Brett Favre to Greg Lewis: The 10th Anniversary

Photo Credit: Aaron Doster (USA Today Sports)

It takes a lot to turn a nemesis into a savior, but sports fans are more fickle than they like to admit.

Brett Favre proved as much in his two years with the Minnesota Vikings. After spending 16 years as a thorn in the Vikings’ side, the longtime Green Bay Packers quarterback made a one-year pit stop with the New York Jets before residing with his former fanbase’s border rival for two seasons to end his career.

Favre didn’t win a Super Bowl in Minnesota. In fact, his late-game interception in the 2009 NFC Championship Game likely cost Minnesota its shot at glory. His final season in 2010 was littered with turmoil, scandal, injury and losing as he watched a 6-10 season end from the sidelines. Yet Vikings fans continue to look back fondly on the Favre era, however brief, perhaps for what it represented: A hated opponent coming to play for the hometown team while sticking it to the Green and Gold.

It’s been 10 years and one month since Favre heroically entered the Minnesota sports landscape in 2009 via Brad Childress’s Escalade during training camp. And it’s been 10 years to the day as of Sept. 27 when Favre officially earned his place in Vikings lore — when he demonstrated his first feat of super-stardom.

In his first home game as a member of the Vikings, Favre’s made a play that set the tone for the Vikings’ magical 2009 that nearly culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. It came in as the No. 67 play in the NFL’s countdown of its top 100 plays, and it won an ESPY for the best play of the year. It’s Favre’s touchdown pass to Greg Lewis that beat the San Francisco 49ers, a 50-yard laser throw combined with a jaw-dropping catch that kept the Vikings unbeaten.

Zone Coverage spoke with three people that were at the Metrodome that afternoon to reflect on the moment: back-up quarterback Sage Rosenfels, linebacker Ben Leber and then-assistant quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, now the Vikings’ offensive coordinator.

Interviews were edited for clarity.

The Vikings had beaten the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions on the road, with Favre largely acting as a game manager, before heading home to face the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers, likely their biggest test yet. San Francisco took a 24-20 lead on a Vernon Davis touchdown with 8:12 remaining, and after two failed attempts to score, the Vikings got the ball back once more with 1:29 remaining on their own 20-yard line with no timeouts.

LEBER: We get Favre and it was this big hoopla and this huge expectation, but like, where’s the proof that this guy’s still going to have it? We saw the 49ers as the team that was going to be the most physical on our schedule and a good early barometer of, ‘OK, we know that we’re athletic, but are we tough enough?’

STEFANSKI: I do remember before that drive, they played Don’t Stop Believin’. It was that moment where, ‘Alright, who do we have in this guy, Brett?’ He was a Packer maybe up until that point.

LEBER: I’m just watching from the sidelines, watching the whole thing unfold and thinking like most people, ‘Not a lot of hope for us to win this game.’

ROSENFELS: I don’t think Greg Lewis had played at all that season. We had just signed him at the end of the training camp. (NOTE: Lewis was released from the Patriots on Sept. 5 and had signed with the Vikings on Sept. 10.) 

STEFANSKI: I still show that drive to the quarterbacks and to the players just as an example of great two-minute drives and things that have to happen within a two-minute drive to be successful. He got us started early, got us a completion, got us in a rhythm. There were times late in the drive when the guys were tired and he knew when he had to be aggressive and when he could be smart. So up until that last throw, he was being smart about what the defense was giving us.

The Vikings used nine plays to work the ball to the 49ers 32-yard line with 12 seconds left, including a 3rd and 10 incompletion to rookie Percy Harvin for a first down.

ROSENFELS: They basically had them running consistent go routes, deep routes on this drive in a short amount of time, so Percy Harvin was exhausted and he basically ended up jogging, limping tiredly over to the sideline and Greg Lewis shows up, goes in the slot and was basically the only fresh guy on the field.

STEFANSKI: Greg had just gotten there. He knew the system, having been with Coach [Brad] Childress in Philly. Those drives, they get tiring because you’re running long routes with those receivers, so Percy tapped himself out. I don’t think anybody knew Greg was in the game until he went out and grabbed the ball.

ROSENFELS: Brett caught it in shotgun. I think he like faked a throw to the left and then he ran to the right, so obviously he had a plan that I’m going to go buy time over here to the right, but if I fake to the left that might allow maybe a D-lineman will go that way, maybe allow me maybe a little more time over here which was completely uncoached. That was completely just Brett saying, ‘I’m going to go do this.’

LEBER: What Brett did to buy a little bit of time was impressive. It wasn’t the most athletic thing I’ve ever seen, but the fact that he displayed a little of everything that he was known for on that one play.

