GREEN BAY, Wis. – The importance of the preseason doesn’t come down to wins (the Baltimore Ravens have won an unfathomable 20 in a row) and losses (the Green Bay Packers just finished 0-3). Rather, it’s the opportunity for a long shot to make a roster.
That was Desmond Howard with the Packers in 1996.
The Heisman Trophy-winning receiver and returner was the fourth pick of the 1992 draft by Washington. He flamed out there and was made available in the expansion draft. Selected by Jacksonville, he scored one touchdown in 1995. The Packers signed him in free agency in 1996 with such low expectations that he was given jersey No. 22.
With a hip injury and questionable attitude, Howard wouldn’t have made the Packers’ roster if not for his 77-yard touchdown on a punt return against Pittsburgh in the second exhibition game.
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The rest, of course, is history. Howard returned three punts for touchdowns and set an NFL record for total punt return yards during the regular season, added another punt return touchdown in a playoff win over San Francisco and was named Super Bowl MVP after his 99-yard kickoff return touchdown highlighted a 35-21 win over New England.
Rookie linebacker Isaiah McDuffie is not Desmond Howard. Chances are, he’ll never be Super Bowl MVP. He’ll certainly never return five kicks for touchdowns in one season. But McDuffie personifies what is possible with a single preseason game.
The sixth-round pick missed the first half of training camp with an injury and had a promising debut with four tackles in 19 snaps in his preseason debut last week vs. the New York Jets. On Saturday at the Buffalo Bills, McDuffie was perhaps the best player on the field for Green Bay, looking like the potential starter one scout called him.
“You guys that have been around here awhile, there’s always guys in that last preseason game that end up making the team because of what they did in the last preseason game,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said last week. “I think this preseason, our young guys have had a ton of opportunity. They’ve gotten a ton of snaps, and this game in Buffalo next week is going to be very, very important and they’re going to get a lot of snaps. So, sometimes you never know where that’s going to come from. Maybe that’s on special teams, maybe that’s somewhere else, but there’s always guys in that last preseason game that make a name for themselves.”
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Playing all but one of the 68 defensive snaps, McDuffie had nine tackles and a half-sack. No. 58 was easy to find. Just follow the football.
It was exactly the performance he needed after missing the first 11 practices of camp and the preseason opener because of a hamstring injury sustained during his pre-camp training.
“Feels great,” McDuffie said afterward. “It’s a lot of just staying it in mentally. So, when I got back, I was able to hit it full steam ahead. I feel like that was a big factor, taking it one day at a time. Just anticipating when I get back being able to do what I have to do.”
His most impactful play of the day, the third-down sack he shared with Delontae Scott early in the fourth quarter, was perhaps his easiest. He wasn’t blocked at all on that play. But he forced a throwaway with another blitz. Also of note, the Bills had only 11 true running plays. McDuffie had four tackles and forced a holding penalty. On his final tackle of the day, he flattened running back Kerrith Whyte.
Four of his nine tackles came during the first half, when the pass-happy Bills played their high-powered starting offense.
“That was a great experience being able to play against the first team,” McDuffie said. “Those are live game reps at the end of the day. So, getting out there and playing against that was very important for me.”
Now, the waiting game begins. Roster cuts to the initial 53-man roster are due at 3 p.m. Tuesday. The native of Buffalo did his part with a strong performance in front of scores of friends and family members in attendance. Chances are, he won't be returning home any time soon.
“It’s amazing, just seeing all the hard work finally pay off,” he said. “It’s just very rewarding. Even my little cousins, friends and family in the stands, I wanted to be that inspiration for them and show them (with) a lot of hard work you can do whatever you want at the end of the day. I’m just happy about that.”