American Football: Howard's way destroys Parcells' dream

SUPER BOWL XXXI: Packers' special team deliver the decisive punch. Matt Tench reports from New Orleans

Half an hour before hostilities opened in Super Bowl XXXI, the theme music from Mission Impossible echoed around the Louisiana Superdome. The New England Patriots were not on the pitch at the time, which was probably just as well. Had they heard it, they might have realised the task ahead of them.

In the ensuing three hours, the Patriots put up a resolute performance against a Green Bay Packers team who fully lived up to their reputation for outstanding offense and defense. In the end, though, Bill Parcells' side were undone in an area of the game at which they usually excel. Parcells, the Patriots' head coach, takes pride in the special teams unit he coaches, but he, like they, could only watch in awe as Green Bay's Desmond Howard plotted a dizzying path through a mass of Patriot tacklers for a 99-yard kick-off return.

The run from one end zone to the other set a Super Bowl record. More significantly, it was a devastating response to a Patriots scoring drive that threatened to make the game close late in the third quarter. In a contest pleasingly punctuated by changes of momentum, Howard's way proved the final shift, and the Pack held on to their 35-21 advantage to claim their first Super Bowl since the days of Vince Lombardi.

"I thought we might have had them rocking at 27-21," Parcells said. "We had momentum on that drive and our defense was playing a lot better. The game turned on that play."

Howard was a worthy recipient of the game's Most Valuable Winner award, totalling 244 yards on punt and kick-off returns. "I give Desmond Howard full credit," Parcells said. "He has great speed and made some people miss. It's the first time this year we have been outplayed on special teams."

For Howard it was an extraordinary denouement to a campaign that began with his career in jeopardy. Five years after winning the Heisman Trophy as college football's best player, he arrived in Wisconsin in the summer having been cut by his previous two teams. A hip injury almost ended his Packer career before it started, but a touchdown return in an exhibition game secured his place on the roster, and he has produced a vintage season.

Howard's was the decisive moment of a Super Bowl that produced more big plays than a Shakespeare festival, and almost lived up to the hype. The tone was set on Green Bay's opening drive, when their quarterback, Brett Favre, challenged the Patriot blitz. Favre's tendency to be wayward early on attracted much comment in the build-up, but his first throw in the biggest game of his life produced an inch-perfect trajectory over the advancing safeties for a 54-yard scoring reception to Andre Rison.

When, with less than seven minutes played, the Pack capitalised on Drew Bledsoe's interception on the Patriots' second possession by adding a field goal, it seemed another AFC team were destined for national humiliation. However, the Pats responded with characteristic Parcells savvy and, thanks to repeated use of play action, promptly put together two scoring drives, so that at the end of a compelling first quarter they were - remarkably - ahead 14-10.

The Pack then made some adjustments, and as their pass rush began to disrupt Bledsoe's rhythm so Favre demonstrated once again why his daring is such a crucial element in their arsenal. Another perfect arc released Antonio Freeman for an 81-yard scoring pass, though this touchdown, like the Packers' first, owed something to a third-rate effort from the Patriots' secondary.

The deep threat now established, the Pack were able to develop their running game and, with Dorsey Levens particularly effective, they racked up 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. When Favre's two-yard scoring run put his side 27-14 ahead shortly before the interval, it seemed that an AFC team's resistance had once again been broken before half-time, but such a conclusion only emphasised the perils of writing off a Parcells team.

Initially thwarted, a game of intriguing tactical responses then saw the Patriots, after 14 successive pass attempts, return to the run. This brought a drive which saw the Pats riding their luck - Ben Coates caught one pass then saw it rebound off Leroy Butler's helmet, then caught it again - and culminated with Curtis Martin's 18-yard touchdown run.

With three minutes of the third quarter remaining and six points between the teams a memorable climax beckoned, but the very next play saw Howard's kick-off return restore Green Bay's comfortable advantage and Reggie White did the rest. The Packer lineman produced three sacks and as New England became increasingly desperate so Bledsoe threw two more interceptions to take his tally to four. That was four more than Favre, and if Bledsoe showed great potential, Favre's demonstrated what happens when potential is fulfilled.

Bledsoe's development will almost certainly take place under a head coach other than Parcells, who appears destined for the New York Jets. His dispute with Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner, became public yesterday with the NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, asked to adjudicate on whether the terms of Parcells' contract allow him to coach another team in 1997. Such a high-profile rift leaves no scope for Parcells to stay in Massachusetts. But he will leave a team infinitely stronger than the shambles he inherited four years ago, though one still short of a defensive playmaker or two.

The Pack have no such problems. "It's time the Lombardi Trophy went back to Lambeau Field," their general manager, Ron Wolf, said as the presentation was made. For the Cheeseheads, who tested New Orleans' partying capacity to the full, there was much to celebrate. When their team last won a Super Bowl in 1968 an era was coming to a close. With virtually all their key personnel signed for at least another year, and their head coach, Mike Holmgren, at the peak of his powers, a new one may just be beginning.

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