For years football sages like Marv Levy and Dom Capers have been
telling us that the performance of special teams is as important
to the outcome of a game as the play of the offense and the
defense. It's a shaky argument when you consider that kicking
and return teams are on the field for about 17% of all NFL plays.
Rewind to late last season. Desmond Howard set an NFL record for
punt-return yards, with 875, and his two kick returns for
touchdowns sparked a pair of playoff wins as the Packers won
their first Super Bowl since 1968. Green Bay was the fourth-best
team in the league in covering kickoffs, forcing opponents to
start drives from just inside their 25 on average. And for the
fourth time in the last six seasons Chris Jacke connected on at
least 75% of his field goal attempts.
"It was the type of year," Packers special teams player Lamont
Hollinquest says, "where the offense and defense didn't go sit
down when the kicking teams were on the field. We'd come off,
and Reggie White and Brett Favre and everybody would be there
waiting for us, congratulating us."
Green Bay's special teams will take on a decidedly different
look in '97. Howard, a free agent, defected to Oakland for big
money and the opportunity to play more wide receiver. Jacke,
another free agent, demanded too much money and ended up in
Pittsburgh. In their places second-year wideout Bill Schroeder
will return punts and kickoffs, and third-round draft pick Brett
Conway or rookie free agent Ryan Longwell of Cal will do the
kicking. After Conway missed four straight field goal attempts
early in preseason, coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron
Wolf spent the next several weeks massaging the kid's ego and
assuring Packers fans that Conway would be just fine. But Conway
injured the quadriceps in his kicking leg and hasn't appeared in
a game since July 31. As a result, the Packers also kept
Longwell, who made all six of his preseason field goal attempts,
on their 53-man roster.
Assuming the defense retains its depth and bite and Favre stays
healthy, the Packers seem to be vulnerable only on special
teams. "How we rebound from our losses on special teams is
absolutely crucial to any success we have," Holmgren says.
The best news for Holmgren is that Hollinquest, Bernardo Harris,
Keith McKenzie and Jeff Thomason, the interior blockers on the
return units, are back. But Conway's performance is far more
important than Green Bay's return game.
The Packers were impressed not only with Conway's ability to
kick in bad weather at Penn State, but also with the way he
performed under pressure. Three times he lined up for a
game-winning kick with less than a minute left. He made all
three, beating Texas Tech with a 39-yard field goal in 1995, and
Wisconsin with a 25-yarder and Michigan State with a 30-yarder
in '96. "Most people think kickers are squirrelly guys who keep
to themselves," Conway says. "I hung around with the offensive
linemen for four years at Penn State."
Favre has even taken a liking to Conway, ever since he ridiculed
the kicker early in camp for dropping a pass while the two were
playing catch before practice. "If you throw me a spiral,"
Conway replied, "I might be able to catch it." Funny guy. His
jokes will go over even better if he makes three quarters of his
field goals. After all, there is a Super Bowl championship to
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Packers, who allowed the fewest points in the NFL last season, can stack up well defensively against any team in the league. [Green Bay Packers players tackling San Diego Chargers player in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 13-3 (first in NFC Central)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 114.9 (11) 231.1 (5) 345.9 (5)
DEFENSE 88.5 (4) 171.3 (1) 259.8 (1)
Here's the Kicker
Penn State's Brett Conway, whom Green Bay chose in the third
round with the 90th selection, was the only kicker selected in
April's NFL draft. Since 1980, seven kickers have been picked
higher in the draft than Conway was, but only three have ever
made a Pro Bowl.
Kickers Drafted Higher Than 90th since 1980
Draft Team Year (Sel. No.) NFL Career
John Lee Cardinals 1986 2 (32) 1986
Lohmiller Redskins 1988 2 (55) 1988-96
Jason Hanson Lions 1992 2 (56) 1992-96
Jason Elam Broncos 1993 3 (70) 1993-96
Jeff Jaeger Browns 1987 3 (82) 1987-96
McLaughlin Rams 1995 3 (82) 1995
Doug Brien 49ers 1994 3 (85) 1994-96
FG-FGA (Pct.) Bowls
[John Lee] 8-13 (61.5) 0
[Chip Lohmiller] 204-284 (71.8) 1
[Jason Hanson] 113-147 (76.9) 0
[Jason Elam] 108-138 (78.3) 1
[Jeff Jaeger] 185-249 (74.3) 1
[Steve McLaughlin] 8-16 (50.0) 0
[Doug Brien] 55-74 (74.3) 0
With only two games at Lambeau Field after Nov. 9, Green Bay
won't have much of a tundra-field advantage late in the season.
Nevertheless, one of those games--on Nov. 23, when the Cowboys
come calling--could go a long way toward determining home field
advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. So could a Dec. 14 game
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 12
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .508
Games against playoff teams: 8
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Mike Holmgren
QB Brett Favre 543 att. 325 comp. 59.9%
3,899 yds. 39 TDs 13 int. 95.8 rtg.
RB Dorsey Levens 121 att. 566 yds. 4.7 avg. 31 rec.
226 yds. 7.3 avg. 10 TDs
FB William Henderson 39 att. 130 yds. 3.3 avg.
27 rec. 203 yds. 7.5 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Robert Brooks 23 rec. 344 yds. 4 TDs
WR Antonio Freeman 56 rec. 933 yds. 9 TDs
WR Derrick Mayes[*] 6 rec. 46 yds. 2 TDs
TE Mark Chmura 28 rec. 370 yds. 0 TDs
PK Brett Conway (R)[*] 39/39 PATs 18/24 FGs 93 pts.
KR Bill Schroeder[*] 0 ret. 0 avg. 0 TDs
PR Bill Schroeder[*] 0 ret. 0 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Michels 6'7" 290 lbs. 15 games 9 starts
LG Aaron Taylor 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Frank Winters 6'3" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Adam Timmerm 6'4" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Earl Dotson 6'3" 315 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
LE Reggie White 39 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
NT Gilbert Brown 51 tackles 1 sack
RT Santana Dotson 37 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
RE Gabe Wilkins 19 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Wayne Simmons 66 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
MLB Bernardo Harris 5 tackles 0 int.
OLB Brian Williams 83 tackles 1/2 sack
SS LeRoy Butler 87 tackles 6 1/2 sacks.
CB Craig Newsome 71 tackles 2 int.
FS Eugene Robinson 81 tackles 6 int.
CB Doug Evans 78 tackles 5 int.
P Craig Hentrich 68 punts 42.4 avg.
Rookie statistics for final college year