FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — One of the most surreal scenes in New York Jets history occurred in a small, spartan room in the bowels of Cleveland Browns Stadium. On Aug. 7, 2008, more than 100 reporters squeezed into the room before a preseason game to witness the unlikeliest of marriages.
Brett Favre — football legend, Green Bay Packers icon — held up a No. 4 Jets jersey as the room lit up like a storm front because of the flash photography. To his left was general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who smiled wearily throughout the news conference. The young executive had pulled off the blockbuster of all blockbuster trades, one he later described as the most nerve-wracking, exhilarating move of his career.
“I don’t think I’ve gone to sleep [in a few days],” Tannenbaum told the packed room.
It began with a July 17 phone call from Packers GM Ted Thompson to the Jets, and it turned into a three-week drama that included a mysterious text to Tannenbaum that might have saved the trade, a relentless sales pitch from the Jets that centered around hunting and camouflage clothing and a bizarre promise by coach Eric Mangini.
Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of Favre’s introduction. (Technically, the trade was completed just before midnight on Aug. 6.) To this day, it conjures up a variety of emotions.
Favre’s departure from the Packers was a nasty sports divorce, but it also signaled the start of the Aaron Rodgers era — and that hasn’t worked out too badly. In New York, the mention of Favre usually elicits a groan because his one season with the Jets ended poorly and cost people their jobs, but they were the biggest story in sports on that hot and chaotic day in Cleveland. One hundred days later, they were one of the best teams in the NFL after an 8-3 start.
Then it crashed. But, oh, what a ride.
“We honestly felt like we had a team that could go to the Super Bowl,” former right tackle Damien Woody recalled. “We still had fun that year, a lot of fun. It just didn’t end the way we thought it could.”
They still talk about it.
At a Jets alumni reunion last weekend, Tony Richardson and Laveranues Coles — both members of the ’08 team — swapped Favre stories and memories of “the midnight trade,” as Richardson called it. Coles found out about the trade when he got a knock at his Cleveland hotel room door at 4 a.m. It was his close friend Chad Pennington, who had just been released after six seasons as the starter. Richardson said he got the news from Pennington in a 6:30 a.m. text.
It was the night the Jets turned their world upside down to acquire the 39-year-old gunslinger, who was no longer wanted in Green Bay. Favre preferred the Minnesota Vikings or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached by Jon Gruden. A group of Bucs coaches went out that night to a watering hole near their training complex near Disney World in Orlando, Florida, thinking Favre was theirs. Imagine their shock when the TVs in the bar flashed a late-night report from ESPN saying the Jets had swooped in to grab the future Hall of Famer. Favre, too, found out via ESPN, it was later learned.
Tannenbaum has called it “most unpredictable” trade he’d ever made. “It was [dead] a half-dozen times. There were a lot of ups and downs, right up until the last minute.”
With owner Woody Johnson pushing for Favre, Tannenbaum worked feverishly for two weeks. On July 24, he received permission from the Packers to speak directly to Favre, who expressed reluctance about playing in New York/New Jersey. With staffers working around the clock, the Jets cooked up a quasi-marketing campaign to win Favre’s heart.
They created a booklet that resembled a chamber of commerce production, highlighting the neighborhoods and schools near their facility in New Jersey. They sent it to Favre’s home in Mississippi. They also talked to Favre via conference call on Aug. 4, with Tannenbaum, Johnson and Mangini taking turns with their sales pitch.
Initially, Mangini wasn’t keen on the prospect of pursuing Favre, but he came around once he realized there was no turning back. He got into the spirit of the moment, telling Favre his wife was expecting their third son and he promised to name it after him if he agreed to join the Jets.
Aware of Favre’s passion for hunting, Johnson invited him to his 1,000-acre homestead in central New Jersey, telling Favre it was the ideal place to hunt on his off days. Favre’s vision of the metropolitan area was cluttered with skyscrapers and noise; he wanted no part of that. The Jets told him their facility was 30 miles from Times Square, in a leafy suburb. They also sold him on their roster. It was a veteran team in win-now mode, bolstered by a free-agent spending spree.
“I felt like we had a great story to tell,” Tannenbaum said.
