NEW ORLEANS — The wager was made five months ago by a handful of men for a handful of reasons. One was betting his legacy. Another was betting his job. A third was betting his business. All were gambling on essentially the same thing.
That a capricious 40-year-old with a damaged right shoulder could become the oldest starting quarterback to win in the NFL postseason while taking a troubled franchise to its first Super Bowl in more than 30 years. That's all. Just a minor miracle. A long shot. A crapshoot.
And yet, here we are, hours away from the Saints and Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. One victory away from actual proof that it's never a bad idea to bet on Brett Favre, no matter what the odds.
Of course, they already have won some measure of validation. Wearing a division crown and reaching the conference championship is definitely a step forward for the Vikings.
But these guys weren't in it for a consolation victory. Not the quarterback. Not the head coach. Not the owner. When the decision was made that Favre would come out of retirement in the middle of August, it was the same thing as pushing all of their chips into the pot.
A quarterback who had already retired twice? Coming off biceps surgery? With a torn rotator cuff? And 22 interceptions the previous season? Not to mention, a 40th birthday party looming early in the regular season?
What could Favre have possibly been thinking?
Perhaps he was thinking that he didn't want it to end. Not with the way things went down in New York in 2008. And not when he felt there was still some mileage to be squeezed out of his tired body.
He must have known, in retrospect, it was a mistake to play for the Jets. He didn't fit the town, and he certainly didn't fit the offense. After a career in the West Coast passing attack, Favre was uncomfortable with all the terminology in a new offense. And he wasn't the type of guy who was going to spend the entire offseason working in New York to familiarize himself.
So after a hot start, things predictably turned ugly in New York. Favre tore a biceps tendon but refused to stop playing. And the team stumbled down the stretch with Favre throwing two touchdowns and nine interceptions as the Jets lost four of their last five.
He retired again a month after the season and had surgery in May. Doctors found a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder but decided to leave it alone. Three months later, when the Vikings came calling, Favre told them no.
Yet he must have known it wasn't over. He was still gathering teenagers in Hattiesburg, Miss., to catch passes at a local high school. He knew the arm was coming back, and he knew he had a chance to rewrite the sad end to his career.
So maybe, for Favre, it wasn't such a wild gamble after all.
But what could Brad Childress have possibly been thinking?
After all, he had more at stake than Favre. He was potentially betting his livelihood on this beaten-up quarterback.
Childress was entering the fourth year of a five-year deal in Minnesota, and no one was rushing forward with an extension offer. The Vikings had made some upgrades and had some big-name stars, but Childress was a .500 coach with no playoff victories in three seasons.
Expectations were going to be high for Minnesota in 2009, and Childress was expected to produce. But how are you going to do that when your quarterbacks are Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and John David Booty?
A month into training camp, Childress had seen enough. Favre might be old. His body might be dinged. And he might not have a copy of the Vikings' playbook. But, by gosh, he still was the best chance the Vikings had to reach the Super Bowl.
When asked about the desperation of signing a retired quarterback in August, Childress said he did not have a death wish. But, he added, there are a lot of different ways to walk the plank.
So maybe, for Childress, it wasn't such a risk after all.
But what could Zygi Wilf have possibly been thinking?
The Vikings owner forked over a two-year, $25 million contract to a quarterback he couldn't be certain would stay healthy for more than a month. More than that, he had to understand the window of opportunity for an NFL team is brief. And yet he was willing to put Minnesota's best shot at the Super Bowl in a decade into the hands of an aging gunslinger of a quarterback.
Of course, there were upsides. Understand, this is a franchise that needed two 24-hour extensions from the NFL so its playoff game against the Eagles last season wasn't blacked out. And yet, in the first 72 hours after Favre came aboard, the Vikings sold 4,000 season tickets and another 15,000 single-game tickets. At the same time, 5,000 Favre jerseys went out the door.
Bringing Favre to the Twin Cities has done more to energize the team's fan base than anything else in recent years. And now, lo and behold, the team has just revealed part of its strategy for seeking public funding from an upcoming legislative session for a new stadium.
So maybe, for Wilf, it wasn't such a crazy bet after all.
And, a few hours from now, it might just pay off like no gamble the NFL has seen in a very long time.