Dining at home with his wife, Kathy, last Thursday night, Green
Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren nearly spit out a forkful of
turkey breast when an uninvited guest appeared at the front
door. Kathy spoke to the visitor and accepted a small package
bearing a picture of Vince Lombardi in his trademark hat. Inside
was a cassette containing the legendary coach's last recorded
speech. It was a bit too eerie for Holmgren, who chose not to
play the tape. Instead, during a team meeting the next night,
the eve of Green Bay's much-hyped NFC divisional playoff game
with the San Francisco 49ers, he delivered "the corniest speech
And last Saturday, in a pragmatic pregame address before his
players stepped into the rain and mud of Lambeau Field, Holmgren
was most un-Lombardi-like in simply singling out the Packers'
special team players, telling them, "In a sloppy, physical game
like this, you're the ones who'll make the difference."
Thirty years from now no one is going to be handing out tapes of
Holmgren's locker room orations, but he may well be remembered
for knowing what he was talking about. In the biggest game at
Lambeau since the Ice Bowl in 1967, the smallest man on the
field, 5'10", 180-pound Desmond Howard, broke free for punt
returns of 71 and 46 yards, the first for a touchdown and the
second setting up a score, and after eight minutes the Packers
had a two-touchdown bump on the way to a 35-14 victory.
Green Bay, winner of its last 17 games at Lambeau, hosts the
Carolina Panthers in this Sunday's NFC Championship Game, and
one thing is clear: If the Panthers are to hand the Packers
their first-ever home playoff defeat and advance to Super Bowl
XXXI, they will have to do more than slow quarterback Brett
Favre and Green Bay's powerful offense. Though San Francisco
rallied to pull within 21-14, the 49ers never recovered from
Howard's returns and were soundly bounced from the postseason by
the Packers for the second consecutive year.
"I knew both defenses were good and both offenses would be
hindered by the weather," Holmgren said after the game. "I
thought all along that whichever team got off to a good start
could win it right there."
Howard proved his coach correct on the fifth play of the game.
After San Francisco went three-and-out on its first possession,
punter Tommy Thompson attempted to kick the ball down the right
sideline, mindful of Howard's league-leading 15.1-yard return
average and league-high three touchdowns during the regular
season. But the wind blew the ball back toward the middle of the
field. Howard got two good blocks, broke through linebacker Gary
Plummer's attempted tackle and cut to the left. An
out-of-position Thompson not only missed the tackle but also cut
off teammate Kevin Mitchell. While a Lambeau-record crowd of
60,787 cheered, an irate Mitchell charged Thompson on the
sidelines, and the two had to be separated by a team official.
"You could tell it broke their spirit," said Green Bay running
back Edgar Bennett, who also demoralized San Francisco by
sloshing through the slop for 80 yards and two touchdowns. The
Niners' special teams, under first-year assistant coach George
Stewart, made great progress in 1996, giving up an average of
6.5 yards per punt return in 1996, down from the 11.2-yard
average they allowed in 1995. But that unit fell apart last
After the Niners' third possession, Howard charged a short
Thompson punt and broke free. This time cornerback Frankie Smith
tripped up Howard from behind, and the Packers set up at the
seven. Two plays later wideout Andre Rison caught a four-yard
touchdown pass from Favre, who was otherwise quieter than a
Green Bay street corner at 3 a.m. The NFL's two-time reigning
MVP threw for just 79 yards, his lowest total since Oct. 20, 1994.
Back then Howard was a third-year washout with the Washington
Redskins, who had drafted the Heisman Trophy-winning wideout
from Michigan with the fourth overall pick in '92. Exposed in
the expansion draft following the '94 season, Howard spent an
unproductive year with the Jacksonville Jaguars (26 receptions
for 276 yards and a 10.3-yard average on 24 punt returns) before
signing a one-year, $300,000 contract with the Packers just
before the start of training camp last July.
On the first day of practice Howard left the field with a hip
pointer and began contemplating life after football. (He hopes
to earn a Ph.D. in sociology and become a tenured professor,
much like his idol, Cal sociologist Harry Edwards, a 49ers
consultant who was on the sideline last Saturday.) Fearing he
would be cut, Howard prayed frequently with Packers defensive
end Reggie White. He was healthy enough to play in an Aug. 11
exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, returning a
punt 77 yards for a touchdown. Now his teammates call him
Dangerous D, and the Packers may not be able to afford him when
he becomes a free agent again after the season.
Howard did make one major flub last Saturday when he was
literally caught with his pants down. Late returning to the
field for the second-half kickoff because he was changing into a
clean uniform, Howard left the Packers return team a man short,
and at the last second Rison rushed onto the field to take
Howard's place as one of two deep men. Jeff Wilkins's kick
skidded past the other deep back, Don Beebe, and the Niners'
Steve Israel beat Rison to the ball at the four. That set up
quarterback Elvis Grbac's touchdown run on the next play,
cutting Green Bay's lead to 21-14.
Otherwise Green Bay showed remarkable discipline, turning the
ball over only once despite fumbling five times and incurring
just one penalty--an intentional delay of game with less than
three minutes to play. The Niners brutalized themselves with
five turnovers. The most damaging came when rookie wideout
Terrell Owens dropped his third pass of the first half and the
ball bounced into the arms of cornerback Craig Newsome. That set
the Packers up at the San Francisco 15, and three plays later
Bennett scored from the two.
What's more, injuries crippled the Niners, with quarterback
Steve Young and defensive tackle Bryant Young forced out in the
first quarter. Attempting to play with two broken ribs on his
left (throwing) side, Steve Young took approximately 30
pain-killing injections in the hours leading up to the game, but
he was so ineffective in the first two series against the
Packers that he went to the sideline and never returned. Having
also taken shots during the week, the Niners' quarterback seemed
loopy last Friday as he relaxed in his hotel room and talked
about the hit that broke his ribs during the previous week's
wild-card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He insisted that
Greg Townsend had been responsible. Told that Townsend has been
out of football since 1995, he laughed and replied, "No, Bro, it
was him. They told me it was." After Bryant Young went down with
a neck injury, the 49ers couldn't stop the Packers' ground
attack. Green Bay ran 26 times for 99 yards in the second half.
With Grbac's contract up and Steve Young's ability to stay
healthy in question, the 49ers must decide on their quarterback
of the future since team president Carmen Policy acknowledged
that it will be virtually impossible to keep both passers under
the salary cap. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman may be let
go, and given San Francisco's history when it has fallen short
of the Super Bowl, other big changes could be coming.
The 49ers got little sympathy from the Packers, who were angered
by comments made earlier in the week by San Francisco strong
safety Tim McDonald. Among other things McDonald said the Niners
were looking forward to playing in Green Bay because San
Francisco had dominated the line of scrimmage despite losing
23-20 in overtime at Lambeau on Oct. 14. McDonald said his words
were intended to make the Packers feel the heat, but Green Bay's
players hardly wilted and were still riled at game's end. "All
game long it was talk, talk, talk--that's why I hate them so
much," Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler said after the game.
"Just lose and get the f--- out of town. Go back to the surf."
Holmgren had nothing but sweet talk for Carolina, whose win over
the Cowboys deprived the Pack of a chance to break its
seven-game losing streak to Dallas. "They've been a Cinderella
team all year," Holmgren said, "and what they've accomplished is
incredible. But I feel very good about where we are too."
It wasn't Lombardiesque, but Holmgren sounded like a man who
knew what he was talking about.