots of polish.”
Favre was voted most valuable player after completing 15 of 26 passes for 218 yards and one touchdown. He had to play the entire game despite the hip injury because Nagle, the only other quarterback for the East, bowed out after going out on a bender with Favre the night before and declaring himself excessively hung over.
When Corrick’s report was read to Favre, he said, “It’s funny he said that. I was trying to impress. Same as at the combine. I was just trying to overpower receivers. I had touch, but I knew throwing touch passes at the combine was not going to raise eyebrows. I wanted people to say, ‘Damn, have you seen this kid throw?’”
In a subsequent interview a week before the draft, Corrick summed up Favre as the best at the position.
“He throws them in the ground,” said Corrick. “He’s just wild. But he can really throw the damn football and they won, and won big. They beat Alabama. They beat some people because of him.”
The Oilers’ board reflected where a lot of teams probably had Favre stacked.
Houston had 15 players graded ahead of Favre and another 25 on approximately the same level.
Some scouts kept harkening back to the one-car accident on July 14, 1990 in which Favre’s vehicle flipped several times about a mile from his home in Kiln, Miss., when he fell asleep at the wheel after drinking 30 miles away on Ship Island. His injuries included a cracked vertebra, numerous cuts and a concussion. On Aug. 8, he was rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery in which about 30 inches of his intestine were removed. After sitting out the opener and having lost about 35 pounds, Favre led the 27-24 victory over the 13th-ranked Crimson Tide in Birmingham. The date was Sept. 8.
“The guy looked like a damn scarecrow,” Gene Stallings said after his first game as coach at Alabama (the Tide finished 7-5). “His uniform was hanging around him all loose and stuff. You can call it a miracle or a legend or anything you want to. I just know that on that day Brett Favre was bigger than life.”
Ron Hughes, the Detroit Lions’ director of player personnel, called Favre “a very courageous kid.” According to Woolley, Favre was “tougher than a wood hauler’s ass.” Added Woolley: “Early in the year he looked like a guy who had his gut cut open and had a hard time standing straight up. Later, he played pretty good.”
Then again, his father, Irv, his football coach at Hancock North Central High School, would expect nothing less. One summer, Favre was playing shortstop when a hot shot bad-hopped straight off his protective cup and knocked him to his knees. Irv reflexively screamed from the dugout, “Throw him out!” which he did on cue before dropping back into the dirt and heaving.
“He is the kid who is so interesting,” said John Butler, the Buffalo Bills’ director of player personnel. “Son of a coach, overcame some adversity with the wreck. I think he’s just a pure winner. Anything you wanted to play, even shooting marbles, he’d want to win so bad. He reminds me a lot temperament-wise of Jim Kelly. Jimmy Kelly doesn’t always look pretty getting things done, either.”
Scouts returned to their draft rooms spinning tales about the bayou and crawdads and pool halls and alcohol and the rollicking Favre clan. Some compared Favre to Bobby Layne and Terry Bradshaw, others Billy Kilmer.
“He’s got that old Archie Manning, Huckleberry Finn good old guy thing,” Reed Johnson said. “I think he’s got charisma and leadership qualities.”
At the combine, Favre measured an even 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 217. His arm length of 31 inches was slightly below average for the quarterbacks in Indianapolis but his hands, measured at 10 3/8 inches, were the second largest.
Favre took the 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test twice (once at the combine), according to reports sent by National Football Scouting to its member teams. Favre was credited with a score of 23, four higher than the NFL average. “I don’t even remember taking it,” he said. “That tells you how much I paid attention to it.”
The 6-8 McGwire proved to be just too tall but Marinovich (6-4, 220) was considered of ideal stature for the pocket-passing game of the time. Nagle (6-2, 230) was the same height as Favre.
“They’re short,” Boisture said in reference to Favre, Nagle and Erickson (6-2, 195). “We’ve got a 6-3-plus guy (Phil Simms) and he can’t even see over the linemen.”
