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In the heat of a moment that will forever define Super Bowl XXXI, Desmond Howard couldn't escape the chill of wounded pride. Even as Howard, the Green Bay Packers' nonpareil return man, raced down the Louisiana Superdome field on Sunday with the New England Patriots' kickoff-coverage team in his wake, he carried a Tuna-sized chip on his shoulder. With an estimated 800 million people worldwide watching him seize the day, Howard thought only of one man—Patriots coach Bill (Tuna) Parcells—and said to himself, I can't believe he's rolling the dice and kicking me the ball. After the game Howard said, "I knew that sooner or later I was going to scorch 'em."
As he reached the midpoint of his Super Bowl—record 99-yard kickoff return, Howard ran right past Parcells, who at that juncture probably had as good a chance of tackling him as anyone. But as Howard raced for the touchdown that turned a tense game into an emphatic Green Bay triumph, Parcells could only stand helplessly on the sideline and watch. For the Packers, whose 35-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXI gave the storied Green Bay franchise its first NFL championship in 29 years, that was precisely the point: After a week's worth of media coverage dominated by a 55-year-old man who craves attention the way teenage boys crave Beverly Hills Ninja, the game was decided by the men who play it.
Of all the big plays pulled off by the Packers this season, including long touchdown passes on Sunday from quarterback Brett Favre to wideouts Andre Rison (54 yards) and Antonio Freeman (81 yards), none was as dramatic as Howard's dash for cash. After playing for a near-minimum salary of $300,000 in 1996, Howard, a free agent, will reap huge financial rewards by becoming the first special teams player to be voted Super Bowl MVP. As he crossed the goal line with 3:10 left in the third quarter for what turned out to be the final points of the game, Howard should have been screaming, "Show me the money!" Instead, he was uncharacteristically barking at the Patriots, a team that had ticked off the Packers through the magnitude of its coach's ego. On Sunday, for the first time all week, Green Bay was back in the spotlight.
"This is a team that plays together, and for that reason we deserve this," said Packers tight end Keith Jackson. "Nobody is more important than anybody else, whether you're Reggie White or Brett Favre or a guy blocking on special teams. We don't get down on anyone else for making mistakes, and for that reason people don't worry about messing up. That's rare. I wish every junior high school and high school team could be around this and sniff this and sense what it's like to be a champion."
Green Bay's long-awaited return to the Super Bowl was an uplifting—almost hokey—story, but during the week leading up to the game it took second billing to the speculation about the Tuna's uncertain future. Give Parcells credit for two things: engineering a brilliant game plan that at one point had the Pack reeling, and sucking up more of the media's attention than any other coach in Super Bowl history. After preaching "no distractions" to his team all season, Parcells, whose contract with New England would effectively end with the final gun of the Super Bowl, thrust himself so forcefully into the public eye that he became a distraction not only to his own players but also to the Packers. "What really pisses me off is that no one gave Coach [Mike] Holmgren his due," Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler said Sunday night. "Everything was Parcells, Parcells, Parcells. I know Coach Parcells wants attention, but next time he should have more respect for Coach Holmgren."
The Parcells soap opera—as SI went to press late Monday, he was expected to sign with the New York Jets and be replaced by San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Pete Carroll (page 40)—made the Packers a grumpy bunch. They had also been offended by fawning portrayals of Parcells's coaching acumen in the media and by the Patriots, and by Parcells's boast to his troops that he would "show them what to do" upon reaching the Super Bowl. The Green Bay players got so sick of reading, hearing and being asked about Parcells that Holmgren felt the need to warn them at midweek not to lose their focus. But Holmgren was also bothered by the Parcells overkill. This was clear to everyone who heard his pregame speech, during which, according to one Packer, Holmgren said, "I don't have to show you how to win this game. I've already shown you how
And they did it, to the point that another of the NFC's patented Super Blowouts appeared to be in the making midway through the first quarter: Rison's touchdown reception came on Green Bay's second play from scrimmage; New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw an interception on New England's ensuing possession; and just like that, the Packers led 10-0.
Though they would become the 13th consecutive AFC champion to lose in the Super Bowl, the Patriots rallied to represent their conference well. They hung tough against the Packers, who committed no turnovers and were called for only three penalties, and at one point in the first half looked capable of blowing out Green Bay.
Attacking the Packers' defense with a mixture of screens, play-action plays and rollouts, the Patriots took a 14-10 lead late in the first quarter on a pair of Bledsoe touchdown passes. "We were completely baffled," said Butler. "We were missing tackles, they were flying right past us, and they were pushing us around. No one had pushed us around all year, and they were killing us, doing stuff we hadn't seen before. It was a great game plan."
Green Bay had assumed, as had everyone else, that New England would try to control the clock by running the ball. That was the strategy employed by Parcells in the second of his two Super Bowl triumphs as coach of the New York Giants, a 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in XXV. But Parcells put this game in Bledsoe's hands from the start, and it was hard to question the strategy when New England moved at will on consecutive first-quarter scoring drives, the second touchdown having been set up by Bledsoe's 44-yard heave to rookie wideout Terry Glenn.