Desmond Howard: A Heisman Winner, a Draft Bust and The Most Unique Super Bowl MVP in History

Desmond Howard is the only man in history to win a Super Bowl MVP without playing an offensive or defensive snap. That is right, Howard won the MVP award strictly as a special teams player. How does one manage to achieve this? Simple, just return the kicks. 

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College Superstar: 

Desmond Howard is considered one of the greatest players ever to represent the University of Michigan Wolverines and one of the best to play NCAA football in general. Howard has earned some of the most prestigious awards that College Football has to offer. He won the Heisman trophy for his 1991 season. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and was honoured as the inaugural Michigan Football Legend in 2011. He had his number 21 shirt retired by the Wolverines in 2015 and was voted to be on Big Ten Network’s ‘The Mount Rushmore of Michigan Football’ alongside Charles Woodson, Tom Harmon and Anthony Carter in 2014. 

The man originally from Cleveland, Ohio, wore the Wolverines Jersey between 1989 and 1991. Initially coming into Michigan after an All-Ohio and All-American 1987 senior season at St. Joseph High School as a Tailback, Howard was transitioned into a wide receiver after just three days in Ann Arbor. He struggled throughout his first two years at college, being redshirted during the 1988 season and only receiving nine catches in 1989. Howard credits Michigan counsellor Greg Harden, who has also helped Tom Brady, Micheal Phelps, and other high calibre athletes, for turning his college career around. Harden helped build the player’s confidence, which allowed him to achieve success on and off the field. Howard later said on 60 Minutes in 2014: “If Greg Harden wasn’t at the University of Michigan…I don’t win the Heisman.”  

Howard’s breakout season occurred during his sophomore year. The Ohio native caught 63 passes for 1,025 yards, scoring 11 touchdowns in the process. He also was allowed to showcase his versatility, being deployed as a running back and a kick returner. The former High School All-American earned 58 rushing yards from five attempts and 504 yards and a touchdown from 17 kick returns. This impressive season saw Howard top many leaderboards. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, receptions, receiving touchdowns, kickoff return touchdowns and average return yards. He placed in the top ten on multiple NCAA leaderboards as well. Michigan topped the Big Ten with a 9-3 record. However, they finished outside the top ten in the AP poll. The Wolverines went on to easily conquer Ole Miss in the Gator Bowl 35-3.

1991 was the most outstanding season of Howard’s career. He dominated the Big Ten leaderboards, coming first in receiving yards, with 985, receiving touchdowns, with 19, average punt and kick return yards, with 14.1 and 27.5 respectively, and points scored, with 138. Howard also led the entire NCAA in receiving touchdowns, kickoff return touchdowns and points. His Michigan side topped the Big Ten with a 10-1 record, with their only loss coming against Florida State. During their divisional game against Michigan’s bitter rivals and Howard’s home team, Ohio State, the receiver, who promised to do “something special” during the match, imitated the football player’s pose on the Heisman trophy bust. The pose became a national sensation, with all forms of media picking up the story. It grew so big and became integrated into American culture so much that even Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have imitated Howard’s Pose. In 2005, Howard appeared on the cover of the EA Sports NCAA Football 06 video game, doing the famous pose. 

The Wolverines performances throughout the season saw them come sixth in the final AP Polls. On January 1st, 1993, Michigan faced the number two ranked, undefeated Washington Huskies in ‘The Granddaddy of Them All’, the Rose Bowl. The Huskies capped off a perfect season by defeating Michigan in front of 103,566 spectators in California 34-14. Despite the disappointing finish to the Wolverines’ season, Howard’s unbelievable campaign did not go unrewarded. The receiver set or tied five NCAA and 12 single-season Michigan records, leaving him the undeniable Heisman Trophy winner. In fact, Howard won the award by the second-largest margin in the history of the most prestigious trophy in college football. He also won the coveted Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award for his electrifying performances and earned first-team All-American honours. During this season, the Heisman winner also earned his bachelor’s degree in communications, graduating early from the University of Michigan in 1992, skipping his senior year and declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft. 

