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Anatomy Of a Return
Paul Zimmerman
February 03, 1997
All Desmond Howard needed was a seam and the Patriots' hope of a rally against the Pack was thwarted
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February 03, 1997

Anatomy Of A Return

All Desmond Howard needed was a seam and the Patriots' hope of a rally against the Pack was thwarted

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The kickoff-return battle had turned into a guessing game, and Packers special teams coach Nolan Cromwell was losing. "We like the middle return," Cromwell said after the Super Bowl, "and the Patriots had the book on us. They were collapsing real hard, squeezing it off inside."

Two returns for a total of 32 yards was Desmond Howard's meager output in the first half, although his punt returns of 32 and 34 yards had led to 10 Green Bay points. So at intermission Cromwell called a switch and told Howard to try to break outside on the second-half kickoff. Foiled again. This time New England's coverage held Howard to a 23-yard return. Not bad, but that was kid stuff for the NFL's premier return man. Then after the Patriots scored a TD to pull to 27-21 late in the third quarter, Howard got another chance.

"Middle return," Cromwell told his unit. "Maybe we can catch 'em hanging outside again." This time he guessed right. The Patriots shaded to the perimeter, and the Packers' front five blockers rode their men that way. Green Bay's four-man wedge created a seam. Don Beebe, set deep alongside Howard, turned upheld and got the final block on defensive back Mike (Scooter) McGruder, springing Howard for a 99-yard sprint to the game's biggest touchdown and the Super Bowl MVP award. Textbook football.

The key blocks? Running backs Travis Jervey and Calvin Jones came up big on the front line. "I got a real good stick on number 35 [running back Marrio Greer]," Jervey said. "C.J. got a good one on number 54 [linebacker Tedy Bruschi]."

The heroes of the wedge were Keith McKenzie, a 242-pound defensive end, and Lamont Hollinquest, a 243-pound linebacker. They wiped out 205-pound defensive back Larry Whigham, New England's most dangerous kick coverage man, and Howard had his seam. "Two big guys blocking one little one," someone said to McKenzie. "It doesn't seem fair."

"Football's not a fair game," McKenzie replied. "But I knew that one seam was all Desmond needed and then something scary was going to happen."

"Give them credit," said New England strong safety Terry Ray, who got close to Howard, only to then watch the 81 on Howard's back get smaller and smaller. "They know that anytime they pop a seam he could be gone. Maybe we were too eager, maybe we just let down, but before we knew it, he was gone."