On Aug. 6, Tannenbaum drove to LaGuardia Airport for the team’s late-afternoon charter to Cleveland. As he prepared to board, he received a text, informing him the Bucs were in hot pursuit of Favre. In essence, the text was a warning: Don’t get on the plane if you want Favre. Tannenbaum left the airport, raced back to the office and closed the deal a few hours later. Shortly before 11 p.m., he sent the trade papers to the Packers, who would receive a third-round pick as compensation.
To this day, Tannenbaum won’t say who texted him. It will remain a mystery.
The Jets took an enormous risk, not knowing if Favre would report to the team. The concerns were allayed in a late-night call from Favre, who lightened the mood by saying he’d join them if they allowed him to wear his customary camouflage on road trips.
Just like that, the Jets had a new dress code.
At 12:14 a.m. on Aug. 7, Tannenbaum sent an email to Mangini, Johnson and other high-ranking team officials. According to writer Steve Serby, who authored “No Substitute for Sundays: Brett Favre and His Year in the Huddle With the New York Jets,” the email went like this:
“I have great F—ING NEWS! CALL ME! GREAT NEWS!!!!!!!!!!!”
As Serby notes, there were 11 exclamation points.
Just a few hours later, at 5 a.m., Tannenbaum and team executive Dave Szott took a private jet from Long Island to Mississippi to pick up Favre, flying him to the Jets’ soon-to-be-opened new facility in Florham Park, New Jersey. Tannenbaum’s wife, Michelle, joined them on the trip because they wanted to make Favre’s wife, Deanna, feel comfortable. The Jets’ GM arrived with a gift — Copenhagen, Favre’s favorite dip. Once in Jersey, they jumped into a helicopter and took an aerial tour of the sprawling football complex. From there, they took a jet to Cleveland for the news conference and a meet-and-greet in the locker room.
“You heard whispers that we traded for Favre, and I’m like, ‘Get the F out of here,'” Woody said. “What do you mean we traded for Brett Favre? Get the hell out of here. Then I saw him in the locker room. It was surreal. It was like, ‘Is this dude really here?'”
“Everybody loved Chad, and it was hard to see him go,” Richardson said, “but this was a chance to play with a Hall of Fame quarterback.”
It took a lot of work. Basically, the Jets junked their playbook to create a Favre-ccentric offense, with terminology he knew from Green Bay. It was rough at first. In a Week 3 loss in San Diego, Woody said Favre was literally drawing up plays in the dirt, something he’d never seen in the NFL. Eventually, Favre found his groove, and the Jets soared to first place after upsetting the New England Patriots and previously undefeated Tennessee Titans on the road.
Unbeknownst to the public, Favre had injured his famous right arm late in the year. Suddenly, he wasn’t throwing much in practice, and his teammates suspected something was up. When he did throw, it wasn’t the same. When his arm was right, Favre’s passes had such velocity that the linemen could hear them whistling over their heads.
The whistling was gone.
Favre broke down, and so did the Jets, losing four of their last five to finish 9-7. Mangini was fired after a season-ending loss to the Miami Dolphins, who were led by Pennington, of all people. It was sweet revenge for their former quarterback.
A couple of players, namely Thomas Jones and Kerry Rhodes, criticized Favre after the season, but most of the locker room enjoyed him as a teammate. They described him as a fun-loving prankster, the ideal complement to the hard-driving Mangini, who actually lightened his practice regimen to accommodate Favre. The veterans appreciated Favre for that.
“Brett was one of the best teammates you could ever have,” Woody said. “He had a way of making things lively, making things fun. That’s the biggest thing Brett did. He made practice fun.”
Favre got his wish after the season, as he wound up with the Vikings after yet another temporary retirement. Richardson had the scoop before anyone else because he got a call from Favre, who was interested in renting Richardson’s home in Minneapolis. He lived in Richardson’s place for two years before retiring for good.
The Jets got only 11 games of vintage Favre, their most celebrated quarterback since Joe Namath. They will always wonder what might have been. Well, at least one promise was kept.
On Oct. 10, 2008, Favre’s 39th birthday, Zack Brett Mangini was born.
“The odds of the child being born on the same day as my birthday, I don’t know what the odds are,” Favre said then. “The odds, in some respects, are a lot like me. What were the odds of me ever coming to the Jets?”