Desmond Howard has finally found peace with a band of rebels. The Oakland Raiders returner knows he will never be the electrifying receiver that scored 123 points as a college senior. However, he's among the NFL's top returners, and after seven seasons and four teams, that's finally enough.
"You get satisfaction out of contributing to your team," said Howard, who faces the Washington Redskins on Sunday. "I'm hoping to get to [Redskins returner Brian Mitchell's] level. Brian's been doing this for a while."
Howard won the 1991 Heisman Trophy at Michigan and the Super Bowl XXXI Most Valuable Player award with Green Bay two seasons ago. However, he has never fulfilled the lofty expectations since the Redskins selected him as the fourth overall selection in 1992. Washington thought it was getting the next member of a great receiver corps that already included Art Monk and Gary Clark.
But the Redskins quickly discovered the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder had poor practice habits and wasn't much of a receiver. He caught a career-high 40 passes in 1994 in his first season with coach Norv Turner, but the Redskins were happy when the Jacksonville Jaguars took Howard in the 1995 expansion draft.
"I was kind of surprised," Howard said of being made available. "I thought at that time it may be a blessing in disguise in getting out of a situation that wasn't a pleasant situation."
Said Turner: "Desmond worked hard and was improving as a recever. He did some good things that year."
But Jacksonville proved no better for Howard. He caught only 26 passes and started six games in his one season with the Jags before signing with the Green Bay Packers in 1996.
It was a perfect fit. Howard caught only 13 passes, but no one cared. Instead, he set an NFL punt return record with 875 yards while becoming only the sixth player in history to score on three returns. Howard became the first special teams player to win the Super Bowl MVP award with 244 return yards, including a 99-yard touchdown return.
But Howard rejected Green Bay to sign with Oakland last year. He wondered if it was the right decision last season. Now Howard is sure it was.
"It was a business decision. You have to look over a period of time to see whether it was the right move," he said. "Last year when we were 4-12 and Green Bay went to the Super Bowl but didn't win it, maybe it was not the right decision. But now Green Bay is struggling to make a wild-card bid. We're trying to get a playoff spot also. Green Bay's in a downward spiral, so maybe I got out at the right time."
Certainly, Howard continues to be an impact returner. He leads the AFC with 33 punt returns, is second with 370 punt return yards and seventh with an 11.2 yards average. Howard is averaging 21.9 yards on 31 kickoff returns.
However, Howard is only an emergency receiver with two receptions for 16 yards this season. He's behind Tim Brown on the depth chart, but it would take more than an injury to Brown for Howard to play. And he's finally at peace with that.
"I'm behind one of the best in the league in Tim Brown," Howard said. …