On the NFL 1992 Draft day, Howard’s stock could not be higher. The Heisman winner was predicted by many media outlets to be picked within the top five. The Green Bay Packers, who had the fifth overall pick, were reportedly very interested in acquiring the receiver. It looked as if they would likely get him as the teams above them, the Indianapolis Colts, who had the first and second pick, the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals, were eager to draft players in different positions. However, the Washington Redskins, who had just won the previous Super Bowl, gained the sixth overall pick via a trade with the San Diego Chargers a year prior, also wanted the Wolverine. Washington decided not to risk that Green Bay would pass on Howard, offering the Cincinnati Bengals their two first-round picks, at six and 28, and their third-round pick for their fourth overall selection, leapfrogging the Packers. The Bengals accepted the trade, and Desmond Howard became the highest Redskins’ draft pick since 1964. Delighted with the move, Washington’s head coach Joe Gibbs excitedly claimed that “This guy doesn’t have any flaws.” 

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NFL Woes:

By the time Super Bowl XXXI rolled around in 1997, Desmond Howard was no longer the star he was at college. 

With a receivers room already featuring Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and future Pro-Football Hall of Famer Art Monk, Howard’s chances to impress on offence during his rookie year were severely limited. The University of Michigan superstar only started one game in 1992, with just three receptions and rushing attempts. His second professional season was not much better, only entrusted to start five of the 16 games. He did gain 20 more receptions than the season before. However, his catch-rate was a mere 44.23%. The eight other Redskins players who had ten or more receptions during the season all had a far higher percentage, with none of them dropping below 50%. The silver lining for the struggling receiver was that his 12.4 average yards-per-reception was the team’s second-highest. In 1994, Howard’s receptions continued to go up, but his catch-rate continued to plummet. His 40 catches saw him come third amongst his teammates and his 727 yards gained placed him second behind Henry Ellard, who was second in the NFL that year with 1397. He also managed to record his first five touchdown receptions of his NFL career during the season. Yet, his 38.8% catch rate was the worst in Washington amongst players who had ten or more receptions and the fourth-worst in the league. This would end up being his final year in the nation’s capital. 

In 1995, the NFL added two new teams to the league, The Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. An expansion draft was held on February 15th so that the new franchises could fill their rosters. Every existing team had to make six players available to choose from, with Washington electing to add Howard to their unprotected players list. With the 55th pick, just three years after being selected fourth in the entry draft, Howard was drafted by the Jaguars. Once again, the former college star failed to impress, making only six starts and 13 appearances in Jacksonville. He earned 23 receptions for 276 yards and registered a receiving touchdown, but his 46.4% catch rate was bottom amongst his qualifying teammates yet again. 

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Super Bowl MVP:

After one year in Jacksonville, Howard became a free agent and signed for the Green Bay Packers in 1996. It was reported that the former Heisman winner barely made the Packers team for the season. His reputation as a draft bust preceded him, with Mike Freeman from the New York Times writing: “[Howard] was criticised… for his lack of energy bursting off the line of scrimmage and a lack of overall toughness—not to mention his falling asleep in meetings.” He was invited into the Packers training camp but was told there was no guarantee of a contract as he had to prove his worth. Luckily for the Ohio native, he earned a roster spot following a preseason punt return touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite almost cutting him before the season, Green Bay may not have won the Super Bowl that year without Howard.  

The Michigan legend did not register a single offensive start throughout the season, although he did appear in all 16 games. His reception numbers fell yet again, only earning 13 for 95 yards, but his catch-rate increased to 56.5%. However, none of these stats mattered too much as it was no longer Howard’s job to be a receiver. The Packers’ head coach Mike Holmgren decided to utilise him primarily as a kick and punt returner. During the regular season, Howard led the entire league in punt return yards with 875 and average return yards with 15.1. He also recorded an NFL-leading 92-yard return and scored three punts return touchdowns after failing to register any in his past three seasons. The former Wolverine also managed 460 kick return yards from 22 attempts, averaging 20.9 per attempt. This impressive output earned Howard First-Team All-Pro honours. He later told the New York Times that “I haven’t felt like this since Michigan, to be honest with you…. I feel as though I’m really contributing to my team’s victories and reaching our goals.” Many journalists consider the 1996 campaign as Howard’s ‘Season of Redemption. 

