For the first time since becoming a starter, Aaron Rodgers will head into a regular season without his No. 1 wide receiver.
Fortunately, all might not be lost.
Unlike, say, the Carolina Panthers, who might be stressing more about their top passing target (Kelvin Benjamin) going down, the Green Bay Packers losing Jordy Nelson to injured reserve might be a setback the offense can overcome.
Even without the return of a familiar face in James Jones, the Packers have talent and depth at receiver with Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Jeff Janis and rookie Ty Montgomery. But perhaps most importantly, they have the reigning MVP returning healthy behind center.
Over the past seven seasons, Rodgers has still produced during times when his No. 1 receiver was sidelined. In fact, in 13 games without his preferred No. 1 (entering the season) Rodgers has posted a 114.2 passer rating with a 36-to-5 touchdown to interception ratio, marks even better than his career averages as a starter.
The Packers are 10-3 in those games, with the losses coming at Indianapolis (30-27) and at New York (38-10) in 2012 and at Kansas City (19-14) in 2011. Greg Jennings was the No. 1 receiver in those seasons, missing those three games due to injury (groin, knee) with Cobb and Nelson emerging as No. 1-type threats.
By 2013, Jennings had departed via free agency to Minnesota with Cobb returning as the leading receiver. After Cobb was placed on temporary injured reserve (knee) that season, Rodgers played two of his better games before missing seven games himself due to a broken collarbone. In a 31-13 win on Oct. 20 against the Cleveland Browns, Rodgers was 25-of-36 with three touchdowns. That was the first full game Cobb missed and was also the one which ended tight end Jermichael Finley’s career when he took a violent hit following a catch. The next week, Rodgers thrashed the Minnesota Vikings 44-31 at the Metrodome, with just five incomplete passes in 29 attempts without Cobb, Finley, and Jones (inactive for the second straight week with a knee injury). Nelson, Jarrett Boykin and Myles White were Rodgers’ 1-2-3 at wide receiver.
Without Jennings for eight games in 2012, the Packers went 6-2. Rodgers in those games produced more uneven results by his lofty standards. He posted passer ratings of 81.9 (at New York), 85.3 (Chicago Bears), 95.7 (Jacksonville Jaguars) and 96.9 (Arizona Cardinals) with an interception in all but one game. But he did post a 103 (at Indianapolis), a 106.4 (at Detroit), and a 132.2 and 133.8 (at St. Louis, at Houston), too. The latter two games back-to-back proved to be a turning point in the season after the Packers started just 2-3.
Jennings also missed two games with Rodgers in 2011. The first was the infamous game at Kansas City on Dec. 18 that ended the Packers’ bid at an undefeated regular season. Rodgers posted his lowest passer rating (80.1) of that historic regular season before bouncing back on Christmas Day with a five-touchdown performance against the Bears.
The only other game Rodgers played without his No. 1 (Donald Driver in 2010) the Packers blasted the Dallas Cowboys, 45-7. Rodgers was 27-of-34 for 289 yards and three touchdowns.
The Packers were lucky in that much of their starting offensive personnel – Nelson and Cobb included - played the entire 2014 season. Rodgers also had his top tandem at wide receiver (Driver and Jennings) for the entire seasons in 2009 and 2008. So, it should be noted, there is no precedent for Rodgers missing his No. 1 for as long a stretch as he will this season.
Nelson has missed just seven of a possible 112 regular season games. As a backup receiver in 2009 he missed three straight games with a knee injury. The Packers went 1-2 in those games. But in 2012 the Packers went 4-0 when Nelson, then established firmly as a starter, missed time with a hamstring issue.
Nelson is coming off consecutive team-leading seasons however. In 2013, he caught 85 passes for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2014, he did even better with 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. Only eight players in NFL history have recorded at least 95 catches, 1,500-plus receiving yards, and 13-plus touchdown receptions in the same season.