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Old Adage Rings True In Packers' Super Bowl-Winning Season


*As part of the Green Bay Packers' celebration of the 10th anniversary season of the Super Bowl XXXI Championship, is running a series of stories about the people responsible for bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back home to Titletown.

Defense wins championships.

If there's a statement that's spoken in football more than that one, you'd be hard-pressed to find it.

Coaches preach it as if it's gospel, players have it engrained into their heads the day they buckle their chin straps, and fans toss it around throughout the season as if it's a new phenomenon.

Call it a cliché, call it a broken record, call it whatever you want. But make no mistake about it, there's no question that defense does indeed win championships.

The Green Bay Packers 1996 season is proof of that.

On a unit that featured several household names such as Reggie White, Sean Jones and LeRoy Butler, there were also plenty of others that made a lasting impact, including many backups that arguably could have started for other teams.

And it'd be an injustice to forget about the defensive coaching staff that had a knack for putting all the pieces into the correct places.

Leading the way was coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who oversaw a staff that included defensive line coach Larry Brooks, linebackers coach Jim Lind, defensive backs coach Bob Valesente, and defensive assistant/quality control coach Johnny Holland, who also assisted with the linebackers.

The brilliantly assembled staff played a vital role in a defense that finished as the NFL's top-ranked unit, leading the league in several defensive categories. The Packers held their opponents to a league-low 210 points, and in the process only 19 touchdowns were tallied against Green Bay, an NFL record at the time for a 16-game schedule.

The late Shurmur, who passed away in August of 1999 at the age of 67, was the architect of one of the best defenses in team history in '96. He served 45 years in the coaching business and in his time with Green Bay (1994-98), Shurmur was known for innovative alignments, leadership ability, teaching skills and passion for the game.

According to Brooks, who is now a defensive line coach with the Arizona Cardinals, he couldn't have learned from a better mentor than Shurmur.

"I don't have the words to describe Fritz because he was the guy who, first of all, kind of got me into coaching," Brooks said. "I played for Fritz and then coached with him a big portion of my coaching career. I learned a lot and he's done a lot for me. As a person, he was one of the better people to be around."

Holland, who was in his second season as a coach at the time, also recalled some of the things he learned not only from Shurmur, but also from other members of the defensive staff. He now utilizes those lessons as a linebackers coach for the Houston Texans.

"I thought Fritz Shurmur was the best in the business," Holland said. "It was a good way to come into coaching, learning how to do things right and I learned about simplicity. You don't have to do a whole lot of stuff to be good. I learned about details. I think Fritz stressed detailing and to just keep doing what you're doing. But he always came up with a unique game plan.

"Getting guys to play hard, doing exactly what you're doing and getting guys to pay attention to the little stuff stood out for me."

According to Holland, 41, there were plenty of men who made the Packers successful during their Super Bowl run.

"Larry Brooks, Jim Lind, Bob Valesente, it was great coaching," he said. "And it took great coaches to make great players play great. And I thought there was great chemistry there amongst the players and the coaches. The chemistry is always good when you're winning, but we had some unique individuals on that team with players as leaders that kept the chemistry right."

The unit may have been filled with unique players as Holland recalled, but it also featured guys that cared about one another on and off the field.

To this day, Holland admits that the camaraderie the team shared is one of his favorite memories of the group.

"Those guys were really good friends," Holland explained. "They could joke around and have fun together, and they also knew when it was time to turn it on, get serious, and win football games.

"We had some big-time characters on that team that were great guys. Reggie White, LeRoy Butler, Wayne Simmons, George Koonce, and Eugene Robinson were really funny guys and had the locker room rolling. But they could turn it on and get serious when the game time came."

It'd be difficult to argue with that theory as the defense played at a record-producing level all season. When the situation arose, White would generate a pass rush or Butler or Robinson would snag an interception. And Koonce and Brian Williams always seemed to make key tackles at just the right time.

Brooks said it was just a matter of allowing the players the freedom they needed in order to do their jobs.

"You don't want to over-coach them and try to force them into something that they're not natural with," Brooks said. "I think anytime you get players of high caliber, you just try to put them into position to win and they'll easily do it for you."

Though Brooks said he has worked with some great individuals in his time as a coach, the defensive line he oversaw in Green Bay was the best he was around as "a collection."

And the 55-year-old Brooks, who is entering his 21st season as an NFL coach, knows what it takes to be a special player. He enjoyed a stellar career playing with the Rams in five Pro Bowls as well as a Super Bowl.

It may have been 10 years ago, but Brooks remembers his defensive line in Green Bay as if he just coached them yesterday. In fact, he has no problem rattling off the names of the men who made it happen in Green Bay.

"Starting with Reggie, he was an All-Pro and one of the guys that had greatness about him," Brooks recalled. "But you'd never know it as a coach. He'd try to do everything that you asked him, which always sticks out in my mind when you have a great player.

"You had Gilbert (Brown), who was, you know, kind of the lovable guy, but a big anchor in the middle. Santana (Dotson), who came along from Tampa, but played very well for us. And you had Sean (Jones) on the other side.

"So, when you talk about that group, it was a unique group that Ron (Wolf) put together. Because you don't get that kind of collection of guys on most teams and they did a great job for us."

Brooks was the leader of a dominating defensive line, but he acknowledged that the talent throughout the whole unit made greatness a reality.

"You talk about the line, but shoot you look all the way through and we had some good linebackers that were playing," Brooks said. "We had George Koonce, Wayne Simmons,

and Brian Williams. And then you look at LeRoy back there and we just got the other safety from Seattle, Eugene Robinson...

"That was why we played so well. We had so many good players at so many positions. And not only at the front end. That's what it takes. You look at most of the teams that get there and win it, they're pretty sound across the board at a lot of positions."

The title was especially satisfying for Holland, who played seven seasons as a Packer (1987-93) before eventually going into coaching. He is now a member of the Packers Hall of Fame, something he is understandably very proud of.

When he entered the league, however, he wasn't sure this kind of success would be possible in Green Bay.

"It was very exciting to me, too, because I remember when I first went to Green Bay in 1987, that was one of the lowest teams on the totem poll as far as the place players wanted to go to," Holland said.

"Just remembering those hard times, those down times that you go through. And all of a sudden, to be a part of that team and that organization when you win a world championship really meant a lot to me personally."

Needless to say, Holland doesn't have to search very far to find his favorite moment of that season.

"The biggest memory was when the clock struck zero at the end of the game and on the sideline we realized we were champs," Holland explained. "I don't think it really sunk in until days later, but at that moment right after the game, you think about all the things you went through to get there.

"You have memories of the losing seasons, you keep preaching to guys, keep believing in guys, and all of a sudden, all those things you tell the players, all that came true. As a player, you work out every day and no one's patting you on the back, but all of a sudden when the clock strikes zero, you become world champion and you remember those things."

And undoubtedly one will always remember the fact that the defense did indeed return the Lombardi Trophy to where it belonged in 1996.

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