Jordy Nelson’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the Green Bay Packers’ offense, but the torn ACL is hardly the death knell of the 2015 season. In fact, there are at least two prime examples of Green Bay losing a premier pass catcher and still doing pretty well.
It won’t be easy. In fact, it became exponentially harder. That’s a fact. Nelson was one of the league’s top receivers and premier deep threats, piling up more than 1,500 yards along with 13 touchdowns last year. That production doesn’t get replaced by one player.
Seattle is now the favorite in the NFC. Green Bay is not — at least according to the Las Vegas bookmakers. Who makes the Super Bowl, of course, has never been decided on paper. This is a season, not unlike the Packers’ 2010 championship season or even back in their Super Bowl season of 1996, where the strength of their draft class — if not their entire draft-and-develop philosophy — is put to the test.
Let’s look at recent history first. Aside from the slew of injuries the Packers had at running back and outside linebacker in 2010, they also lost tight end Jermichael Finley for the year after he sustained a knee injury in an overtime loss to Washington in Week 5. Green Bay’s run through the postseason as a sixth-seed wild card was highlighted by unexpected performances from Nelson, running back James Starks and cornerback Sam Shields, to name a few.
Harder to recall is that through the 2010 preseason and first five regular-season games, the offense was running through Finley, the young tight end who looked like the second coming of Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez. That’s not hyperbole — Finley was that kind of physical talent and athletic mismatch. He had a touchdown and 301 yards in less than one-third of the season, with that strong start coming on the heels of a 2009 postseason in which he exploded for six catches and 159 yards in an overtime loss to Arizona.
But his loss just five games into the 2010 slate forced Rodgers to scan the field for other targets.
Greg Jennings was still the lead dog, much as Randall Cobb will be this year. Jennings had 76 receptions for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns during the 2010 regular season. Donald Driver was the starter on the other side, but really part of an ensemble effort. The veteran contributed 51 grabs for 565 yards and four scores, while James Jones kicked in 679 yards and five scores as the No. 4 receiver. Nelson had similar stats with 45 catches for 582 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the No. 3 receiver. But it was the postseason when Nelson really exerted himself, going off for 21 grabs, 286 yards and two scores, highlighted by nine grabs for 140 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV — a performance worthy of MVP consideration.
The following year, Nelson emerged as one of the game’s top young pass catchers with 68 catches for 1,263 yards and a career-best 15 touchdowns. While injuries prevented Finley from ever reaching the lofty expectations, he was counted on to be a vital cog in the Packers’ high-octane offensive engine.
Green Bay did not try to acquire a replacement. It absorbed the loss and moved on, fast tracking the talent it had drafted.
Nearly 20 years ago, Green Bay faced a similar dilemma, losing star flanker Robert Brooks on the first play of the game against San Francisco in Week 7 of the 1996 season. Brooks was coming off a breakout 1995 campaign, when he had a record-setting 102 catches for 1,497 yards and 13 touchdowns — nearly identical numbers to the 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 14 touchdowns that Nelson posted a year ago.
Back in 1996, the Packers looked to second-year receiver Antonio Freeman to pick up the slack. He responded with 56 catches for 933 yards and nine scores, despite breaking an arm two weeks after Brooks was lost. As a rookie, Freeman caught just eight balls for 106 yards and a single score.
Helping out the cause was veteran Don Beebe, who was acquired in the offseason prior to Brooks’ injury. In the same game in which Brooks was lost, Beebe stepped up with a record 11 catches for 220 yards and a score. Beebe would end the year with 699 yards, good for second on the team, and a team-best 17.9 yards per catch. Green Bay also got a huge year from tight end Keith Jackson. Acquired the season before, Jackson had 10 touchdowns — the most of his nine-year career — to go with 505 yards, third-most on the team behind Freeman and Beebe.
Fans looking to make a splash signing in the wake of Nelson’s injury have gone back to 1996 to point out how Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf added Andre Rison to his receiving stable. But it’s worth noting that Rison had been cut by two teams — Cleveland and Jacksonville — in the span of four months and, despite his enormous talent, was hardly a trusted commodity. While he’s fondly remembered for his 54-yard touchdown that kicked off the scoring in Super Bowl XXI, his five-game regular season totals were 13 catches for 135 yards and a lone score. And the Packers signed him for five-seventeenths of his original base pay in Jacksonville that year — slightly less than $300,000. Hardly a risky move by Wolf.
The player that Green Bay actually went after first was receiver Anthony Morgan, who had been let go on the final cutdown that summer. Morgan was signed after Freeman broke his arm, but was with the team just three games and failed to record a catch.
But it was players already on Green Bay’s roster when injury struck its pass catching star — most notably a second-year player — that took the biggest steps forward in a high-powered offense with Super Bowl aspirations. It’s not unlike this season. A run to the Super Bowl will require a group effort — Richard Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis all will need to exceed whatever expectations that had been heaped upon them. Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb will have to find ways to elevate above an already-elite level of play.
Injury, however, provides opportunity. And a run to the Super Bowl will have a lot to do with how much Davante Adams can maximize the golden opportunity in front of him.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.