Before the season started, most Green Bay Packers fans were hoping this would be the year in which James Jones and Jordy Nelson took significant strides and established themselves as legitimate players.
After all, for as much as we collectively love Donald Driver, we were all too aware of his age and the unforgiving nature of the NFL. At some point – and quick – Jones and Nelson would have to prove they could be relied upon.
That is now happening. Driver’s time as a go-to receiver appears at its end, with Jones and Nelson filling the void opposite one of the game’s elite receivers in Greg Jennings.
Before I’m accused of sacrilege in the case of Driver, let me explain. Statistically, we all know Driver’s numbers (34 receptions, 364 yards, three touchdowns) are far, far off from their normal pace. And his injured quad, an injury that forced him to miss the Dallas game while rendering him ineffective against Minnesota (first game) and the Jets, is certainly playing a part in all this, as well.
But Driver has been on the field for each of the past two games. Is he 100 percent healthy? Clearly not, but that never bothered him before. Driver, like many other top wideouts, was previously able to put up big numbers (and come up with big plays) despite injury. He no longer appears able to do so.
Take Sunday’s game with Atlanta, for example. On a fourth-and-one at the Atlanta 41 early in the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers – under serious pressure – flicked a pass Driver’s way. Maybe not the greatest pass, but still, it was catchable. Despite diving for the ball, Driver was unable to come up with the catch. It was a crucial play, one you couldn’t help but think the Driver of years past would have made.
And look at the numbers. Driver was targeted just three times Sunday. Four other players – Jennings, Jones, Nelson and Brandon Jackson – were targeted more often. Can you remember the last time Driver drew such few targets in a huge game? Since I don’t have access to the coaches tape – who am I, Collinsworth? – I can’t speak to why that is. It could be the assignments he was drawing, the plays called or any number of other factors. But the fact remains – Driver is no longer a top-two option in the passing game.
In fact, he may not even be the third option, given the emergence of both Jones and Nelson over the past six weeks.
Jones, long known for his high upside and inconsistent results, has really begun to cash in on said upside in that same span of time. He’s recorded two 100-yard games and several clutch grabs, such as his touchdown near the end of the first half in the second Vikings game. Outside of one terrible drop – missing on a near-surefire touchdown that would have buried the Jets – the inconsistency hasn’t been there like it once was.
Nelson’s emergence has been a bit more on the quiet side, though his importance to the offense has become very clear. Jennings may have put up the most yardage versus New York, for example, but did anyone come up with more key snags than Nelson? And in the fourth quarter Sunday, when someone absolutely had to get open for Rodgers on fourth down with the game hanging in the balance, who did so? Nelson, showing great athleticism along the way by getting both feet in bounds.
Since the summer of 2009, I’ve been writing that Jones and Nelson would – hopefully – grow into very defined roles. Jones would become the big-play threat, while Nelson would be the steadier, move-the-chains option. That’s not to say that each couldn’t play the other’s part for stretches, but for the most part, those would be the roles each would take on. It took awhile longer than we’d hoped, but that time is now.
As each continues to grow, who better to have at their side than Driver? Despite what was written earlier in the piece, I am not suggesting that Driver is in his final year with the team or anything, large contract (as much as $5 million including salary and bonuses in 2011) or not. He is not washed up, in any sense. He’s simply not what he used to be. But he still provides tremendous value to the team. He’s a leader and a great teammate. He’ll still come up with big plays, just likely not as often.
And in some strange way, as the Packers’ future at receiver becomes the present, you get the feeling no one is more excited about that than Driver. Which is why we love him.