The year that was 2009 sports was marked by a lot of traditional teams winning championships. But the highlight was a decidedly non-traditional team getting on a big run and capturing the nation’s heart in the process.
Hurricane Katrina leveled the city of New Orleans and the region at large in August 2005. A long rebuilding process begin. The rise of the New Orleans Saints became oddly metaphoric and uplifting for the area. The leadership of Sean Payton and Drew Brees brought the Saints their first-ever Super Bowl championship, with most of America pulling for them to do it.
There were two other great stories in the Midwest during the NFL season. The Indianapolis Colts won their first fourteen regular season games and looked poised to match the achievement of the New England Patriots two years earlier and complete a regular season at 16-0. And since the Patriots had ultimately lost in the Super Bowl, the door to be the first team to 19-0 was wide open for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
But the Colts backed down. Concerned more about injuries to starters, they decided to keep their focus squarely on winning the Super Bowl rather than doing so undefeated. In the end, they got neither, losing to New Orleans.
The NFL is a young man’s league, but no one could guess that by watching 40-year-old Brett Favre play for the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. Favre had one of the great years of his career and the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game before coming up short to the destiny wave that was the Saints.
There were traditional powers looking to get back on top in the NBA, college football and major league baseball. The New York Yankees hadn’t won a World Series since 2000, an interminably long time for an organization known for its impatience and free spending. The Yankees did it in 2009.
The same goes for Alabama football, who hadn’t even won a major bowl game—much less a national title—since 1992. And though the Los Angeles Lakers had won the NBA title as recently as 2002, their ’09 breakthrough marked the first time Kobe Bryant had won a ring without Shaquille O’Neal.
North Carolina basketball didn’t have a long time on the outs—they had won the NCAA title as recently as 2005. But the Tar Heels do fit the mold of a traditional team winning a title, so we’ll include them on the list with the Yankees, Lakers and Alabama football. In fact, UNC hoops was arguably the most dominant champion of any team sport in 2009, winning all six NCAA Tournament games by at least twelve points.
The Stanley Cup Finals also pitted two proud franchises against each other and it was a rematch no less. The Detroit Red Wings had beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008, a good six-game series. It was so good that the same teams came back and this time went the full seven. And this time the Penguins got their revenge, winning the city their first Stanley Cup since the Mario Lemieux era. Read more about the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals
One story that seems somewhat ironic and out of character five years later came in the NBA playoffs. The Eastern Conference Finals matched up the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. The star players were Dwight Howard and LeBron James. These two men have gone in opposite directions when it comes to how they’re perceived both on the court and off, a perception that decidedly favors James.
But in their only playoff confrontation, it was Dwight’s Magic that pulled off the upset of LeBron’s Cavs, winning in six games and denying the NBA its coveted LeBron-Kobe matchup in the Finals.
The 2009 Minnesota Vikings were a team looking to take the next step. Widely regarded to have a solid all-around roster, the Vikings needed a quarterback if they were going to take the next step. They had won the NFC North in 2008 with Tavaris Jackson behind center, but he was so lightly regarded that the Vikes were a 3.5 point underdog at home in the playoffs to the wild-card Philadelphia Eagles. Minnesota “backed up” the skepticism by losing 26-14. If they wanted more, they needed a change.
And no change could be more dramatic than signing Brett Favre. The Green Bay Packer legend had retired after the 2007 season. Then he unretired and amidst bitter acrimony with the Packer front office, Favre was traded to the New York Jets. The quarterback retired again after 2008. He got overtures from the Vikings, but said in July 2009 that he was retired. Then Favre unretired one more time.
The indecision was comical for some (including me), infuriating to others, but to the fans in Minnesota, it was worth the price if Favre could get them to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1976 and win it for the first time ever.
Favre joined an offense built around the immense talents of running back Adrian Peterson, who would run for over 1,300 yards. The left side of the line was held down by Pro Bowlers, in Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchison. The defensive front was very good all the way across. Ray Edwards had 8.5 sacks from his defensive end spot. Kevin Williams was a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, and Jared Allen had a huge year at the other end, with 14.5 sacks. The back seven had a Pro Bowler in defensive back Antoine Winfield.
It was anticipated that Favre, now 40-years-old, would be a veteran game manager for a team that would still focus on winning games by running A.P. and playing good defense. That formula produced a pair of road wins over bad teams in the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns to start the season. But playing another pedestrian opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, at home in Week 3, the Vikes found themselves in a 24-20 hole. That’s when Brett Favre’s last glorious ride really began.
With two seconds to play, Favre rifled a 32-yard strike to Greg Lewis to win the game 27-24. The win kept the Vikings undefeated for a highly anticipated Monday Night home game with Green Bay, as Favre played his old team for the first time. He threw for 371 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Aaron Rodgers, now in his second year and still trying to prove himself, threw for 384. But Rodgers had an interception and also maneuvered his way into a couple of sacks. There were also the sacks that were no fault of Rodgers at all, and those kept piling up. He hit the deck eight times, with Allen getting 4.5 of them, one for a safety. Minnesota built a 30-14 lead and held on to win 30-23.
After a blowout win over the St. Louis Rams, Minnesota played at home against Baltimore. Trailing 31-30, Favre threw a beautiful 58-yard strike to Sidney Rice that set up a go-ahead field goal. The Ravens got into position for a game-winning kick, but missed from 44 yards.
