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1997 Packers weren't the '96 Packers on paper or on the field

Blame older, slower, softer defense and questionable personnel decisions; not the offense and Mike Holmgren for the loss

Broncos RB Terrell Davis in Super Bowl XXXII
Broncos RB Terrell Davis in Super Bowl XXXII

Brad from Tucson, AZ

I still haven't gotten over the Super Bowl loss to the Broncos, so at one of the pre-game meet and greets at Lambeau, I was speaking with one of the O-linemen from that team. He harbored a lot of bitterness toward Gabe Wilkins for essentially being a no-show due to contractual issues with the front office. As you know, Terrell Davis ran wild and a lot of that yardage seemed attributable to whomever was playing in place of Wilkins. Do you have any insights or thoughts in that regard? Thanks for being a unique voice for all things Packers.

I witnessed that Super Bowl from the press box at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, behind and almost straight up from the end zone where Terrell Davis scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1:45 left to play. And for roughly 20 years, when asked about that game, I told people that from my perch high above the field but with an almost perfect angle on the play, I never suspected the Packers played dead and let Davis score.

The play didn't look any different to me than any other of his runs that day. The entire defensive front looked out of gas and glued to their blocks. Yet when I'd relate that story, nobody ever said, "Me, too." They'd look at me like: "What were you doing, sleeping?"
Consequently, when I was working on our book, "The Greatest Story in Sports," I watched a replay of Super Bowl XXXII.

The two analysts for the game were Phil Simms, who played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years and no doubt had a bird's-eye view of countless short-yardage touchdown runs over his career; and Paul Maguire, a linebacker for five seasons in the old American Football League before becoming strictly a punter and who surely had witnessed from the opposite side of the line plenty of similar plays, as well.

Yet neither one even mentioned after that the Packers' defense might have allowed Davis to score by design. In fact, Maguire seemingly saw what I saw and commented that the Packers' defensive linemen failed yet again to get off their blocks.

As for the specifics of your question, some players have suggested that Wilkins had quit on them when he reinjured his left knee and didn't play after the first series. I'm in no position to question whether Wilkins could have gutted it out or not, but Darius Holland, his underachieving replacement, was certainly a no-show.

Holland wasn't even listed among the defensive players in the game's final stats because he wasn't involved in a single play. There were nine defensive categories on the official stat sheet, starting with tackles and ending with fumble recoveries, and Holland's stat line of 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0 didn't make the list. Holland was noted in the play-by-play only for his two costly penalties: offsides on Denver's second touchdown drive and a 15-yard facemask penalty on the Broncos' game-winning drive.

Holland, normally a defensive tackle, had to play because the Packers activated Mark Collins as an eighth defensive back rather than backup defensive end Paul Frase, an overachieving nine-year veteran. Not that Frase would have been a difference-maker; but he'd have been a body with a ticking heart.

I've read about the conspiracy theories and how others have blamed Mike Holmgren and the offense for the loss, but that game was lost by one of the most pathetic defensive performances in Super Bowl history.

Despite sitting out the second quarter with blurred vision from migraine headaches, Davis rushed 30 times for 157 yards, a 5.2 average, and scored three touchdowns. His average per quarter was 52 yards, which meant if he had gained that many yards in the quarter that he didn't play, he would still hold the all-time Super Bowl record for rushing yards in a single game.

On the Broncos' four touchdown drives, Davis accounted for 21 carries, 116 yards, a 5.5 average, and broke runs of 27, 16 and 17 yards.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, they had the NFL'S No.1-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed and the fourth-best rushing defense. In 1997, they ranked seventh overall and plummeted to 20th against the run.

Reggie White, at age 36, wasn't the same player he was in the 1996 Super Bowl season. He tallied only four points from the 48 voters who cast ballots for the Associated Press All-Pro team. Gilbert Brown reported to camp at more than 370 pounds and then missed four games and considerable practice time during the season. And before the season even started, the Packers chose not to re-sign Sean Jones, although he said he wanted to play again.

What's more, White, Brown and Wilkins, down the stretch, all dealt with nagging injuries. White, a back; Brown, an ankle; and Wilkins, a knee.

The Packers also lost what were arguably their two most physical defenders from their championship team. Outside linebacker Wayne Simmons was traded to Kansas City after six games and cornerback Craig Newsome was lost for the season to a knee injury on the first play of the first game.

Plus, as they put together their roster that season, the Packers didn't heed to the old axiom about getting rid of players before it's too late. Safety Eugene Robinson was 34 years old and whiffed badly on some of Davis' big runs in the Super Bowl, while Seth Joyner played like you'd expect a declining 33-year-old free agent to play. He was no Simmons.

