McGinn: Personalities made '96 Packers special

Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Brett Favre and Reggie White share a moment after winning Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.

HOUSTON – It’s the 20th anniversary of the Green Bay Packers’ 12th championship team, one that probably doesn’t get quite as much credit on a national scale as it deserves.

That 1996 club was an opponent’s nightmare as well as a sportswriter’s dream. Not only were those Packers fully-dimensional on offense, defense and special teams, almost everyone in the organization was remarkably transparent in how they engaged their adoring fans.

And what an adoring fan base it was.

Few that were there ever will forget the estimated 150,000 fans that lined the streets of the NFL’s smallest city to actually touch the buses carrying their heroes back from New Orleans and the 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots in the 31st Super Bowl.

All the while a full house at Lambeau Field patiently waited for three hours in 20-degree weather for the celebration to begin.

Finally, they arrived. Brett Favre, the two-time NFL MVP. Desmond Howard, the Super Bowl MVP. Reggie White. Ron Wolf. Mike Holmgren. Bob Harlan. And all the rest.

“There was nothing like that parade,” Andy Reid, the tight ends coach, would say years later. “It was magic.”

Back then, the stadium still was encircled by a corrugated steel fence and seating capacity was 60,890. The average attendance for the 10 home games in 1996 was 60,399.

That’s a no-show count of 491, not the 4,000 to 5,000 on average since Lambeau was expanded to 81,435 and lost some of its intimacy.

Brett Favre celebrates a touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman in Super Bowl XXXI.

In those days, people who owned season tickets actually went to the games. The seats were filled with yelling, screaming, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-again-in-my-lifetime fans.

There just wasn’t any room for the many visitors of today who purchase their Cheeseheads at the airport and spare no expense marking Green Bay off their bucket list.

History, as you will see, has been kind to those individuals who resurrected a franchise that had been adrift in the post-Lombardi chop for a generation.

Each season, stories are written when the last unbeaten team suffers its first defeat. It’s an ode to the Miami Dolphins of 1972, the only undefeated and untied team (17-0) in the NFL’s 96-year history.

Guess what? The ’72 Dolphins and the ’96 Packers (16-3) are the only teams since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in most points scored and fewest points allowed.

Those Packers scored 456 points and gave up 210 in 16 games for a point-differential of plus-246. Their average margin of 15.38 edged the Dolphins, who went 385-171 in 14 games for a differential of plus-214 (15.29).

Just seven clubs since 1970 have posted a better scoring differential than the ’96 Packers, according to Sportradar: the 2007 Patriots (19.69), the ’99 Rams (17.75), the ’91 Redskins (16.31), the ’98 Vikings (16.25), the ’85 Bears (16.14) and the ’84 49ers (15.38).

No writer in my lifetime had a better feel for pro football than Joel Buchsbaum, who died in 2002 at age 48. His sources within the league’s personnel departments were unmatched. The native New Yorker studied the game like few, if any, independent analysts ever have while at the same time understanding the importance of blending his opinions with those of experts.

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Six months after Green Bay won its first championship in 29 years, Buchsbaum wrote in Pro Football Weekly: “The Packers were quite possibly the best single-season NFL team since the 15-1 Bears team that went on to destroy the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.”

This was an enormous statement by Buchsbaum, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Not only was Buchsbaum largely unbiased and a man of integrity, I know he was talking to a who’s who list of general managers and top personnel men at the time.

When the phone would ring in the wee hours of the night, scouts always knew it was Joel. Everything Buchsbaum wrote carried such weight because of his contacts.

Between the ’85 Bears and the ’96 Packers, the 10 title teams were three from San Francisco (Bill Walsh coached one, George Seifert two), three from Dallas (Jimmy Johnson two, Barry Switzer one), two from Washington (Joe Gibbs) and two from the New York Giants (Bill Parcells).

Of those 10 teams, the ’89 49ers, the ’94 49ers and the first two teams in Dallas all were outstanding. I defer to Buchsbaum.

