20-Year Anniversary; 1996 Team Returned Lombardi Trophy to Titletown, USA
By Brian E Murphy, Packers Insider, Packers Magazine senior editor
~To many, it seems like it was a long time ago. Super Bowl XLV was five long years ago, to some.
But to those Packer fans over 40 years old, that 1996 Packers team brought an end to a real drought, about 30 years.
From the Packers win in Super Bowl II, it was 29 long years, and dozens of quarterbacks, before the Packers would return to the Super Bowl named for the legendary Packers coach.
That 1996 team seemed like a team of destiny (but so, I thought, did the 2004, 2011, and 2014 Packers). They had been getting better each year prior to that season, but for three years in a row saw their season end in Big D, against the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas would win three Super Bowls between 1992-1995, ending the Packers year from 1993-1995.
Each of those years, the Packers had to play at Dallas, never once getting the Cowboys up to Lambeau and the frozen tundra.
But 1996 was different.
The Packers had the NFL’s number one offense, and number one defense.
And they didn’t have to travel to Dallas in the post-season. Dallas actually had to travel to Carolina in the NFC Divisonal round, and they lost.
So despite the Packers finally earning the top seed and home field advantage, the Packers still didn’t get to “welcome” those Cowboys up to Lambeau at all. (That would have to wait. In 1997, Dallas would finally be sent to Green Bay, and the Packers throttled them 45-17 behind 190 yards rushing by Dorsey Levens.)
The 1996 defense only allowed 210 points all year, 13.1 per game.
The offense scored 456, 28.5 per game. Both led the league.
In the post-season, the offense put up 35, 30, 35 to bring back the trophy to Green Bay.
The path wasn’t as easy as it seems now, looking back.
Sure, the Packers came out of the gates on fire. They had been many experts’ Super Bowl favorites, including Sports Illustrated.
The Packers opened the year putting up 34, 39, and then 42 points in route to a 3-0 record and a 115-26 overall scoring differential.
Then came the annual nightmare in the Humptydome in Minneapolis.
The Vikings pulled off another upset of the Packers in that hell hole, 30-21. Green Bay was a 6.5 point favorite, but that didn’t matter. Brett Favre always struggled in those years inside that fake-noise, plastic stadium. Minnesota out-time-of-possessed the Packers 38-22, out-first-downed the Packers 18-8, yes just eight first downs.
Favre and the Packers were 1-11 on third downs. The Vikings were 9-20.
After that week four stumble in Minnesota, the Packers offense got back on track. They won at Seattle 31-10 in week five, then went to Chicago and won 37-6.
Things were back on track at 5-1, after three straight road games.
They were now set to return to Lambeau and host the perennial Super Bowl contending 49ers, led by a great defense. The Packers got lucky in that Elvis Grbac was the starter at QB with Steve Young missing four starts that year. The winner of this Monday night showdown would get the #1-seed in the NFC. Each team went 12-3 in their other 15 games.
This game was the game of the season.
But it proved very, very costly to the winners, the Packers. Pro Bowl wide receiver Robert Brooks went down early with a torn ACL and patella tendon.
He would not return for another year, and he’d never be the same. Just like two years earlier with Sterling Sharpe, the Packers lost their top wide receiver.
Behind two first-half touchdowns from Jerry Rice, the 49ers led at halftime 17-6, and things looked bleak for the Packers.
Don Beebe surprised the 49ers for a deep one, scoring in the third quarter on a 59-yard touchdown play, from Favre. Beebe had 220 yards on the night, filling in for Brooks, and picking up the slack for the slower Freeman, who caught just 6 passes of 18 attempted to him. Favre was also 0-5 on passes attempted to his favorite tight end Mark Chmura.
Chris Jacke made his fourth field goal of the game to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Packers defense forced a 3-and-out, and a shank punt of 31 yards gave the Packers the ball at their own 44-yard line. Three missed Favre passes later, combined with a 3-yard run from Levens, a 5-yard pass to Derrick Mayes, and a 13-yard pass to Beebe, the Packers attempted a 53-yard field goal from Jacke. He was clutch, and the Packers won.
After that highest of highs, and lowest of lows (Brooks lost for the year), the Packers’ offense was not the same, stumbling to find their mojo without their deep threat, #87. Sound familiar?
Following a bye, in which coach Holmgren hoped to be able to devise a way to overcome the loss of Brooks, the Packers came out and scored just 13 at Tampa Bay, and then 28 at Detroit. They won both games, moving to 8-1 and seemingly in control of the NFC.
However, the next two games were road games, first to Kansas City.
The Chiefs slowed down the Packers and won, 27-20, dropping the Packers to 8-2.
The next week, the Packers returned to Dallas again, and were smothered 21-6. The offense was atrocious, missing Antonio Freeman as well as Brooks.
They were shutout until a final quarter touchdown pass to Derrick Mayes.
The offense totaled 254 yards, converting just 4-15 third downs. Terry Mickens was Favre’s top target, throwing 10 passes his way. It resulted in just 38 yards. Beebe was no better, catching just one 10-yard pass on six targets.
The Packers defense did its’ part, holding Emmitt Smith to 76 yards on 20 carries, and Michael Irvin to 66 yards.
But this offense was no longer a championship offense. They were a weakness.
In came Andre Rison. In a bold, aggressive move, GM Ron Wolf felt like adding the veteran WR was a smarter call than relying on someone off the practice squad.
From Dallas, the Packers traveled to St. Louis, and fell behind 9-0, looking ugly in the process.
