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GAME BREAKERS : If Patriots Kick to Him, Desmond Howard Has Visions of Many Happy Returns

January 23, 1997|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — The Green Bay Packers stop Curtis Martin on third down, some game breaker he is, and New England Patriot punter Tom Tupa is faced with a decision that could decide the outcome of Super Bowl XXXI: Do I boot the ball out of bounds or do I make Desmond Howard's day?

Tupa plays for Bill Parcells, a New Yorker, intimidator, macho type: Yo, Bill, you scared of Desmond Howard?

Howard's a wisp, 5 feet 10 and maybe 180 pounds after dinner, No. 10 in a line of 10 wide receivers on the Packers' depth chart before the season began, a Heisman Trophy winner who for the most part has had an embarrassing NFL career.

Kick it to the squirt, or be a scaredy-cat?

Tupa's a punter and third-string quarterback, and he's sitting on an elevated platform for media interviews along with quarterback Drew Bledsoe, tight end Ben Coates and defensive end Willie McGinest. Repeat: Tupa's a punter and he's getting the big-shot treatment.

"Because of Desmond; people are going to ask me what we're going to do against Desmond," Tupa says, and someone wants to know what a punter feels like when someone returns one of his kicks for a touchdown.

"I wouldn't know," Tupa says. "It's never happened."

Never? "Not in pee-wee football, grade school, high school, college or the NFL," Tupa says, so why fret about Howard?

"I don't fear Desmond Howard," Tupa says. "We know Desmond is not an ordinary returner, but we're just going to do the ordinary things."

Uh-oh, there goes the Super Bowl.

Howard, a workhorse tailback in high school who now employs his moves as a punt returner, led the NFL with an average of 15.1 yards. His 13.37 career mark is second all-time in the NFL. His three punt returns for touchdowns were tops in the league this season and one short of the NFL record. He returned a punt for a touchdown in the preseason and another in the postseason.

"If the Patriots come out there and think they have a hell of a coverage team and they're going to kick it to Howard and roll the dice, that's great," says Howard, and he's laughing as if he's party to some private joke. "If they punt the ball to me, we're in business."

The longest punt return in Super Bowl history is 45 yards by San Francisco's John Taylor; Howard has seven returns this year longer than that, and if he scores in the Super Bowl returning a punt he will be the first to do so.

"If they punt me a returnable ball, I expect to score," Howard says. "I've already visualized scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl. I just can't tell you how long because when I visualized it I didn't look down to see what yard line I was on."

Kick it to Howard and hope for the best, or aim the other way and try to stop Brett Favre and Co.?

"We're going to kick it to him," says Larry Whigham, the Patriots' top special-teams player. "We've noticed he carries the ball free, you know, loose."

"Larry Whigham?" Howard says. "I don't even know who Larry Whigham is. Kick it to me, come on, and let me carry it free.

"The guy's right, I do carry the ball free--in the open field. He can try and get it, while he's chasing me."

Howard touched the ball 74 times this season as a punt returner, including 16 fair catches, and he fumbled once. He also returned 22 kickoffs with a 20.9-yard average without incident.

"No one could have predicted the season I'm having," Howard says. "This is all fine and dandy, all the hoopla, but it's no surprise to me, no surprise to the people that know me. It's not like a fat man suddenly running a 4.2 40-yard dash."

The Nutty Professor, however, at his puffed-up best would have a better chance of running a 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds than Howard catching a pass in Super Bowl XXXI. The college player of the year at Michigan, Howard joined the Washington Redskins and was a bust. He went to Jacksonville, scored the franchise's first touchdown on a 66-yard punt return, but couldn't catch on as a wide receiver.

"My performance says it all; I'm here, and the teams I played for before are home watching," Howard says. "There are guys out there now on this team that are good receivers, and although statistically we have the best punt return unit in the league, I want to get my hands on the ball as much as possible. In the back of my mind, [being a receiver] is still something there."

Five years in the league as a wide receiver, and he's averaging 21 catches a season; New England rookie Terry Glenn had 90 catches this season. Green Bay lost both Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman because of injuries during the season, and they signed Anthony Morgan off the streets and hired troublemaker Andre Rison--anything to avoid relying on Howard as a pass catcher.

Fact is, the Packers were ready to release Howard after an uneventful training camp. But then, wham--something the Patriots might want to study--the Steelers punted him the ball and 77 yards later he was standing in the end zone with a full-time job in Green Bay.

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