Given how the 1996 season ended, it’s hard to fathom Desmond Howard being on the roster bubble entering that year. Yet, that’s where the former first-round draft pick found himself in Packers training camp that July and August.
The end of the preseason also means the end of the NFL dreams for many players, as cutdown day results in hundreds of hopefuls going from a roster to free agency in a matter of hours.
Occasionally, one or two players on the bubble crack the final roster. While the Green Bay Packers have had their fair share of unlikely camp heroes make the roster, very few of those stories top that of Desmond Howard’s.
That’s right. That Desmond Howard.
The same individual who would earn MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXI five months later and set several franchise records in the process was hardly a lock for the roster entering training camp in 1996. With a receiver room that featured Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks plus Don Beebe, Anthony Morgan, Terry Mickens, and rookie Derrick Mayes, Howard’s likely path onto the roster would be as a special teams contributor.
Making matters more difficult for Howard’s path onto the final 53 was a nagging hip pointer that sidelined him for several practices and the team’s preseason opener against the New England Patriots. At the time, it seemed Howard would be destined to be another draft bust following his three uneventful seasons in Washington and a fourth in Jacksonville.
Yet, his hopes would increase leading up to the second preseason game at Lambeau Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as he was cleared to play. Needless to say, Howard made the most of his opportunity.
With the score tied in the third quarter, Howard retrieved a Shayne Edge punt at the Green Bay 23 and raced down the right sideline for a 77-yard touchdown and the clinching score in the Packers’ eventual 24-17 win.
“Just before I went out there, Brett Favre asked me who’s return it was,” Howard said after the game. “And I said it was mine. Then he asked me if I could take one to the house. And I said, ‘Yeah.
“I just wanted to beat the punter and then I saw the guys coming out of the corner of my eye, so I did my Michael Johnson to get past them. That’s what they brought me here for.”
As camp rolled on, Howard was also able to get more reps at wide receiver due to injuries to both Morgan and Mayes during camp. In addition, he continued showing his adeptness at punt returns with a 14-yard return. One week later, Howard saw minimal action as the Packers endured a 30-6 rout in Indianapolis against the Colts and their new head coach, Lindy Infante.
However, Howard had showcased enough of his return skills and usefulness as a wide receiver that Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf opted to keep him on the final 53. Instead, Green Bay made the surprise move of releasing Morgan, although he would rejoin the Packers later in the year following Brooks’ season-ending injury.
So what exactly did that fateful decision result in? In 1996, Howard compiled an NFL record 875 punt return yards and three touchdowns on 58 returns, while adding 460 yards on 22 kick returns. Additionally, Howard set single-season records for punt return average (13.83) and touchdowns, while also setting a single-game standard for most punt return yards in a single game (167 on Dec. 15, 1996, at Detroit).
Come the playoffs, Howard became an even bigger issue for opponents. In the Divisional Playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers, he returned a punt 71 yards for the game’s opening score and set up a second with a 46-yard scamper before the 49ers purposefully kicked away from him the remainder of the game. Three weeks later in Super Bowl XXXI, his 99-yard kickoff return touchdown put the game out of reach for New England, while he ended the game with 244 total return yards, including a game-record 90 punt return yards.
Franchise records and a Super Bowl MVP? Pretty good for a former first-round pick on the roster bubble.