Green Bay qualified for the playoffs, topping the NFC Central with a 13-3 record. It was during the postseason where Howard became a Green Bay hero. During their NFC Divisional game clash against the San Francisco 49ers, he only made one kick and two punt returns. Nevertheless, he did return the first of these punts for the game’s opening touchdown from 71-yards. His second one resulted in a 46-yard return, which set up the offence to score on the ensuing drive. The Packers emerged victorious from this contest, outscoring the 49ers 35-14, despite a bizarre error following the halftime break where Howard failed to make it back to the field in time for the kickoff. Somehow, no one on the Packers noticed this and lined up with only 10-men and none in the returner position. This resulted in the 49ers recovering the kick themselves on the 4-yard line before scoring on the half’s first offensive play. Green Bay’s NFC Championship game was against the team who passed on drafting Howard a year prior, the Carolina Panthers. The Ohio-native returned four kicks for 104-yards as the Packers advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1967 season following their 30-3 victory. 

Super Bowl XXXI was the pinnacle of Howard’s career. On January 26th, 1997, in front of a sold-out Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the Green Bay Packers faced off against the New England Patriots. The two sides combined for a Super Bowl record 24 first-quarter points, with the underdog Patriots taking a 14-10 lead. However, the Packers asserted their dominance in the second quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points. During this period, the 1996 NFL Most Valuable Player Brett Favre set the then-Super Bowl record for the longest touchdown pass, connecting with Antonio Freeman for an 81-yard score. The Patriots pulled the score back to within six points after Curtis Martin registered am 18-yard rushing touchdown. 

On the ensuing kickoff, Desmond Howard cemented his NFL legacy. Throughout the game, New England’s kicker Adam Vinatieri had been kicking the ball high and short in order to disrupt Green Bay’s timing and take away their dangerous return game. However, for the first time in the game in the third quarter, Howard got the kick he wanted. “I immediately noticed that it was travelling with great velocity, so I started to back up. I remember looking at the ball as it was causing me to go backwards and thinking, ‘Wow, they’re actually going to give us a chance'” the former Ohio native told Cleveland.com’s Dennis Manoloff. As Howard brought the ball out from the 1-yard line, the Packers formed a four-man wedge in front of him, with Don Beebe leading the returner through a hole. Howard dashed through the gap and swerved through the middle. The Patriots’ Hason Graham attempted to tackle the former Heisman winner on the Packers’ 30-yard line. Despite Graham illegally grabbing his facemask, Howard stayed on his feet. 

Only Vinatieri stood in the returners way from taking it to the house. Howard later stated that “Any returner worth his salt, when you see the kicker or the punter, you’re thinking: ‘I’m about to score.'” The former fourth-overall pick raced past the kicker, breaking into the left of the field. With nothing but open grass ahead of him, Howard looked up at the JumboTron “to make sure that no one was close behind (him). So (he) could do (his) endzone celebration.” A photographer perfectly captured this moment, with Sports Illustrated later using it as their cover photo. As he approached the goal line, the former college superstar did a ‘Robot’ celebration. He was inspired to perform this move by Micheal Jackson, although Howard admitted his version “wasn’t quite as smooth as Michael’s, but (he) had Astro-turf shoes on Astro-turf, so (he) had (his) challenges.” As he crossed into the endzone, the returner broke the record for the longest play in Super Bowl history with his 99-yard run. Although, James Harrison in 2009 and Jacoby Jones in 2013 have since surpassed this record. Howard became the fourth player to score a kick return touchdown in the Super Bowl. Fulton Walker registered the first during Super Bowl XVII, Stanford Jennings scored the second at Super Bowl XXIII, and Andre Coleman earned the third whilst playing in Super Bowl XXIX. This would also mark Howard’s only kick return touchdown of his entire professional career. 

After the contest, the Patriots’ head coach Bill Parcells said, “We had a lot of momentum, and our defence was playing better. But (Howard) made the big play. That return was the game right there. He’s been great all year, and he was great again today.” The Packers successfully attempted a two-point conversion following the kick return touchdown, extending their lead to 35-21 and effectively killing off New Englands’ chances of lifting the Lombardi trophy. The defences of both sides took over for the remainder of the game. Neither offences were close to scoring a touchdown, with the best scoring chance coming from a Green Bay field goal attempt, which Chris Jacke missed from 47-yards. New England and their Quarterback Drew Bledsoe were utterly shut down by the Packers, led by Reggie White. White sacked Bledsoe three times in the final two quarters. Two of these came in back-to-back plays after Howard’s return touchdown. Bledsoe was also intercepted two times in the fourth quarter. This meant that Green Bay tied the Super Bowl record for most interceptions in a game with four, picking off passes two more times earlier in the game. 