Wilkins was an easy scapegoat. And Holmgren became one when he left a year later for Seattle.

But blame for that loss should be placed largely on the defense and personnel decisions that went against the grain of history.

Mike from Novato, CA

I have a question about the '97 team. As I recall, we were pretty well situated for a repeat. But Sean Jones retired, as did Keith Jackson. l felt Jackson was kind of half-heartedly a Packer, so that didn't surprise me, but Jones' retirement was a surprise. How hard did they try to talk either into coming back, if at all? And we traded Wayne Simmons a few games into the season. He was kind of our designated "mean streak" on defense, and I think that took some of the wind out of our D. And of course, there was the Andre Rison issue. I know some of these might have some sensitive angles, but how much light can you shed on this period?

You've raised some good points, some of which I addressed in my previous answer.

First, knowing how strongly Vince Lombardi, the most successful coach in NFL history based on winning percentage and championships, believed that nothing was more important in the pursuit of sustained success than knowing when to get rid of aging players, I don't think losing the 35-year-old Jones was what cost the Packers a second straight title. He would been a fourth graybeard on a defense with White, Robinson and Joyner. That's not a formula that's going to win many Super Bowls.

Granted, White, Jones and Robinson started on the 1996 team. But once players get into their 30s, they can lose it overnight. That's why successful GMs look to get rid of them a year early rather than a year too late.

In fact, for most of the 1997 season, Wilkins played just as well as Jones did the year before. The 49ers, coming off five NFC Western Division titles in six years, liked Wilkins potential enough to give him a $20 million contract within a month after the Super Bowl.

To me, the biggest losses from 1996 were Jackson, who was as talented a tight end as the Packers have had since Ron Kramer in the early 1960s and who would have likely posed a threat even at 32 to exploit the middle of the Broncos' defense and maybe give pause to their frequent blitzing; kickoff returner Desmond Howard, who was only 27 and had accounted for 244 return yards in Super Bowl XXXI, including 90 on punt returns compared to the zero yards the Packers gained against Denver; and Simmons, who might have been crazy but also was crazy good and only 28.

And kudos to you for mentioning Rison.

I forgot that after the Packers let him walk, he caught 72 passes for 1,092 yards, a 15.2 average, and scored seven touchdowns as Kansas City finished 13-3 and beat out Denver for the AFC Western Division title. In fact, Rison got as many points in the AP All-Pro voting as Antonio Freeman, Mark Chmura and Earl Dotson combined. Other than Brett Favre's landslide win at quarterback, those three were the only other offensive players on the Packers to draw votes for AP All-Pro and their overall point total was a mere six.

No question, Denver flustered Favre and the rest of the offense with its blitz package. The Packers were 0-for-7 on third-down conversions in the second half. And Favre was an uncharacteristic 1-of-7 for six yards on passes other than screens and quick tosses to his backs on the Packers' final three possessions.

Then again, Freeman caught seven of his nine passes for 114 of his 126 yards against Denver's blitz, and Favre beat a blitz on two of his three touchdown passes.

That's what playoff football is all about. Teams win some plays, lose some plays and champions prevail. The Ice Bowl was a prime example in Packers history.

Before the final drive, Tom Landry's defense had dominated Lombardi's offense for nearly 40 minutes. On their previous 10 possessions, the Packers had run 31 plays and lost a net nine yards, not counting penalties. They had picked up only three first downs, one by penalty, and punted seven times. During what was closer to 37 minutes of play, Bart Starr was 3-of-11 passing for 29 yards and had been sacked seven times for 67 yards.

Then with 4:50 remaining, Landry chose to have his defenders back off in coverage, and Starr engineered a drive for the ages. In Super Bowl XXXII, when the Packers got the ball back with 1:39 remaining and down by a touchdown, the Broncos stuck with their aggressive defensive calls, which had worked well for much of the game, and stopped the Packers on downs with 32 seconds to go.

Moreover, as much as the Packers hate to admit it, Denver was the better team. And I thought that going into the game.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I was the only one of 18 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff members to pick the Broncos to win. My projected score was: Denver 37, Green Bay 35. My explanation read: "Terrell Davis runs for more than 100 yards, the presence of Shannon Sharpe, nullifies the Packers' best pass rusher, LeRoy Butler, and John Elway wins his first Super Bowl."

In a nutshell that's what happened.

The catch-22 for the Packers' offense, as I saw it, was that as well as Dorsey Levens ran the ball – he gained 90 yards and averaged 4.7 per attempt – he lost a half-yard to Davis each time he carried. Yet, at the same time, the Packers' best chance of limiting the damage that Davis was inflicting was ball control.

