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Thompson: 'This last game is important'

Ryan Wood
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

The details were foggy almost two decades later, but the example Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson shared highlighted the importance of Thursday night's preseason finale.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis, right, sprints past St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Deantre Harlan after catching a pass and running it in for a touchdown during the third quarter of an NFL preseason football game Aug. 16. Janis is hoping to make the Packers final 53-man roster this week. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

In 1996, a former Heisman Trophy winner named Desmond Howard was in danger of being cut. The Packers were evaluating Howard almost exclusively as a kick and punt returner, hoping he could pump some energy into their special teams.

Midway through August, Howard had yet to deliver.

"Desmond Howard wasn't going to make our team," Thompson said Wednesday. "… (coach) Mike (Holmgren) and (GM) Ron (Wolf) decided, 'Well, we'll just put him out there on return the whole game and see how he does.'"

As a full-time returner, Howard didn't disappoint. His 77-yard punt return touchdown broke a tie in the second half and instantly changed the perception Green Bay's coaching staff held of him.

Of course, it was a good thing Howard made the Packers' final roster. He had another second-half touchdown later that season, a 99-yard kick return against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. Howard was named Super Bowl MVP with 244 all-purpose yards, an impressive honor for a player who was almost cut in August.

"That run, that's maybe the finest piece of football returning that I've ever seen," Thompson said.

It may be the greatest example of how much a team's fortune can change on one play in one preseason game.

For outside linebackers Andy Mulumba and Jayrone Elliott, receivers Jeff Janis and Kevin Dorsey, and others on the bubble of making Green Bay's roster, it's an example of how much can be won when the Packers host the Kansas City Chiefs at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lambeau Field.

"This last game is important, and the young men know that," Thompson said. "This will be interesting stuff. ... Somebody shows up, they can change the rating. But you obviously have to be cognizant of the fact that this is a long-term decision. You have to think this through."

-- rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood