For years football sages like Marv Levy and Dom Capers have been
telling us that the performance of special teams is as important
to the outcome of a game as the play of the offense and the
defense. It's a shaky argument when you consider that kicking
and return teams are on the field for about 17% of all NFL plays.
Rewind to late last season. Desmond Howard set an NFL record for
punt-return yards, with 875, and his two kick returns for
touchdowns sparked a pair of playoff wins as the Packers won
their first Super Bowl since 1968. Green Bay was the fourth-best
team in the league in covering kickoffs, forcing opponents to
start drives from just inside their 25 on average. And for the
fourth time in the last six seasons Chris Jacke connected on at
least 75% of his field goal attempts.
"It was the type of year," Packers special teams player Lamont
Hollinquest says, "where the offense and defense didn't go sit
down when the kicking teams were on the field. We'd come off,
and Reggie White and Brett Favre and everybody would be there
waiting for us, congratulating us."
Green Bay's special teams will take on a decidedly different
look in '97. Howard, a free agent, defected to Oakland for big
money and the opportunity to play more wide receiver. Jacke,
another free agent, demanded too much money and ended up in
Pittsburgh. In their places second-year wideout Bill Schroeder
will return punts and kickoffs, and third-round draft pick Brett
Conway or rookie free agent Ryan Longwell of Cal will do the
kicking. After Conway missed four straight field goal attempts
early in preseason, coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron
Wolf spent the next several weeks massaging the kid's ego and
assuring Packers fans that Conway would be just fine. But Conway
injured the quadriceps in his kicking leg and hasn't appeared in
a game since July 31. As a result, the Packers also kept
Longwell, who made all six of his preseason field goal attempts,
on their 53-man roster.
Assuming the defense retains its depth and bite and Favre stays
healthy, the Packers seem to be vulnerable only on special
teams. "How we rebound from our losses on special teams is
absolutely crucial to any success we have," Holmgren says.
The best news for Holmgren is that Hollinquest, Bernardo Harris,
Keith McKenzie and Jeff Thomason, the interior blockers on the
return units, are back. But Conway's performance is far more
important than Green Bay's return game.
The Packers were impressed not only with Conway's ability to
kick in bad weather at Penn State, but also with the way he
performed under pressure. Three times he lined up for a
game-winning kick with less than a minute left. He made all
three, beating Texas Tech with a 39-yard field goal in 1995, and
Wisconsin with a 25-yarder and Michigan State with a 30-yarder
in '96. "Most people think kickers are squirrelly guys who keep
to themselves," Conway says. "I hung around with the offensive
linemen for four years at Penn State."
Favre has even taken a liking to Conway, ever since he ridiculed
the kicker early in camp for dropping a pass while the two were
playing catch before practice. "If you throw me a spiral,"
Conway replied, "I might be able to catch it." Funny guy. His
jokes will go over even better if he makes three quarters of his
field goals. After all, there is a Super Bowl championship to