No player in the history of sports has ever extended his team farther over a barrel than Brett Favre dangled the Vikings and their three Ambassadors to Hattiesburg on Tuesday morning.

It breaks the record set by Favre a year ago today when he finally showed up to save the Vikings. You know, the first time around.

If the Vikings came off looking desperate, clumsy and discombobulated, it doesn't really matter. The only thing that mattered was convincing Favre to keep playing ahead of Tarvaris Jackson. The groveling, the reported $7 million pay bump and Tuesday's Keystone Kops routine will be long forgotten by the time Faith Hill starts singing on Sept. 9.

Before Air Favre One finally arrived in Minnesota on Tuesday, the Vikings were a rudderless wild-card dark horse adrift in a sea of decent NFC teams. Once Air Favre One touched down, the Vikings became a perfectly seasoned team with a leader and no excuses not to make the Super Bowl for the first time since Favre was 7 years old.

It must be uncomfortable being made to look desperate, clumsy and discombobulated from March through mid-August. It must be painful to pass on a Donovan McNabb for a second-rounder and set your draft board according to the whims of a 40-year-old quarterback. But it's all part of doing business with and being held hostage by Favre.

The only known antidote is Aaron Rodgers. And since there's no Aaron Rodgers west of Wausau, the Vikings swallowed their pride, publicly humiliated their backup quarterbacks and created one final carnival ride for the media on Tuesday.

First, the Ambassadors to Hattiesburg -- kicker Ryan Longwell, defensive end Jared Allen and guard Steve Hutchinson -- were excused from their day jobs. Their assignment: Fly south, beg Favre, cling to pant leg while holding breath until he says, "Yup."

Then came the fun part. Coach Brad Childress, the man who dispatched the Ambassadors to Hattiesburg, wasn't scheduled to speak. Rather than tweak the schedule, he sent special teams coordinator Brian Murphy and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to their regularly scheduled news conferences.

Poor guys. The only things missing were blindfolds and a cigarette.

Murphy hemmed and hawed and said Longwell was inside working on "gimmick" kicks. Bevell bailed out by saying the Ambassadors to Hattiesburg were "inside" when practice started. Childress said: (Insert ... crickets ... chirping).

Ultimately, however, the only thing that will be remembered about Tuesday is the Vikings played their last card and Favre came back. So it was a good day for the Purple.

The Vikings know they have a quarterback who not only knows the offense but also anticipates how the defense will react. A quarterback who, although he was mugged in New Orleans, still senses pressure, sets his pre-snap protection and gets off his back better than any quarterback who's ever played. A quarterback whose ankle may be bulky, but whose brain still moves faster and calmer under pressure than the other 21 players on the field. A quarterback coming off 4,202 yards, 33 TDs and a career-low seven picks.

Jackson might develop similar skills someday. But it won't come fast enough for the current Vikings team.

This is a team with nine starters in their 30s and one in his 40s. This is a team with several key players in the final year of their contracts, including four from the vaunted defensive front seven.

"I think it's the last year for this group," said 37-year-old nose tackle Pat Williams. "You got a lot of free agents coming up. A lot of these guys probably won't be here next year. So I think this is our do-or-die year. We got to win it this year."

That's why the Vikings should be excused for coming off desperate, clumsy and discombobulated. Having left themselves with no Aaron Rodgers, they did what they had to do to salvage what could be the most important season in the franchise's 50-year history.

Mark Craig •