Ivan Fears’ first assistant coaching job in pro football was in Chicago from 1993-98. Now the Patriots’ running backs coach, he tutored the Bears’ receivers under Dave Wannstedt during a time when Green Bay was 11-1 against its archrival.

“That was such a long time ago but they were one of the better teams I’ve been around,” said Fears, who will be trying for his fifth Super Bowl ring Sunday against Atlanta. “I remember we couldn’t do (expletive) with Reggie White. He was just a stud muffin. Everything you did, you had to account for Reggie. Where he was, where he was going to be. I thought the world of him.

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“Seeing them in person … I thought they had an awful, awful good club.”

White, who turned 35 a month before the Super Bowl, didn’t just require a chip from a running back or tight end on their way out. Offensive coordinators often had no choice but to keep two linemen on White, the left end who on occasion would slide over the center.

“His combination of strength and power, the league has never seen it,” said one pro scout who was working in the NFC Central at the time. “You couldn’t run right. You’d come back from an advance and think, ‘Our guy (right tackle) has no shot. How do we even keep it close?'"

Fritz Shurmur, the salty defensive coordinator, power-rushed with big people Sean Jones, Santana Dotson, Gilbert Brown and White.

Athletic Brian Williams was terrific in coverage on the weak side. On the strong side, Wayne Simmons played like Sonny Liston once boxed. The man in the middle, George Koonce, would hit you, too.

LeRoy Butler (36) celebrates with teammates Brian Williams (51) and Santana Dotson (71) after a sack of Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer in 1996.

LeRoy Butler, the Hall of Fame-caliber strong safety, tackled, ball-hawked and blitzed with impunity because old pro Eugene Robinson was so heady in the deep middle.

Not many teams have had three better, taller cornerbacks than Doug Evans, Craig Newsome and Tyrone Williams.

“The matchups weren’t good anywhere,” said the old personnel man. “That was a damn good front, and you had playmakers. That defense was loaded.”

The four starting defensive backs intercepted 24 passes in 19 games. The Packers were plus-15 in turnover differential during the regular season, plus-24 counting the postseason.

In the last 42 years, the opponents’ passer rating of 55.4 stands as the lowest against the Packers.

The Packers scored 30 points or more in their last six games; only the ’63 squad (seven games) finished with a longer season-ending point explosion.

Injuries at wide receiver bogged down the offense near midseason. The team’s average per pass attempt of 5.3 years was less than the 5.6 of 1995 and ’97.

Time and time again, however, the Packers were able to lean on Favre, their irrepressible leader who would claim his second straight MVP award in his fifth season for Green Bay.

“I just remember Reggie and the quarterback were on a different level than everybody else,” said Keith Armstrong, the Falcons’ special teams coach who worked for Atlanta and Chicago in the 1990s. “You could see it developing. I don’t know if that was one of the best teams they’ve ever had but they were damn good.”

When sleek Robert Brooks suffered a season-ending injury near the halfway mark, Antonio Freeman came back from an arm injury to flourish as the No. 1 receiver. Don Beebe and Andre Rison provided speed, and the addition of Keith Jackson to go with Mark Chmura gave Green Bay its best-ever 1-2 punch at tight end.

Alternating running backs Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens ran hard behind the brutally effective lead blocking of William Henderson. After rushing for 114.9 during the season, that average swelled to 151.7 in the postseason.

“The pace and the tempo they played at was unbelievable,” said Wade Harman, the Falcons’ tight ends coach whose NFL coaching career began with the Vikings in January 1997. “I remember watching them. It was hard to see sometimes on the film but when you got the TV copy or saw them in person, the pace and how fast they got up to the line was really impressive.

“They were getting a lot of plays and putting a lot of pressure on the defense. I remember trying to simulate that with the scout teams in practice.”

It was the brainchild of Holmgren, who had learned the intricacies of the West Coast offense at the side of LaVell Edwards and Walsh. When Wolf beat out numerous suitors and persuaded Holmgren to depart San Francisco for Green Bay, it was as if NFL royalty had just deigned to work with the paupers.

