With 81 days left until the start of the NFL season, our countdown to the big day, Thursday, Sept. 4, when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, we will focus on the the number that represents the number of days remaining … 81.
We highly recommend “Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore Them,” by John Maxymuk. The book, which chronicles every Packers jersey number was published in 2003, so it may be a bit dated, but it provides a strong background of information about Packers players and their jersey numbers up to that point in time.
Our focus yesterday was on two numbers, 83 and 82, because I couldn’t get to publishing the countdown #83 on Friday the 13th. The two players recognized yesterday were John Martinkovic and Lionel Aldridge.
Today, we take a look at #81 – a number that has been worn by some players who contributed during their time in Green Bay and had decent careers – guys like Tyrone Davis, Perry Kemp, Rich McGeorge, Anthony Morgan, and Marv Fleming.
But it was one player who ignited the 1996 Green Bay Packers and helped lead them to the Super Bowl XXXI title that we highlight today – Desmond Howard.
Howard played just one season with Green Bay, though he would come back for an unsuccessful run with the team in 1999 (when he wore #82). But that one season was tremendous.
How can we possibly forget that season when the 5-9 wide receiver turned the Packers special teams around and consistently provided the big plays that year?
He led the Packers through the Playoffs with big return after big return and then then capped his tremendous 1996 season by turning the Super Bowl with his 99-yard kickoff return … a play that earned him Super Bowl MVP.
So, let’s take a closer look at the reasons why Maxymuk likes this guy:
Desmond Howard … won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Trophy, the UPI and AP Offensive Player of the Year awards and the Dunlop Pro-Am Athlete of the Year award when in college.
Packers’ GM Ron Wolf was poised to select him with the fifth pick in the 1992 draft when the Washington Redskins traded up to nab him with the fourth pick.
As a pro, though, the 5-9 Howard was oo slight to get separation and spent three generally disappointing seasons as a wide receiver in Washington and one in Jacksonville which had selected him in the expansion draft. Wolf still saw Howard’s breakaway speed and moves, envisioned his potential aas a kick returner, and signed him as a free agent in 1996. In training camp, Howard suffered a painful hip pointer and barely played before breaking a punt return in the final exhibition game to secure a spot on the team.
The 1996 season was Howard’s greatest as a professional. He set a new NFL season record by returning puns for 875 yards and led the league with a 15.1-yard return average. He returned three of his 58 punts for touchdowns. In that Super Bowl season, the play of the Packers special teams units sparked the offense and defense all year, giving them favorable field position. Howard’s ability to use his blockers and to make defenders miss helped impel the return units to their best efforts. In the Playoffs, he went into overdrive.
The first playoff game was in the mud at Lambeau against the rival 49ers, and it displayed the best and worst elements of Desmond Howard. After the 49ers first possession, he followed his blocks and broke a tackle to return the San Francisco punt 71 yards for a touchdown, mugging like Jim Carrey from “The Mask” in the end zone. After the 49ers third possession, Howard took a short punt on the run and scooted 46 yards before being tripped up frm behind at the San Francisco seven. The Packers would never trail, but allowed the 49ers to come close o making a game of it when Howard took too long changing into a clean pair of pants at halftime. He did not come out of the locker room in time to make the second half kickoff and the 49ers beat the Packers to the free ball at the four. They scored in one play to make the score 21-14 Green Bay. However between the 49ers’ five turnovers and the Packers’ 139 yards on the ground, Green Bay maintained control to win 35-14.
The next week in the NFC Championship Howard played no big role, but would save the big stuff for the Super Bowl.
Green Bay went up 10-0 and then fell behind 14-10 by the time the first quarter would end … another Favre audible resulted in an 81-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman … and a 17-14 lead that they would never relinquish.
The Packers would take a first half lead of 27-14, but after a Packers drive stalled at the beginning of the second half, New England went 53 yards to cut the Packers lead to 27-21. That’s when Howard took over.
Momentum seemed to be swinging in the Patriots’ favor until Desmond Howard caught the ensuing kickoff at the one and came right up the center of the field where Packers’ special-teamers Calvin Jones, Travis Jervey, Jeff Thomason, Keith McKenzie, Lamont Hollingquest, and Don Beebe all took out their men and Howard burst through nearly untouched. He even had tim to glance t the jumbotron screen above him as he sped for the goal line where he slowed to strike some Michael Jackson dance moves as he scored the clinching touchdown.
He would finish the game with 244 return yards, 154 from kickoffs and 90 from punts, a record that would win him the Super Bowl MVP award. He was the first special teams player to win it and did so deservedly over Favre’s two TD passes and Reggie White’s three sacks.
After his MVP heroics in the Super Bowl, Howard was courted by the Raiders and signed a substantial fre agent contract in 1997. In 1999, Ron Wolf brought him back to Green Bay, but the magic seemingly was gone. Howard was waived at mid-season after being tentative and ineffective on both kickoffs and punts as well as suffering from finger injuries. The next year he signed with the Lions and resumed being an effective return man – even scoring his eighth touchdown by punt return.
“I always envision myself scoring. That makes it easier in the game. Then it’s deja vu, it’s like I’ve been there before,” Howard was quoted as saying.
As provided by Pro Football Reference, here are the Packers players who have worn #81: