The 1996 NFL season was the 77th regular season of the National Football League and the season was marked by notable controversies from beginning to end. The season ended with Super Bowl XXXI when the Green Bay Packers defeated the New England Patriots 35-21 at the Louisiana Superdome.
When Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, wanted to relocate his team to Baltimore in a surprise move first reported on by the Boston Globe on November 4, 1995, the ensuing press furor and public relations mess forced the league to intercede and make an agreement with him and the Cities of Cleveland and Baltimore before the new season had barely begun. In the belated agreement, the name, colors and history of the Browns were to remain in Cleveland, while the relocated club would technically be a new league franchise; the city of Cleveland would be given another new franchise in the next few years, or a relocated existing franchise. Either way, the beloved Cleveland Browns would continue, while the Baltimore Ravens began their new history when the 1996 season started.
The season was also the final season for the Houston Oilers before leaving Texas for Memphis for the following season, and then to Nashville in 1998. This move left Houston with no professional football team until the 2002 debut of the Texans.
One of the most memorable aspects of the 1996 season was that the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, each in just their second year of existence, both advanced to their respective conference championship games. 1996 marked the third year the NFL salary cap was in force and also marked the end of multiple "dynasties" in the NFL as it was the first season since 1991 (and only the second since 1987) in which neither the Dallas Cowboys nor the San Francisco 49ers played in the NFC Championship Game. It was also the first NFC Championship Game ever that did not feature either the Cowboys, 49ers, Washington Redskins, or Los Angeles Rams.
The season ended with Super Bowl XXXI when the Green Bay Packers defeated the New England Patriots in a game ultimately decided when a third-quarter kick-off was returned 99 yards for a touchdown by Packers' kick returner, Desmond Howard. For that, and his excellent performance on kick-off and punt returns throughout the game, Howard was named Super Bowl MVP, the first and only time that a special teams player has earned that award.
All that was nearly overshadowed by the press feeding frenzy reporting and commenting on the rumor, between the AFC championship game up to and into the broadcast coverage of Super Bowl XXXI itself, that iconic coach Bill Parcells was planning on breaking his contract with the New England Patriots because he did not get along well with owner Robert Kraft, who had helped turn around New England's image after years of ownership that was either dismal or absent. In the event, Parcells did not even return with the players, and telephone records showed he was talking to the Jets in the days before and the day of the Super Bowl itself. This documentary evidence led to the league awarding the Patriots multiple draft picks in compensation for the "tampering" by the Jets, which is but a continuation of one-upmanship that has gone on for years between the heated rivals.
- New Orleans Saints - New numbers on uniforms. On home uniform old gold numbers with white trim, and road uniforms old gold numbers with black trim, similar to team's original jerseys worn from 1967-69, but with a lighter shade of gold. 30th anniversary patch worn on the left chest.
- Philadelphia Eagles - New logo. New uniforms, with "midnight green" color.
- Dallas Cowboys - New color road uniforms.
- Baltimore Ravens - Expansion franchise. Purple jerseys with white numbers trimmed in black and gold at home; white jerseys with black numbers trimmed in purple and gold on the road. Black pants worn with both jerseys.
- San Francisco 49ers - New uniforms. Darker red, white pants, and updated team logo. 50th season logo on uniform.
- Minnesota Vikings - Changes in uniforms. Vikings logo on sleeve ends of home uniforms. Added yellow trim to numbers.
- Arizona Cardinals - New road jerseys. Black trim removed from numbers, logo removed from sleeves, and Arizona state flag moved above sleeve stripes.
Major rule changes
- In order to reduce injuries, hits with the helmet or to the head will be personal fouls and subject to fines.
Gordon McCarter retired during the 1996 off-season. He joined the NFL in 1967, serving as a line judge and back judge, before being promoted to referee in 1974. Dale Hamer, who had to sit out the 1995 season to recover from open heart surgery, took over McCarter's officiating crew.
Final regular season standings
- Jacksonville was the second AFC Wild Card ahead of Indianapolis and Kansas City based on better conference record (7-5 to Colts' 6-6 and Chiefs' 5-7).
- Indianapolis was the third AFC Wild Card based on head-to-head victory over Kansas City (1-0).
- Cincinnati finished ahead of Houston in the AFC Central based on better net division points (19 to Oilers' 11).
- Oakland finished ahead of Seattle in the AFC West based on better division record (3-5 to Seahawks' 2-6).
- Dallas finished ahead of Philadelphia in the NFC East based on better record against common opponents (7-4 to Eagles' 6-5.)
- Minnesota was the third NFC Wild Card based on better conference record than Washington (8-4 to Redskins' 6-6).
- Carolina finished ahead of San Francisco in the NFC West based on head-to-head sweep (2-0).
- Atlanta finished ahead of New Orleans in the NFC West based on head-to-head sweep (2-0).
||Green Bay Packers (456)
|Total yards gained
||Denver Broncos (5,791)
||Denver Broncos (2,362)
||Jacksonville Jaguars (4,110)
|Fewest points allowed
||Green Bay Packers (210)
|Fewest total yards allowed
||Green Bay Packers (4,156)
|Fewest rushing yards allowed
||Denver Broncos (1,331)
|Fewest passing yards allowed
||Green Bay Packers (2,740)
||John Kasay, Carolina (145 points)
||Terry Allen, Washington (21 TDs)
|Most field goals made
||John Kasay, Carolina (37 FGs)
||Barry Sanders, Detroit (1,553 yards)
||Steve Young, San Francisco (97.2 rating)
||Brett Favre, Green Bay (39 TDs)
||Jerry Rice, San Francisco (108 catches)
|Pass receiving yards
||Isaac Bruce, St. Louis (1,338)
||Desmond Howard, Green Bay (15.1 average yards)
||Michael Bates, Carolina (30.2 average yards)
||Tyrone Braxton, Denver and Keith Lyle, St. Louis (9)
||John Kidd, Miami (46.3 average yards)
||Kevin Greene, Carolina (14.5)
|Most Valuable Player
||Brett Favre, Quarterback, Green Bay
|Coach of the Year
||Dom Capers, Carolina
|Offensive Player of the Year
||Terrell Davis, Running Back, Denver
|Defensive Player of the Year
||Bruce Smith, Defensive End, Buffalo
|Offensive Rookie of the Year
||Eddie George, Running Back, Houston
|Defensive Rookie of the Year
||Simeon Rice, Defensive End, Arizona
|Comeback Player of the Year
||Jerome Bettis, Running Back, Pittsburgh
|NFL Man of the Year Award
||Darrell Green, Cornerback, Washington
|Super Bowl Most Valuable Player
||Desmond Howard, Return Specialist, Green Bay
The 1996 NFL Draft was held from April 20 to 21, 1996 at New York City's Theater at Madison Square Garden. With the first pick, the New York Jets selected wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson from the University of Southern California.