Southern Miss employed a sprint-out type passing game in which Favre completed 52.4% of his passes and ran for merely one touchdown in his career. In chronological order, his NFL passer ratings in college were 61.0, 88.4, 76.8 and 70.8 for a career mark of 75.9. The Golden Eagles went 29-17 during Favre’s four seasons.
“I got on the field as a true freshman, 17 years old,” Favre said. “It was a dream come true. But our offense was never geared toward passing specifics. I never had to make blitz checks. I only thought it was complicated at the time.”
In a 1996 interview, Holmgren remembered looking back at the report that he wrote on Favre in March 1991 when he was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator.
“I liked him as a person right away,” said Holmgren. “I used the term ‘blue collar’ in my report. I (said) that he would have to discipline himself in some of the techniques that we run. He’s done all those things.
“I did say he threw every pass the same. Hard. He will have to learn different types of throws.
“You just saw great talent. Raw ability to throw the ball. I think I was pretty close in my evaluation of him that day.”
On the weekend of April 5-6, 2 ½ weeks before the draft, Favre was one of 45 players scheduled for the combine medical re-check in Indianapolis. He was there because of his right hip.
Favre said the diagnosis was avascular necrosis, the condition that ended Bo Jackson’s football career. “I think a couple teams failed me, including the Packers,” he said. Unlike Jackson, Favre never had a hip replacement. “It has been an on-and-off pain issue,” Favre added. “More of a nuisance.”
Watching the draft from home with his family, Favre expected the Falcons to select him with one of their two first-round picks. Ken Herock, the team’s vice president of player personnel, recalled that the Falcons’ doctors were insistent that the hip injury would permit Favre to play just five seasons. Bill Groman, their scout in the southeast, and Herock both were extremely high on Favre according to Charley Armey, another of the Falcons’ area scouts.
Still, the medical factor undoubtedly played a role why Herock said Atlanta didn’t even consider Favre at No. 3 (cornerback Bruce Pickens) or No. 13 (wide receiver Mike Pritchard).
“He had the medical and the background stuff,” Armey said. “You’ve got to remember he had that serious stomach operation. There was no question about the talent. I remember Ron Wolf and I talking about him. Ron Wolf loved him every bit as much as I did. He really wanted him.”
Wolf, in his first year as the Jets’ director of player personnel under GM Dick Steinberg, last month said of Favre, “He was easily the best player in that draft.” After Notre Dame wide receiver Raghib Ismail signed with the CFL Toronto Argonauts one day before the draft, there was no longer any doubt that Favre was atop the Jets’ draft board.
Unfortunately for the Jets, their first choice wasn’t until early in the second round at No. 34. They had taken wide receiver Rob Moore in the 1990 supplemental draft, thereby forfeiting their first-round pick (No. 8) in ’91.
“The greatest thing that happened to Ron Wolf was the Jets used their first-round pick on Rob Moore in the supplemental draft,” Wolf said with the advantage of hindsight. “Because Brett Favre would have been the (Jets’) guy.”
Favre figured the Seahawks and Raiders would draft quarterbacks in the first round.
He recalls being told by the Seahawks that they were locked in on McGwire if he was available and by Mike White, the Raiders’ quarterbacks coach, that they would take Marinovich over McGwire if both were there.
“I was not the decision-maker but I don’t think we had any medical tags on (Favre),” said Randy Mueller, the Seahawks’ pro personnel director who was in his eighth season in Seattle. “I remember seeing some of the film. I think everybody saw flashes of talent but there was a lot of craziness that went with it.
“Dan McGwire was represented by (Leigh) Steinberg. Those guys (Steinberg’s agency) were really close to the Behring family, who owned our team. We thought we could get a deal done so the owner weighs in a little bit there. Our people were hung up on Dan McGwire for a lot of reasons. Sometimes when you think you know what you’re doing you disregard the other options.”
How might the Seahawks’ fortunes have changed if the choice had been Favre?
