This week, it came to our attention that early in his career, Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre had to ask Ty Detmer what a nickel defense was. Initially I assumed Favre was joking, that he was recounting a time he pretended not to know a basic football thing as a way of playing a practical joke on a teammate.
But I just couldn’t tell, and I had to know. So who better to ask than Ty Detmer, now the offensive coordinator at BYU? Thursday afternoon Detmer called me back, so I told him the same thing I just told you.
“He didn’t know,” Detmer said. “He was sincere in asking.”
Detmer said this happened his second year in the NFL, which was 1993. This matches what Favre said. I asked Detmer if he could tell right away Favre was serious. (In case you don’t know, a nickel defense is one in which a linebacker has been replaced by a defensive back).
“I could tell,” he said. “Because it was during a serious part of the meeting. This wasn’t jacking around in the locker room, and throwing it out there. I did kinda question it, you know, ‘Are you serious?’ You could tell he was, I just figured I’d better double-check it.”
Detmer said he’s never otherwise encountered a person who was that good at football, yet was so unaware of some of its basic mechanics.
“It was the first time I’d been around anybody that just kind of winged it,” Detmer said. “You could tell the first year he got to play, first year in Green Bay, Don Majkowski was the starter and (Favre) goes in, and he wasn’t great at remembering the formations. Back then we didn’t have the coach-and-quarterback helmet. We had to memorize all the formations, and we would signal in the play. You had to know the formation for that play that week, and they changed it every week. You knew he didn’t really have a great grasp on the formations and didn’t really study them as hard as they needed to be studied to be able to call them every week. He was a genuine guy that loved playing the game, but didn’t really put a ton of time into it.”
It was in stark contrast to another Hall of Famer Detmer played with, Steve Young.
“I played with Steve Young later, and he was the total opposite,” Detmer said. ‘He knew every play, every formation, every protection, everything. Just two opposites, but highly successful in how they played the game. It was kinda fun to see the difference.”
As for an explanation of how somebody could make it from Pee Wee football to the NFL without knowing something so elementary, Detmer figures it just somehow slipped through the cracks because it never made much difference.
“I knew his dad was a coach and all those things, so you just kind of figure,” Detmer said. “It was probably one of those things you hear all the time, but you never heard anybody explain it, you know? I tell people all the time, ‘Sometimes ignorance is bliss.’ Like he says in the story, ‘Who cares about that?’ He’s right. It’s the same position, it’s just a smaller, faster guy, so does it really matter?”