Of course, Wolf had multiple Super Bowl rings of his own with the Raiders after two decades learning how to run an organization under Al Davis. He loved the draft, but never at the expense of putting a team on the field that wasn’t capable of winning now.

Desmond Howard returns a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI.

There’s no way the Packers win the Super Bowl in 1996 if Wolf doesn’t sign veteran tackle Bruce Wilkerson in April and Howard on July 11 as the rest of the league still was on vacation.

Hope you’re sitting down when Howard’s return stats are recited. In 19 games, the one-time bust in Washington and Jacksonville averaged 16.2 on punt and 23.8 on kickoffs, scored five touchdowns and fumbled once in 116 return touches.

Under Nolan Cromwell, the special teams ranked seventh for their best finish ever under Holmgren. Kicker Chris Jacke and punter Craig Hentrich were top-shelf.

“They were multi-dimensional and complete,” said Bobby Turner, the Falcons’ running backs who held the same position in Denver 20 years ago. “Physically, they were tough. I don’t want to say mean. They just had the ultimate toughness.”

By far the team’s worst position was left tackle. Holmgren tried Gary Brown there in the first month before rookie John Michels, the frightened first-round draft choice, was given a chance.

Left tackle was threatening to undermine the entire operation when the move was made in Game 16 to Wilkerson, a delightful man with a stuttering problem. Due in part to expert coaching from Tom Lovat, Wilkerson held his own quite nicely, thank you, for an offense that put up 100 points in three playoff games.

Not only was the organization afire on the field, their flair for public relations made it even more enjoyable for fans to join them on the journey.

Each summer, the season began with Wolf’s no-holds-barred address to stockholders. He talked to fans, not down to them, almost as if he were conducting a personnel meeting in-house.

No beat writer could have had better access to a general manager than me during those nine years. Wolf returned 99 percent of my calls, explaining why he signed this player and didn’t sign that one.

By doing so Wolf rejected the paranoia that surrounded him with the Raiders. He recognized this was a community-owned franchise and did his best to reach the team’s faithful followers through the press.

Holmgren allowed reporters to watch every practice in its entirety for almost all of his tenure. Instead of being muzzled as they essentially are today, he made his assistants available for interviews after each practice and encouraged them to be as forthright as possible.

General manager Ron Wolf and coach Mike Holmgren celebrate the Super Bowl XXXI win at Lambeau Field.  Holmgren was loaned a sheriff deputy's jacket because he had no heavy coat for the chilly parade through Green Bay.

Unlike Mike McCarthy, Holmgren promoted his coaches and, largely as a result, seven would become head coaches in the league.

On the second floor, Harlan fielded calls from anonymous fans able to reach him just by calling Carol Edwin at the main switchboard.

At the same time, the cramped locker room was overflowing with outsized personalities with opinions on just about everything.

White frequently held court, making sure the train ran on time as he sought to regulate the choice of music blaring through the room. He and Simmons got into it more than once on that subject alone.

Butler would berate teammates who ducked interviews after poor performances. Favre was constantly cutting up. Chmura and others didn’t hide their political preferences. Aaron Taylor showed young players how to handle success.

There was none of this celebrity stuff of today where a bunch of starters think their media (and therefore fan) responsibilities end after one press briefing a week. Virtually every player on the league’s best team was lounging around the locker room available to reporters five days a week.

That team reached the Super Bowl the following year, laid an egg against Denver and was never the same. The last-second touchdown pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens in the ’98 wild-card playoffs was the last game that Holmgren coached before chasing his rainbow in Seattle.

If Holmgren had stayed, the bet here is Green Bay would have won another title under his superlative coaching (except for the second Super Bowl).

That was a simpler time and a less corporate, more open organization that was able to laugh at itself and bask in perhaps the greatest turnaround in NFL history.

Anniversaries can be sweet just as they can be sad. All I can say is that the Green Bay Packers of 1996 were the best and most compelling football team I ever covered.

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