“I don’t know that you could have put Brett Favre in Seattle and he would have panned out at all,” Mueller said. “It’s the coach that’s right for the player. Holmgren was perfect for Favre. Perfect. Holmgren was the best I’ve ever been around kicking them in the ass and then hugging them five minutes later. Players listened to him. They were afraid of him. Yet, five minutes later, they’re hugging him. Just a special trait in my mind.
“Unbelievable teacher, although not the most patient. I think he got the best out of Favre. I don’t know that others could have.”
With the quarterback-needy Raiders waiting their turn at No. 24, Herock said he commenced his attempts to trade up when the draft reached about pick No. 20. “I was frantic,” said Herock. “The owner (Rankin Smith) says, ‘Ken, take it easy. We got a Pro Bowl quarterback (Chris Miller).’ I said, ‘I know it, Mr. Smith, but this f------ guy could be all-world.’”
Meanwhile, at the Jets’ headquarters on Long Island, the equally motivated Steinberg worked the phones seeking a trade partner as Favre began to drop tantalizing near. Wolf said the Phoenix Cardinals were set to trade the No. 32 choice to the Jets but, when defensive end Mike Jones of North Carolina State remained on the board, they went ahead and took him. No deal.
Why did Favre slip to No. 33 and the Falcons?
“I have no idea,” replied Wolf. “None. None whatsoever. I had been at this for a little while. Since 1963. Every time I saw him, he put new life in the team. It’s the age-old story. People start these rumors. He’s just a good ol’ country boy, he’d just as soon be down there on the bayou. All that bullshit.
“When we came up, the quarterback that everybody said was perfect from technique and all that was John Unitas. Here comes this guy (Favre). His release, arm strength, mobility. You name it, he did it.”
In their 2017 book, “Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield,” longtime Raiders personnel men Bruce Kebric and Kingdon wrote that the team’s scouting department ranked Favre as the No. 1 quarterback and No. 6 player overall in the draft. However, much to their dismay, Davis decided to select Marinovich, whose father, Marv, had both played and coached for Oakland.
When Phoenix took Jones, Herock stood up screaming joyously knowing Favre would be Atlanta’s choice. His euphoria was cut short moments later after he asked coach Jerry Glanville what he thought of Favre. “He said, ‘I don’t really like him. I like that Browning Nagle,’” Herock remembered. “We had all our meetings and nothing was said about Browning Nagle was better than this guy. We had (Favre) so high on the board. I was in shock. I sat down and the room was silent.”
Herock had insisted that June Jones, the Falcons’ assistant head coach on offense, accompany him to work out Favre in Hattiesburg in March. Finally, Herock asked Jones what he thought and his tepid response was that Favre and Nagle were close.
With a minute on the clock, Herock instructed the card with Favre’s name be turned in. “The f------ coach (Glanville), he almost turned blue he was so pissed,” said Herock. “That was the toughest 15 minutes of my life, I can tell you that.”
With the air slipping from their room, the Jets tried to pick up the pieces and drafted Nagle.
Miller, the No. 13 pick in 1987, had started since his second season but his record was merely 11-29.
“I wasn’t upset,” said Favre. “I felt like I’d go early, and second round was early. But deep down in my gut I felt like I was almost drafted to motivate (Miller). I think it worked to a certain degree because he had his best year my rookie year.”
Love Brett. The toughest, most exciting player of my 54 years. That refurbished stadium in Green Bay is "The House that Favre built!" That Franchise would not have financially survived in Green Bay without Brett, Reggie, LeRoy, Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren & Bob Harlan!
Great story. This goes to show that evaluating NFL talent is not a science, but an art. Some guys (Ron Wolf) seem to have that sixth sense and see through all of the b.s. and really understand what a player can do. With Favre no doubt having the right coach made all the difference in the world. Without Holmgren he would have been out of the league in three or four years tops. Can't wait to read the next two installments of this fascinating story.