With the Patriots never getting further than their own 32-yard line after the return touchdown, the Green Bay Packers cruised to victory, winning Super Bowl XXXI 35-21. Desmond Howard set four Super Bowl Records and tied three during the game. He achieved the records for the longest kickoff return and longest scoring play with his 99-yard touchdown, which also tied the record for most kickoff return touchdowns. The return specialist also averaged the highest kickoff return yards with 38.5 and gained the most punt return yards with 90. His 244 combined yards gained during the game was the joint highest in Super Bowl History, as was his six punt returns attempted. 

Despite these incredible accolades, Howard did not even consider the possibility of winning the Super Bowl MVP award after the game had finished, saying, “It never crossed my mind because I’m not a stats guy. I’m really not. I just went out there and tried to do the best I could to put us in position to score points every time I got the opportunity. That was my goal, that was my job, that was my focus.” The moment it did cross his mind was when he was officially announced as the Super Bowl MVP. In doing this, he became the first man to win the Super Bowl MVP award despite never registering a single offensive or defensive snap. Instead, he exclusively played on special teams throughout the game. It was indeed a ‘special’ accomplishment to achieve as Howard joined another very exclusive club. He joined Marcus Allen, Jim Plunket and Roger Staubach as the only men in history to win both the Heisman Trophy and the Super Bowl MVP. Howard described his 99-yard return touchdown as the greatest moment of his Football career as it could inspire the younger generation. The MVP heartwarmingly stated, “Man, when I was a shorty in pyjamas, running around the house imitating Tony Dorsett or Tony Hill or Roger Staubach when the Dallas Cowboys were in the Super Bowl … I became that guy, the one the kids who liked the Packers imitated.”

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The Final Four Years:

After his Super Bowl heroics, Howard had finally gained respect as a professional football player. His stock had risen for the first time since draft night. Having only signed a low-paying $300,000 one-year deal with Green Bay, he was a high-profile free agent going into the 1997 season looking to cash in. Howard told Sporting News that “It’s really a no-brainer that I want to go back to Green Bay. But I would be a fool to not test the market. Things have changed for me. I bring more than being a return man and a receiver. I am the Super Bowl MVP, the Super Bowl record holder. I mean, 800 million people saw what I did. Those are things on your resume that should earn you respect.” The Packers wanted to keep their star kick returner but knew they could not re-sign him as it was impossible to fit a higher salary into their budget. The team who Howard defeated in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots, allegedly were interested in his services. However, the former Heisman winner decided to join the Oakland Raiders, signing a four-year, $6 million contract. 

Howard moved to the California-based franchise expecting to be utilised in a more expanded role than what he had in Wisconsin, getting the respect he thought he deserved. However, things did not go to plan for the Super Bowl MVP. In 1997, he saw the least offensive action since his rookie season, starting zero games and only gained four receptions from five targets for 30 yards in 15 appearances. Despite this, he once again excelled on special teams. The former Wolverine saw far fewer punt return attempts than his NFL-leading season the year prior, likely out of fear of his dangerous ability, but he still managed to gain 210 yards from 27 efforts. His punt return numbers may have dropped, but his kick return numbers skyrocketed. Howard saw his kick return attempts grow 277.27% in Oakland, with a lead-leading 61 tries. The return specialist gained 1318 yards from these attempts, ranking second in the entire NFL behind Arizona’s Kevin Williams. 

The 1998 season saw Howard’s offensive output drop even further, despite starting a game for the first time in 1995. The former fourth overall pick was targeted just twice throughout the season, catching them both and gaining 16 yards. He did, however, led the league in punt return touchdowns for the second time of his career, scoring two. His first touchdown came on Week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks from 63-yards. The second occurred whilst facing the Buffalo Bills during Week 15 from 75-yards. Throughout the campaign, he gained a total of 541 punt return yards, the second-highest in the NFL behind Jacksonville Jaguars’ Reggie Barlow, from 45-yard attempts. His kick return numbers slightly dropped from the previous season, but the Super Bowl XXXI MVP still broke the 1000 yards mark, gaining 1040 yards from 49 attempts. 

The Oakland Raiders elected to cut Howard before the 1999 season, deciding to use his roster spot and the extra salary cap room to sign other players that could offer more versatility. The return specialist ended up re-signing for the team he left to join the Raiders, the Green Bay Packers. However, his second spell in Wisconsin was extremely underwhelming compared to his first. Deployed almost-exclusively as a special teams player, only being targeted once on offence with zero catches, Howard managed to gain 364 kick return yards from 18 attempts and 93 punt return yards from 12 efforts. He did not complete the season for Green Bay as he was cut after just ten games. The key reasons behind this decision were that his performances were considered subpar by the Packer’s coaching staff and his injury issues were affecting his play. Despite this setback, the college superstar would not be out of the league for long. The Detroit Lions elected to pick up the free agent just four days after their divisional rivals released him. 