STEFANSKI: You can’t teach it, but he brought the ball way up over his head when the defender ran by him, I mean, horrible ball security. You’d never do it that way.

ROSENFELS: Two Jet All Go, that’s the play. Four guys go deep. We needed a big chunk of yards, and basically [Visanthe] Shiancoe and Sidney [Rice], who had not taken themselves out of the game, were so tired that they ran about 15 yards maybe and the defenders were still 10 yards or so deeper, maybe 15 yards deeper and they just stopped, saying why am I going to chase this ghost? So they just stopped. When they stopped and Favre ran to the right, the cornerback that was over Sidney and the safety that was over Shianc actually came up just a little bit, and Greg Lewis was on what we call a bender, so he’s running a seam but versus Cover 2 he starts to bend towards the middle, and he just continued on that path as Favre ran to the right and then actually went behind that safety and corner, who had come up on Shiancoe and Sidney Rice.

LEBER: From my perspective it was sorta cloudy. I saw Greg catch it, but he came streaking across kind of so fast and through traffic that I didn’t think there was any way that he was in bounds, like no chance, but I feel like the ref immediately put his arms up that it was a touchdown, so he saw it pretty clearly and then once we saw it up on the jumbotron it was like, ‘Holy s***.’ We just went crazy. The crowd went crazy. I got chills in that moment because of just the crowd noise and everything, and I got chills again the next day when they replayed it on the radio while I was doing a phone interview.

ROSENFELS: I think initially everyone was in shock. The whole stadium was in shock until they finally showed that replay like, ‘No way were his feet both in, just no way. It was too far out of the back of that end zone. Maybe he got a foot in.’ And then when the replay happened, it was like ‘Holy cow. It looks like he actually caught that with two feet in.’ I think there was almost a second shockwave that was incredible.

STEFANSKI: When he led us down the field and made that amazing play, it was like, ‘Alright, that’s what all the fuss is about with this dude. That’s why he’s here because he can make an amazing play on a great drive.’

LEBER: Just eluding the pressure and stepping up and through all those people, I don’t even know how you’re that accurate with how you want to throw the football. It got there so fast that even the defenders were just kind of confused with where the hell is he throwing this football? It’s a ridiculous quarterback play.

STEFANSKI: He buys that extra moment, and somehow has the wherewithal to see Greg streaking across the back of the end zone. That was pretty special. A lot of stuff that you really can’t teach.

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas (USA Today Sports)

ROSENFELS: The catch is incredible! He is basically running a deep long post route across the field, full speed, leaps above two or three other guys, catches it in his hands, and I think if he puts his feet straight down he’s out of bounds, and to be able to look down and to see the line and get both feet in, I thought that was one of the best catches I ever saw. (NOTE: Lewis wound up making just eight catches that season for the Vikings.)

STEFANSKI: I remember Brett ended up on the ground at the end of it. He got hit pretty good, and then I think I remember just seeing him popping up and seeing the guys celebrating.

LEBER: It was like, ‘Bam.’ Greg Lewis, back of the end zone, crowd goes nuts. I think with that crowd going crazy, it was like relief and hope that we have something here.

ROSENFELS: It think it showed everybody that, ‘Holy cow, we can win games that we could never have won before. We do have a guy that if we were down 17, it gave everybody the belief in the magic of Brett Favre. If he needs to carry our entire team on his back and carry us back, he can do it at 40 years old.’

LEBER: That locker room was celebratory for a regular season game. It felt like a playoff win. I mean, we weren’t popping champagne by any means, but it was definitely a different feeling than just winning a normal regular season game. It was much more energetic, much more exuberant, much more energy. That energy and that positivity, you could even feel it throughout the next day and through the week. I think it was the big gust of wind that kind of pushed us through that season of just having confidence. I think everybody walked out of there a little lighter on their toes. Even in the next day in film breakdown, the coaches you could tell were, for that one game, not grading us as hard.

STEFANSKI:  Certainly when plays like that happen, it’s oftentimes, ‘This coaching thing is overrated.’ You need guys to go make a play.

LEBER: Brett was my locker neighbor, so I saw him pretty immediately the next day when we got back to Winter Park. I think it was just more of, ‘We just couldn’t believe it. Holy cow, that was unbelievable.’ It was just one of those moments where we just shook our head and said, ‘That was nuts. That was awesome.’

ROSENFELS: Favre and Lewis also ran into each other at the Original Pancake House in Eden Prairie that next morning. There they are, the two heroes, at the Original Pancake House in Eden Prairie on a Monday morning.

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