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 ever."
And last Saturday, in a pragmatic pre-game 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 Saturday.
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 wide-out 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 wide-out 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.