The defense, however, was a championship defense and they kept the Packers in the game, despite Favre’s struggles. After a Chris Jacke field goal closed the score to 9-3, cornerback Doug Evans came up with a pick-six and gave the Packers a 10-9 lead early in the second half.
Two short touchdown passes later, one to Keith Jackson and the other to Levens, gave the Packers a much-needed win, 24-9. The defense pitched a shutout after Favre’s safety gave the Rams a 9-0 lead in the 2nd quarter.
The Packers, of course, would not lose again. And the offense came around, bolstered by both the addition of Rison, and the return of Freeman.
They scored 28, 41, 31, 38, 35, 30, and finally 35 the rest of the way. But it was the defense that was killer.
Over the final eight games, they never allowed more than 17 points, until the Super Bowl when they allowed 21.
They peaked in a December game at home against the Denver Broncos. John Elway was out, and Billy Musgrave was no match. The final score was 41-6, and the Packers held Terrell Davis to 54 yards on 14 carries.
Freeman was back in full force though, scoring three touchdowns and going for 175 yards.
Week 17 was a game the Packers needed to win to get the number one seed, and the Packers welcomed the jealous neighbors from the west, Minnesota, to Lambeau Field.
Favored by 11 by the Vegas oddsmakers, the Packers rewarded their backers with an easy 38-10 blowout over the 9-6 Vikings.
Rison, Levens, and Jackson each caught touchdown passes from Favre, while Edgar Bennett rushed one in early, and Levens added a finishing touch with an 11-yard touchdown run to close out the scoring.
The offense was back with 29 first downs and 440 yards.
The playoffs began with a rematch with the 49ers at Lambeau. In icky weather, the Packers won easily 35-14 with Desmond Howard starting the scoring with a 71-yard punt return. Rison and Bennett added touchdowns in the second quarter, and the Packers were up comfortably 21-0.
But this was all about the defense, again. Steve Young tried to play, but wasn’t able to make it past the first quarter. Grbac was no championship quarterback.
Amazingly, Favre was just 11-15 for 79 yards passing. And the Packers won by 21.
Sidenote from this game: Youngster Terrell Owens had zero catches on 6 attempts his way.
The next week, in bitter cold, the Carolina Panthers were the NFC Championship game opponent, not the Dallas Cowboys like a year prior, when the Packers had a lead entering the fourth quarter, but in Dallas.
This lack-of-revenge opportunity disappointed the defense and the fans, to an extent.
They wanted the aging Cowboys on the frozen tundra for once. But it was the Panthers instead.
The Packers actually trailed Carolina at the end of the first quarter, 7-0. Favre and the offense kept shooting themselves in the foot with penalties, and a Favre interception by Sam Mills.
Eventually, the ground game wore down the Panthers. Levens rushed for 88 yards on just 10 carries, while Bennett gained 99 yards on 25 carries.
Favre threw for 292 yards on 19-29, with two touchdowns against the one interception. Freeman and Levens caught the touchdown passes.
Incidentally, the Panthers were led on offense by quarterback Kerry Collins, who still remains the last Big Ten quarterback to be a first round draft pick. True, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees have a combined nine Super Bowl appearances and six rings between them, but genius NFL scouts and GM’s didn’t see either of the three as first-round worthy.
After the emotional win over the Panthers in the NFC Championship game, the Packers celebrated like it was 1999. Their fans did as well. It had been a lifetime, nearly 30 years, since the Packers made it to the Big Game.
Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots awaited the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
That game was a microcosm of the Packers season, and their five-year climb really.
The game started great for the Packers as they scored early on the deep audible to Rison, then added a field goal and led 10-0.
But QB Drew Bledsoe hit Ben Coates and Keith Byars for short touchdowns, and the Packers were down 14-10 entering the second quarter.
Favre found Freeman, as Packer fans all remember, for an 81-yard touchdown and the Packers led again, 17-14.
A Chris Jacke field goal, and a Favre two-yard run to the edge, and the Packers led again 27-14, seemingly comfortable.
But the Patriots persevered and scored, making the game in doubt again, at 27-21 late in the third quarter.
Desmond Howard immediately sealed the deal by taking the ensuing kick back 99-yards, and the rest is history. Of course, Reggie White added daggers of his own as he recorded a hat trick of sacks on Bledsoe.
New England wouldn’t score again after the third quarter, and this defense really led the way to the Super Bowl. Yes, Favre had his share of highlights and big plays. His passer rating, however, for the season was 95.8 and he threw 13 interceptions.
Remember that when people are dissing Rodgers’ season last year.
Twenty years is a long time. Five years seems like a long time. The lesson in all of it is this: enjoy the journey, which means each game along the way.
Odds and Ends
While Desmond Howard was the Super Bowl MVP, for the season, Don Beebe averaged 26.9 on his 15 kick returns (403 yards), to Howard’s 20.9 (460 yards).
Howard returned every single punt, taking not one or two, but three back for touchdowns. That’s in addition to his critical kick return touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Realize this: Howard, Beebe, and Rison were all non-drafted acquisations by Ron Wolf, as was Reggie White, Sean Jones, Santana Dotson, and Gilbert Brown. Those four were the starting defensive line in Fritz Shurmur‘s 4-3 defense, for the Super Bowl.
Favre, Eugene Robinson, and LT Bruce Wilkerson were also added via non-draft picks, as was lethal tight end Keith Jackson. While Wolf was much more aggressive outside the draft than current GM Ted Thompson is, each resulted in only one ring for the era.
But Wolf’s team did make it back to the Super Bowl a second time, with the defense getting carved up by Terrell Davis.