Howard’s first game in a Lions jersey was a homecoming of sorts, as he returned to the state where he dominated the college game. Detroit welcomed the team who drafted him into the NFL to the Pontiac Silverdome, the Washington Redskins. Perhaps fuelled by his former team deeming him surplus to requirements after three years in the nation’s capital, the former Wolverine scored a punt return touchdown on his debut from 68-yards as the Lions defeated the Redskins 33-17. Throughout the five games he played for the Michigan franchise that season, he was strictly used on special teams. The Ohio native gained 115 punt return yards from six attempts and 298 kick return yards from 15 tries. 

Howard stayed with the Lions throughout the 2000 campaign, earning his first and only Pro-Bowl selection as the NFC’s kick returner following a successful personal season. His Week 1 95-yard punt return touchdown against the New Orleans Saints ended up being the longest in the league throughout the campaign. During the 31 returns Howard attempted in 2000, he gained 457 yards for an average of 14.7 yards per attempt, the third-highest in the league. The former Super Bowl MVP also came fifth in the league in kick return yards, totalling 1401 from 57 efforts. Despite his Pro-Bowl special team performances, the 30-year old was once again rarely used on the offence. He was only targeted three times, making the catch on two of these for 14 yards. 

Once again, Howard wore the light-blue jersey of Detroit during the 2001 season. The University of Michigan legend made more catches throughout this year than his previous four combined, making ten receptions from 14 targets. He registered his first offensive touchdown since 1995 as he scored from a 36-yard pass from quarterback Charlie Batch in their Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Howard also claimed his first rushing yards since his brief spell in Jacksonville, attempting five rushes for 25-yards. On special teams, the former Heisman winner saw his punt return yards numbers drop due to receiving fewer attempts from the season prior, gaining 201 yards from 22 tries. However, Howard was able to improve upon his kick return yards, earning 1446 from 57 attempts. This was enough for the third-highest in the league that season. 

2002 would be Howard’s last season in professional football. Unlike the previous season, the 10-year NFL veteran was relegated to only appearing on special teams. His return attempts were diminishing as well, with the former Super Bowl winner attempting 46.05% less than what he had managed a year before. He gained just 48 punt return and 587 kick return yards from nine and 26 attempts throughout the seven games he played during the campaign. Howard officially retired at the end of a disappointing 2002 NFL season.

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During his professional career, Howard played in 156 games and was, perhaps fairly, referred to as a draft bust during his career. He earned 1597 yards and seven touchdowns from 123 receptions and 68 yards from 12 rushing attempts on offence. However, his special teams’ statistics will be what his NFL tenure will be most remembered for. During regular season play, the former Redskins, Jaguars, Packers, Raider and Lions player attempted 244 punt returns in his ten years in the league, gaining 2895 yards, the fourteenth highest earned of all time, and eight touchdowns, the tied-fourth highest of all time. He also returned 359 kicks during his 10-years in the league for 7959 yards, ranking ninth in the all-time NFL leaderboard. Somewhat surprisingly, Howard’s only postseason appearance came when his Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl. He gained 210 punt return yards and a touchdown from nine attempts and 277 kick return yards and a touchdown also from nine attempts. The 1992 fourth overall pick was elected for one Pro-Bowl in 2000 and was nominated a first-team All-Pro in 1996. However, Desmond Howard’s career’s most remarkable accolade was winning the Super Bowl MVP, becoming the first and so far only man in history to do so exclusively as a special teams player. Whilst he may be more famous for his time as a Michigan Wolverine and his Heisman winning season, he will forever be written in NFL folklore for his ‘special’ abilities. 

Author: Ross Paul

With three years of working as a freelance Sports Journalist and a degree from Sussex University under my belt, I decided that it was time to focus on a passion project of mine. I created Tales From Sport in the hopes of producing the most in-depth, high quality articles about the most interesting stories in the history of sport. My main focus is writing about the NFL, however, I also produced content on the MLB, NHL and Football. I am a die-hard Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, Winnipeg Jets, Stevenage FC and AC Milan Fan and avid sports memorabilia collector.

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