Their defense certainly wasn't going to stop him. That's also why if Holmgren did indeed lose track of the down before Davis' TD, it was a moot point. There was no way, especially that late, the Packers could have pulled off a goal-line stand.

Chuck from Lowell, IN

A article on LeRoy Butler mentioned Fritz Shurmur's ability to make use of his skills to keep offenses off-balance. This reminded me of something I read shortly after Super Bowl XXXII indicating that Denver's game plan focused not so much on stopping Reggie White as it was keeping track of LeRoy. I've tried finding the source of that information but haven't come across it. Am I dreaming that up or was Butler the focus of Denver's offensive scheme?
It wasn't discussed so much before the game. Essentially, Denver coach Mike Shanahan issued a gag order to his players to avoid fanning any flames and letting the heavily favored Packers do all the talking. But in the years after the game, some of the Broncos offensive coaches have talked about how they built a game plan to try and nullify Butler's impact.

Butler was at his best that year. He and Favre were the only two Packers to make the Associated Press All-Pro team. Butler, not White, was the Packers' best defender. Two others, linebacker Brian Williams and cornerback Doug Evans, looked like rising stars. Otherwise, it was a noticeably older, slower and softer defense than in '96.

Here's what Michael Silver wrote in his game story for Sports Illustrated, where he revealed that eight days before the game Shanahan confided in people close to him that he was confident of victory.

"In this case Shanahan was convinced he could get inside the head of Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who relies on the versatile Butler for frequent blitzing and run support. Shanahan believed that when Denver lined up in a slot formation – an alignment with two receivers to one side of the line and the tight end to the other – he could predict Butler's assignment based on the safety's positioning. Denver had spent the season running out of its base alignment and passing from the slot, but on this day all of its runs came from the latter formation. … 'The Packers were outcoached, pure and simple,' (Shannon) Sharpe said. 'LeRoy Butler and [end] Reggie White are their two best defensive players. Where were they today?' Butler had no big plays among his nine tackles, most of which came downfield, and White had only one tackle, on Denver's second play of the game."

Tony from Wisconsin Rapids, WI

Why did Wayne Simmons' performance drop so dramatically? The playoff game against the 49ers he played an exceptional game and two years later he was traded for a mid-round pick and then killed in a car accident.

When the Packers drafted Simmons 15th overall in 1993, they knew he was a character risk. At Clemson the previous fall, he had been arrested twice in less than two months for assault and battery. But Simmons started eight games as a rookie and then came into his own in 1995, when he set the tone in that big divisional playoff win at San Francisco with a forced fumble that led to the Packers' first touchdown and game-long mugging of 49ers tight end Brent Jones. Simmons had another good year and remained an intimidating force in the 1996 Super Bowl season.

Why the Packers would trade him six games into the 1997 season to open a starting job for Joyner, who was five years older and had missed the first five games with a knee injury, is a mystery.

Simmons was due to become a free agent at the end of the season. He could be ill-tempered and prone to locker room outbursts. It was no secret that he was frequently, if not perpetually, in Holmgren's doghouse. But those weren't the reasons the Packers gave for trading him.

Simmons excelled at taking on tight ends at the point of attack, but general manager Ron Wolf claimed Joyner was better at rushing the passer, dropping into coverage and playing the run. Plus, the Packers figured Simmons could become a disruptive force in the locker room if he was benched.

"This gives us a chance for bigger plays because Joyner is a better player," Wolf insisted after the trade was announced. "One thing you have to realize is that what we have never done is not play the better player."

Just as I forgot that Rison had a big year for the Chiefs in 1997, Simmons took over as a starter after the trade and had a big impact on the Chiefs' much-improved defense down the stretch of that season.

Nine days after the trade, the Chiefs edged the Broncos, 24-22, and pulled within a game of them in the AFC West race. Afterward, Shannon Sharpe accused Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer of putting a bounty on some of the Broncos players and Simmons of all but mugging him during the game. Sharpe caught only three passes for 27 yards.

"The Simmons kid just lined up and mauled him," Denver offensive line coach Alex Gibbs said during a pre-Super Bowl XXXII press session in reference to that Nov. 16 game. "He never let (Sharpe) get started."
Presumably, if Simmons had gone head-to-head with Sharpe in the Super Bowl, the Broncos might not have been able to nullify Butler by forcing him to cover Sharpe as much as he did, as opposed to playing his usual game around the line of scrimmage.

Then again, a year later, the Chiefs released Simmons, claiming his performance had dropped off dramatically, as you referenced. Simmons played six games with Buffalo over the remainder of the 1998 season and that was the end of his career. He died four years later in a car accident at age 32.