81 Days Before Week 1: Highlighting Desmond Howard's 1996 Season

No. 81 made quite an impact on special teams during the team's Super Bowl-winning season. 

Due to the nature of the National Football League, in that most players regularly come and go, it is easy for players to get lost in the shuffle in the minds of the fans. But one former member of the Green Bay Packers who should never get lost in the shuffle: Desmond Howard. 

The former Heisman Trophy winner was selected fourth overall in the 1992 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, a team he spent three seasons with before taking his talents to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the 1995 season. He joined the Packers in 1996, which turned out to be a memorable season for the team and player. 

While he only registered 13 receptions on 23 targets for 95 yards as a receiver, Howard served as a difference-maker in the return game. He earned first-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner, netting 875 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season. He also registered 460 kickoff return yards. Not only did his total punt return yards lap the competition – Winslow Oliver of the Carolina Panthers was second with 598 – but Howard broke the record for the most punt return yards in a single season by a wide margin. The previous margin was 692 by Fulton Walker in 1985. The University of Michigan product’s record remains intact to this day, and no one has even come close to touching it. Patrick Peterson is second all-time with 699 punt return yards in a single season, accomplished in 2011. 

Howard’s impact on special teams was not limited to the regular season. In the divisional round against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field, the Packers forced a punt on the first possession of the game, and Howard fielded the punt from his own 29-yard line and broke several tackles en route to the end zone, where he sprinted to the fans for a Lambeau Leap, to notch the first points of the game. Later in the quarter, Howard nearly returned another punt for a touchdown but was tripped up inside the 10-yard line, good for a 46-yard return. Green Bay scored a touchdown on that drive to take a 14-0 lead and ran away with it in the end, securing a spot in the NFC Championship Game after a 35-14 victory. Howard finished the opening quarter (and the game) with 117 punt return yards. But even though Howard was the most impactful player on the field that afternoon, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. 

Howard was late coming out of the locker room after halftime, opting to change into warmer clothes to combat the cold, rainy weather, so he was not on the field for the opening kickoff of the second half. Whoops! The Packers misplayed the kick, allowing the 49ers to recover and score a few plays later. 

“I don't think I've ever seen that, or been a party to something like that. Desmond came back like, ‘Hey, what's going on, the start of the game? And I said, ‘Yeah,’” head coach Mike Holmgren told reporters after the game. “I was very angry, but what kept flashing through my mind were the two great plays he made. Obviously, Desmond made the difference early.”

Howard saved his best special teams performance for last. With the Packers clinging to a 27-21 lead in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXI, after New England Patriots running back Curtis Martin scored on an 18-yard rushing touchdown, Howard blew the game wide open, returning the ensuing kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown. It was the longest kickoff return in Super Bowl history, a record that stood for 15 years. 

“You have to go back to how the Patriots were playing us, trying to take away our return game. They kicked the ball high and short throughout that game. Their strategy was to try to disrupt our timing, which they did a pretty good job of -- at least as far as the kickoff-return game was concerned. Because they were content with kicking the ball high and short, I had lined up at about the 5-yard line. I didn't want to run up from the goal line,” Howard told cleveland.com in 2017

“When the ball left Vinatieri's foot, I immediately noticed that it was traveling with great velocity, so I started to back up. I remember looking at the ball as it was causing me to go backwards and thinking, ‘Wow, they're actually going to give us a chance.’ They hadn't given us a chance the whole game with kickoff returns. It was the perfect kick for the return we had set up.”

In total, he racked up 244 return yards (154 kick return yards, 90 punt return yards), a Super Bowl record that still stands today, in the Packers’ first Super Bowl victory since 1967. That was not the only record Howard set that day. He also took home Super Bowl MVP honors, the first and only time a special teams player has earned the coveted award. 

Howard only played two seasons in Titletown (1996 and 1999), but he still finds himself in the franchise record books. He is tied for first in career punt return touchdowns (3) and holds the best career punt return average (13.8 yards per return). He also sits second in career punt return yards (968), trailing only Willie Wood (1,391), who did so in 187 returns compared to Howard’s 70 returns. 

 

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Rex is a lifelong Packers fan but was sick of the cold, so he moved to the heart of Cowboys country. Follow him on Twitter (@Sheild92) and Instagram (@rex.sheild). 

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Comments (6)

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T7Steve's picture

June 17, 2024 at 02:30 pm

I can't remember why he wasn't an effective receiver. Did he have the dropsies that showed up in practice so the QBs didn't trust him on three different teams?

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GregC's picture

June 17, 2024 at 05:39 pm

As I recall, part of the issue was that he was small (5'10" and 188 pounds), so he had a hard time beating DBs who were physical--and I think they could maul the WRs more back then.

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ricky's picture

June 17, 2024 at 04:55 pm

Howard was a great returner for one season, and that was the 1996 SB season. He was then signed by the Raiders, and never had a year that was even close to his one Pro Bowl season. But what about Travis (Roadrunner) Williams? The guy was electrifying. I still remember those two kickoff returns for TD's against the Browns. Then there was Allen Rossum, excellent as a returner, but a disaster as a defensive back. So, do you take that one great year? Or do you want someone who can do a bit less, but does it for a few seasons? Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane. So many games, so many great players, so many good memories,

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Swisch's picture

June 17, 2024 at 07:09 pm

Hey, by my math, 81 days is less than three months to the regular season opener for the Packers; that'll help me to slog through the summer humidity of northern Georgia.
Plus, training camp is not much more than a month away in late July.
It'd be great for sustenance, too, if the Brewers keep their winning ways through the second half of the season. I'm trying to enjoy their unexpected ride in first place a week at a time.
Reading Albert Castel, "Victors in Blue: How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled Each Other, and Won the Civil War." I'm a slow and impatient reader (ADHD), so I hope it's good.
***
In somewhat related news to the essay above, I understand that former Packer Amari Rodgers was a top punt returner for the champions of the spring football season in professional football.
Desmond Howard is a possible answer to Leatherhead's strategy of calling for fair catches on punts all of the time -- although I think Leatherhead has a good point in calling for fair catches most of the time.
It's good to keep the option of a punt return open, though -- or so it seems to me.
***
A great summer to all.
I turn 62 this Thursday on the 20th.
The 27th is my two-year anniversary of surviving an emergency helicopter ride for aortic dissection surgery. Doing well, it seems, with pumping blood. Just took my Dobie, Max, for a good walk, with a little sprint mixed in; we often have some sort of a race in which I have a head start but always lose.
Day by day and trying to make the best of things.
God bless to all at CHTV, staff and fans.

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mnbadger's picture

June 17, 2024 at 09:22 pm

bless you swisch, stay healthy. 2024 is going to be a great season and you better be here to share it with us.
Thanks to the author. D Howard and the ST'S caught fire at the end of the season right through the super bowl.
One of the last times the winner of the SB MVPaward is the guy that deserved it.
Can't wait for training camp.
GPG!

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Swisch's picture

June 17, 2024 at 09:46 pm

Thanks, mnbadger, you did my heart good.

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