HOWARD’S OLD MAGIC COULD DO LIONS GOOD

It was a pass, a long pass, to the corner of the end zone. The receiver broke free and hauled it in for a touchdown. The crowd roared. The receiver smiled. His name was Desmond Howard, and this was the way it was always supposed to be.

But it has not been that way. Not at all. The truth is, this was such an exceptional moment, this touchdown catch last Sunday, that the stats people had to look up the last time Howard did it.

“It was 1995,” someone finally said, “when he was with Jacksonville.”

Six years? Now that’s delayed gratification.

“Wow, I had no idea it was that long,” Howard admitted this week. “But you know, I’ve kept busy in between.”

“In between,” as Howard puts it, he managed to win a Super Bowl and its MVP award, go to a Pro Bowl and, yes, collect plenty of touchdowns. But they came on kick returns. Or punt returns. Not passes.

The simple fact is, teams stopped throwing to Desmond Howard.

In 1997, he caught four balls with Oakland.

In 1998, he caught two.

In 1999, with Green Bay and Detroit, he caught — none?

From ‘The Catch’ to . . .

Let’s remember who we’re talking about. In college, Desmond Howard was a touchdown catching machine. In his senior year at Michigan, he caught at least one touchdown in 10 straight games, an NCAA record. You could count on him grabbing passes in the end zone the way you count on a stiff breeze in November.

In fact, his most celebrated college moment was a reception. Remember? That famous fourth down pass against Notre Dame that U-M quarterback Elvis Grbac heaved out in front of him, a ball which seemed impossible to reach? Desmond flew horizontally and pulled it in on his fingertips as he crashed in the end zone. Touchdown. It helped beat the Irish, and launched Howard to the Heisman Trophy.

Around Michigan, they still call that “The Catch.”

So how come he does so little now?

“Well, there’s been a few things over my career,” he said. “I’ve had the misfortune of being on teams that struggled. And I’ve been on teams that had quarterbacks that weren’t doing well. And I’ve been on teams that had a lot of good receivers.”

“When I was drafted by Washington, they already had Art Monk, Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders. Originally, Coach (Joe) Gibbs planned to have me learn from those guys.

“But then, Coach Gibbs retired, and after that, all hell broke loose.

“Then I was in Green Bay, where they had Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman.

“Then I wound up in Oakland, where they had Tim Brown and James Jett.

“Teams already had their starting receivers. So I just gravitated to another position.”

A chance to fulfill his promise

Now, it’s true that Howard found a new life as a kick and punt returner, where he is generally considered the best in the business over the last five years.

But it is only half-true that other receivers crowded Howard out. After all, in the NFL, there are always other talented contenders.

So what was it? Depending on whom you listened to over the years, Howard, the fourth pick of the 1992 draft, was either unreliable as a receiver, or unreliable on his routes, or unreliable in his practice. Of course, that could all be after-the-fact explanation. But somehow, Howard got the reputation that his college magic was college magic, but in the pros, he was a return man.

Now he has a chance to change that. The Lions lost two key receivers last week, Germane Crowell and Herman Moore, to season-ending injuries.

“Will Desmond become more of a target now?” I asked quarterback Charlie Batch.

“He’s gonna have to be,” Batch said.

Good. I always felt this was an incomplete chapter in Howard’s career. Whatever happened the first decade of his pro life, perhaps he can change it now. Perhaps, at age 31, he becomes a magic man again, not only on special teams.

“I’d like to catch more,” he said, but then, perhaps remembering where his bread is buttered these days,” he added, “as long as it doesn’t detract from my return game.”

There was a time when it would have been the other way around.

Maybe that time is gone. Maybe this is just nostalgia talking. But anyone who watched Howard play college ball down the road cannot help but yearn for the electricity he once put in a receiving game.

“You ever go back to Ann Arbor?” I asked. “Maybe walk around the campus?”

“Nah,” he laughed. “But I had such a great time there. Maybe I should. Maybe I should go there and walk around with a backpack.”

Put a football in it, Desmond. Go to Michigan Stadium. Walk to the corner of the end zone, toss the ball in the air, and try to get that feeling again.

The Lions could use it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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