Minnesota finally lost its first game the next week in Pittsburgh and now it was time for the biggest regular season game of them all—Favre’s homecoming to Green Bay for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff.
The game was close to a carbon copy of the first. Favre was outstanding, throwing four touchdown passes with no interceptions. Rodgers played a good game, throwing three TD strikes of his own against no mistakes. But the Viking pass rush was ferocious—six sacks in all, three of them by Allen. Minnesota built a 24-3 lead, and though Rodgers rallied the Packers to within four, Favre pulled the Vikes back away and it ended 38-26.
Minnesota’s sweep of Green Bay, a team that would make the playoffs as a wild-card, put the Vikings in command of the NFC North. They won three more in succession, before dropping a 30-17 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.
It was a loss that was costly—there was no room for error in the race for the NFC’s #1 seed, not with the New Orleans Saints still undefeated. And the Vikes also lost linebacker E.J. Henderson for the year to a broken leg.
After a victory over Cincinnati, the Vikings began to run into problems. They were beaten at the line of scrimmage on a Sunday night in Carolina, Favre was unable to bail them out and they lost 26-7. Even with New Orleans slumping at the end, another loss on Monday Night in Chicago took the Vikes out of position for the 1-seed.
Favre had brought Minnesota back from a 23-6 deficit in Chicago and the game went to overtime tied at 30-30. But a Peterson fumble set up the last of Jay Cutler’s four touchdown passes and now the Vikings were in serious trouble.
Entering Week 17, Minnesota was looking at the 3-seed—meaning no first-round bye and potentially two road games on the way to the Super Bowl. They got themselves back on track with a 44-7 win over the fading New York Giants. And they got a break that night when Philadelphia lost to Dallas in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC East. The Eagles were the team that could have taken the 2-seed, but their defeat elevated the Vikes back into the spot and a week off.
It had been an incredible year for Favre—over 4,200 yards passing, 33 touchdown passes and the man who had a reputation for throwing some ill-advised passes, only had seven interceptions. He wouldn’t win the MVP—that went to Peyton Manning, whose Indianapolis Colts went 14-2—but Favre had his best year since winning the MVP award each year from 1995-97 and it was surely the best season ever put up by a 40-year-old.
Now it was time for the playoffs and Minnesota’s late-season hiccup had oddsmakers worried. Dallas was a hot team and they beat Philadelphia for a second straight week in the first playoff round. The Vikings were a 2.5 point favorite—but given they were at home, an advantage customarily valued at three points, the number told you who Las Vegas thought was better.
Maybe the week off was all Minnesota needed, because they destroyed Dallas. Favre hit Rice on a 47-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, and a 16-yarder in the second that made it 14-3. The lead grew to 20-3 midway through the fourth quarter. Favre and Rice decided to put an end to any hope the Cowboys had left, hooking up on a 45-yard scoring play that sealed it. One more touchdown put the finishing touches on a 34-3 rout.
Now it was on to New Orleans and what would prove to be a thrilling NFC Championship Game. Unfortunately, it was the Vikings made the mistakes. Entering the game’s final five minutes, they had lost three fumbles and Favre had thrown one interception. In spite of all, the game was tied 28-28 and Favre had the Vikings on the move for a winning field goal in the closing minute.
Minnesota has lost some playoff games in tough fashion in their history, but only the1998 NFC Championship Game and a 1975 NFC Divisional round game to Dallas can measure up to what happened next.
The Vikings were on the 33-yard line, within the range of kicker Ryan Longwell, especially indoors. They got penalized for twelve men on the field. On the next play, Favre rolled to his right. Receivers were covered, but there was plenty of room to run 10-12 yards up the sideline. Instead, he forced the ball back to the middle where it was intercepted by Tracy Porter. Regulation ended, the Saints won the toss in overtime and immediately drove for the winning field goal.
Two things happened in the aftermath—though not immediate—that would make this long sting even more. The first is that the NFL changed the overtime rules. No longer could a team win the coin toss, get a field goal and have that be the end of it. Under the rules of today, Favre could have at least gotten the ball back one time in OT with a chance to tie or win the game.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered—maybe New Orleans plays differently on offense and goes for a touchdown on the first possession (a circumstance that does end the game immediately under the new rules) or maybe the Viking offense would have been stopped. But in the world of 2009, most of us knew that whether Favre or Drew Brees, playing indoors, won the coin toss, would decide the NFC champion.
The second thing is that New Orleans would be punished severely by the NFL three years later, when it came out that they had “bounties” on certain players, notably Favre in this game. Everyone watching this game in the moment noticed just how hard the Saints punished the veteran quarterback. And though I personally had no sense of anything dirty (though I was rooting for Favre), others did. Did the raw punishment meted out—apparently illicitly—impact Favre’s poor judgment on the final offensive play of the season, when he chose not to run for easy yardage and instead forced a pass?
It’s hard to say, and for all practical purposes, the music died for the Minnesota Vikings and Brett Favre that night in New Orleans. Favre came back in 2010, but his body finally ran out of gas. He retired at the end of the year—this time for good. The Vikings have had some good teams since then—notably in 2012 when Adrian Peterson had a magnificent MVP year and they reached the playoffs. But they’ve never been a real threat to reach the Super Bowl since.
But this article is not going to end on the unfortunate ending or the aftermath. Brett Favre’s performance for the 2009 Minnesota Vikings was outstanding by any measurement, and positively unreal given he was 40.