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Favre Aching For Another Season

040804favre_a.jpg national editor Vic Carucci has begun his annual tour of training camps and will file columns from each stop. This installment comes from Green Bay, Wis., where the Green Bay Packers opened camp on Aug. 1.

Brett Favre was sore. Only one practice into training camp, and he already was moving gingerly and wearing an ice bag.

There was pain in his throwing arm, in his lower back, in both ankles.

"Just kind of aching all over," Favre said.

Quarterbacks are always off limits to practice contact, and no member of the Packers defense had been foolish enough to take a shot at the living legend in the pocket. Favre merely was paying the physical price for a morning of repeatedly dropping back, stepping up, twisting, turning and throwing a football. This is how a 34-year-old body, which has been exposed to 13 seasons of NFL punishment, reacts to the most extensive radical movement it has done in eight months.

"I can't expect to walk away from practice and not be sore a little bit," Favre said. "I know it's my 14th year and I know, by general standards, that I'm not an old man. But by football standards, yeah, I am."

And it is for that reason that everyone who follows the Packers -- and the rest of the NFL for that matter -- is paying closer attention than ever to see how Favre holds up this year.

Can he still keep getting up after those hellacious hits? Can he still throw the ball with that bullet-like velocity? Can he still make those big, improvisational plays on the run? Can he move around well enough to protect himself?

Essentially, Favre answered those questions when he arrived at camp and the Packers didn't turn him away at the gate.

It might take a little less for him to hurt more. It might take a little longer for him to hurt less. But Favre is convinced he can still help the Packers take care of some unfinished business going back to their heartbreaking, divisional-round playoff loss in Philadelphia last January.

The Packers agree.

"We always expect the best out of him because he expects it out of himself and shows it on a daily basis," coach Mike Sherman said. "He did a lot of things last year that would make you think he was in the prime of his career, not the autumn of his career."

"I think I'm realistic with myself," Favre said. "I would be the first to look in the mirror and say, 'Ah, you just don't have it like you used to.' "

Favre hasn't reached that point. What he does see in the mirror is the reflection of someone who played nine games last season with a broken thumb, yet led the NFL with 32 touchdown passes. He keeps seeing someone who was capable enough to lead a team with a penchant for losing games it should win into the backdoor of the playoffs and nearly took it to the NFC championship.

The rest of us might be quicker to notice those 21 interceptions Favre threw in 2003 and the fact the Packers clearly would like to lean more heavily on one of the league's top running backs in Ahman Green. We might be willing to read into the desire to run the ball more often as a sign, in the eyes of Mike Sherman and his offensive coaches, that Favre's skills have diminished. We certainly can't take our eyes off that injured right thumb, which has an ugly bulge at the knuckle and barely bends, and wonder if it will start affecting his game.

"Some mornings it might have some arthritis in it," Favre said. "If I bump it, if I kind of hit it straight on, I feel it." Otherwise, he does not anticipate the thumb causing any problems for him in 2004.

But you have to go back to those 32 touchdown passes. That was no fluke. It was another reminder of the amazing talent Favre still possesses and could continue to show for at least one more season and possibly more.

"I think my arm and my ability to make plays is as good as it's ever been," he said. "It's hard to think back when I started 13 years ago. I'm sure my arm was a little livelier than it is now, but I don't believe that.

"I'm sure I'm not as quick as I was then, but I wasn't quick back then, either. I think I'm still able to make people miss, make the throws, when called upon."

You also have Favre's incredible toughness. That is a source of inspiration for the rest of the team. Regardless of his health status, whenever Favre trots onto the field for the first huddle, the rest of the players have to feel accountable, thinking, "If Favre can play hurt, I can, too."

Favre gave one of the most incredible displays of resilience ever shown by an athlete last December when, only a day after learning of the death of his father, he played a Monday night game in Oakland. He wound up giving a performance for the ages, throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-7 victory over the Raiders.

"There hasn't been a day that's gone by that I haven't thought about him," Favre said. "Over time, the emotional part of it subsides some. But there are days that I expect him to call. I sort of half-expected him to call after the first day of training camp: 'How did the first day go? What the hell's going on? How did y'all look?' I can hear him.

"I still don't believe he's gone, even though I know it's true. But I think that game against Oakland says it all. That game was way more than I ever dreamed it would be. I was just hoping to get by. Then, for it to happen that way was more than remarkable."

Thanks to some last-minute help from Arizona, the Packers made the playoffs. They wound up winning a close, competitive wild-card game against the Seahawks. Then they traveled to Philadelphia, and wound up losing to the Eagles in part because they allowed them to convert on fourth-and-26 and in part because Favre heaved an ugly, desperation pass that was intercepted to set up the Eagles' winning field goal.

"We had a very good chance of going to the Super Bowl," Favre said. "We were a very good football team. If anything, our guys should walk away from that game and the remainder of the offseason until now and say, 'We're too damn close.' That should leave a bitter taste."

It left enough of a bitter taste in Favre's mouth to decide to put his body through the grueling paces of a 14th NFL season.

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